THE BUBBLE TOP ROLLS: Hey, it was owned by an Armenian who fancied himself a True Brit and is one of my heroes

102Feature Story by Wallace Wyss

When I was a kid, I was barely aware that there were businessmen. As I grew older, I began to follow stories in the press about various businessmen, especially eccentric tycoons.

I never became a tycoon myself, but I am eccentric.

Be that as it may, one of my early models of an eccentric tycoon who lived The Good Life was Nubar Gulbenkian, a businessman in London. He derived his money from the fact his family had, decades before, worked it out so that they got a sizable cut of the gross of BP. British Petroleum…

 

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CAMBRIDGE LAD

Now back to our boy, Nubar Gulbenkian. Armenian by birth, Nubar Gulbankian (1899-1972) had been educated at Harrow and Cambridge. He thought of himself as a True Brit through and through, more British than some British, I dare say, and to his credit, during World War II he undertook some James Bondish style amateur sabotage in Vichy Franceon behalf of the United KingdomDespite this he was also attached to the Iranian Embassy in London in an honorary role (as he held Iranian citizenship) though he regained his Turkish citizenship in 1965. During the war, his neutral passport allowed him to cross between France and Spain with little trouble and thus gain access to British intelligence in Gibraltar. He was rotund but dressed to the nines, complete to an orchid in his lapel. He wore a long beard, and a monocle and was a man of great appetites. One associate said“Nubar is so tough that every day he tires out three stockbrokers, three horses and three women.”

by Bryan Wharton,photograph,10 December 1964
by Bryan Wharton,photograph,10 December 1964

He was a regular face on the international playboy scene. He  tried every day to be a model for a larger-than-life bon vivant existence. Early on he had a taste for fast and expensive sports cars, but only turned to Rolls-Royces in the post-war years, when he thought it unbecoming to drive something too sporty.

Well, maybe I spoke too soon about his taste. That first bespoke Silver Wraith he ordered looked rather like an armored car. Its traditional Rolls Royce grille was hidden by a false grille.

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BACKGROUNDER ON THE WRAITH

The Silver Wraith made its debut in late 1946 on a chassis similar to that of the Silver Dawn and MkVI Bentley, though with a 7” longer wheelbase at 10’ 7”. Different from those “mass produced” cars, though was the fact that the ’Wraith was only intended for traditional coachbuilt bodies rather than the MkVI’s pioneering ‘standard steel’ bodywork.

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The powerplant was a new 4,257cc six-cylinder engine of cast-iron, monobloc construction with aluminum cylinder head featuring overhead inlet and side exhaust valves. Only the bore and stroke dimensions were shared with the pre-war overhead-valve Wraith engine, the major advantage of this ‘F-head’ layout being its large valves and generous water jacketing around the valve seats. A four-speed manual gearbox with synchromesh was standard initially, an automatic option (for export models only at first) not becoming available until 1952, at which time the engine was enlarged to 4,566cc and a long-wheelbase (11’ 1”) version introduced.

Manufacture of the short-wheelbase ’Wraith ceased in 1952, with a total production of 1,144. People don’t realize that even after the Silver Cloud was in production the long-wheelbase Wraith continued in production until the Phantom V made its debut in 1959, by which time 639 Wraiths had been completed.

BUBBLE TOP FANTASY

As I said, Nubar’s  first custom Rolls, built by Hooper & Co in 1947 and dubbed ‘Pantechnicon’, looked militaristic and was roundly criticized  but fortunately one of his later Rolls—a ’56 Wraith—made up for it. In fact it occupies a chapter in one of my Incredible Barn Finds tomes.

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It was built as a 1956 by Hooper on left-hand drive chassis number ‘LELW74’ and designed to be his mode of transport on the Côte d’Azur (“Coast of blue” the nickname for the French Riviera). It boasted a transparent Perspex roof with an electrically operated fabric inner blind to keep the interior cool.

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Now ordinarily bubble tops on Rolls are something only royalty takes a fancy to, but a quick look at his assets and you have to say ol’ Nubar was “royalty” in the business world. His checks didn’t bounce.

Now one of the things I like about old Rollers is the fabulous burled wood dashboard, but Nubar didn’t like wood. He insisted that the interior woodwork and dashboard be trimmed in leather.

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Another oddity was that he insisted a second  speedometer be fitted in the rear passenger compartment so while he was being chauffeured he could monitor the speed.

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He eventually sold the car, and it had a brief appearance as a movie prop in the 1964 French motion picture, Les Félins (released in the USA as Joy House and the UK as The Love Cage) which starred Jane (“Hanoi Jane”) Fonda and Alain Delon.

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NIGHT CLUB MAGNET

The car was sold off after that in 1968 to René Gourdon, owner of La Belle Étoile dance hall in Nice, France.

Now you have to get into the headspace of this Rene chap. Not only did he buy a Roller with a bubble top but he paints it fly yellow. I’d say the guy wanted attention, wouldn’t you? He parked it in his nightclub in Nice. Now I know you’re thinking “typo” right, not “in” but outside. No, I mean “In.” He parked it inside the club so patrons could sit inside it when they ordered their drinks.

Years pass and a French employee of a British used Rolls dealer, Frank Dale & Stepsons, steps into the nightclub, sees the car and bells go off in his head. He knows a bespoke Rolls when he sees one. He buys it, but there is this problem, the door that it came into the club has been walled up.

No problem, a sledgehammer is proffered, the wall is broken down and the car liberated.

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Now it was restored a bit and the Frenchman’s attempt  to make a new bubble top failed, but finally it went to Frank Dale & Stepsons, who brought it all back to original specification, including a new bubble top and it was them who laid on a much more discreet two- tone dark blue and silver gray paint job, the way Nubar had it.

I’ve lost track of it since it rolled across the stage at a Bonhams auction in 2008,but failed to sell. I  hope that it’s brought to America by some future owner so  we can see what True Brit in a motorcar once was…

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THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss has lectured on design history at the Art Center College of Design. His latest Incredible Barn Finds book will be published by Enthusiast Books in the spring of 2016. The first  three volumes are available now by calling Enthusiast Books,Hudson NY


PHOTOS SOURCED FROM: 1, 2, 3

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