Car Collector's Corner: This 1939 Rolls Royce Wraith is Number Two of Two

J Sutherland
by J Sutherland

Most car guys are well aware of the extraordinary sales pitch required to sell a spouse on a car project.

The term “eternal enemies” has been used many times to define the battle between wives with no sense of humor on one side and guys with old cars on the other side.

This incredibly rare 1939 Rolls Royce Wraith was one of those sporadic cases where the bride actually ordered her husband to build a car.

Typical stories at North American car shows are about Camaros and Cudas, not Bentleys and Aston Martins; with all due respect to the Pebble Beach crowd. That’s something you learn in the trenches at typical car shows, so when this 39 Rolls appeared at an all makes and models event, it was a magnet for viewers.

This car has an unusual history. Mulliners of Birmingham built it exclusively for one customer. Apparently the owner had Royal ties and he definitely had deep pockets to buy this hand-built car. There is no doubt that it met with his wife’s approval because she insisted on a 2nd build so her chauffeur could drive her to British high-society events. This is the second car.

Howard Lengert is the current owner of this classic Rolls, and he is an expert on these legendary cars. He explained that his car is built on the pre-WWII 491 chassis. This Wraith came to the United States several years ago, and Howard tracked it down in Vancouver B.C. after one of the Canadian RR members imported it to Canada.

Several years went by before Howard was able to pry the car away from the last owner.

He took great pains to explain that details such as the whole half-sawn walnut found on the sills and seat backs not only had to be finished to exacting detail; it also had to have a symmetrical matching wood grain. Most Rolls Royces are done to exacting detail, but this one was done to please a guy’s high society wife. Pressure on this job had to be off the charts.

Oddly enough, the chauffeur’s area is the only place where leather is found. In this pre-seat warmer era only, the hired hands sat on cold leather and Her Highness sat on warm cloth seats because you can bet that Jeeves had warmed this Rolls up for at least an hour in the winter. There’s another functional option for the hired help. The driver’s side window drops down fast so Jeeves could talk to the other lower class working guys like gas station attendants, parking lot jockeys and Buckingham Palace employees. As Howard explained, “he can talk to somebody really fast if he has to”.

Howard was drawn to the rare “razor’s edge” styling on this Rolls. It did stand out at the show for that reason. In other words, it didn’t quite have that Rolls Royce flow to the lines – this looked more like something that George Barris may have tweaked a little back in the 50s.

The best part about this car is its current owner. Howard doesn’t trailer queen this classic. He drives it. He does this in spite of the crowds that it draws and the impatience of some freeway drivers. He’s very comfortable at 50 mph on the highway thanks to the newly introduced in ‘39 independent front suspension and power brakes.

The 6-cylinder engine is “quite smooth,” but Howard admits that it runs smoother on 91 or better octane. He did find that ethanol blended gas has a profoundly bad effect on the legendary Rolls Royce motor. That’s the cost of 21st Century movements towards green technology. Howard balances that with the knowledge that in 1939 Britain, they were lucky to get any grade of ‘petrol’ thanks to a guy named Hitler.

Howard is never going to sell this car because, as he points out, “it took me ten years to get it”. Instead, he’s just going to enjoy this rare Rolls Royce. Any doubt that he’s a real car guy vanishes when you look at this car – it’s got dirt on the floor and water bottles on the seat. In short, it’s got that lived-in look that real car guys who actually drive their cars can appreciate.

You judge a car by how pristine it is, but you judge a real car guy like Howard by the empty bottles on the seat and the mud on the floor.

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J Sutherland
J Sutherland

Online collector car writer/webmaster and enthusiast

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  • Jim Sutherland Jim Sutherland on Mar 31, 2012

    I think it's important to distinguish rarity by the fact that this car was one of two that were built with specific Rolls-sanctioned features for one customer. Think Yenko Camaro- only much rarer and with a British accent.

    • Robert Gordon Robert Gordon on Mar 31, 2012

      The fact that there's two of them actually makes it common not rare! The pre-war Wraiths were supplied as chassis to whatever coach builder the customer wanted. One-offs were pretty much the order of the day but making a couple of identical cars was also common particularly with working cars such as hearses or embassy vehicles. I can see that this car is special in that it has an interesting back-story and that it is isn't over restored and clearly used, but it certainly isn't rare as such. Here's another by the way...its sister vehicle?

  • J Sutherland J Sutherland on Mar 31, 2012

    I just want to add that this was unique because it was one of two built by Mulliners of Birmingham. I really like interviewing guys like Howard because he was a grassroots guy with a unique car plus you get a free education about cars like this RR.

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