1925 Rolls Royce Picadilly Roadster
Charles Rolls recognized early that the American market was critical to Roll-Royce’s long term success. Sir Charles first traveled to the United States in 1906, participating in multiple races and setting up an automobile import company in Manhattan. Thereafter, Claude Johnson, often said to be “the hyphen” in Rolls-Royce, traveled to the United States, and on October 18, 1919, launched Roll-Royce of America, Inc. in Springfield, Massachusetts. Two years later, in 1921, the company completed its first American-built Rolls-Royce Springfield Silver Ghost. As time passed, Rolls-Royce of America continually refined its Silver Ghost to suit the American driver: left-hand drive, three-speed transmission, American Bosch or Westinghouse six-volt electrical systems, fuel pumps rather than the British sibling’s “Autovac,” drum headlamps, tubular bumpers, and more.
Two coachbuilders dominated the American Rolls-Royce market: Rolls-Royce Custom Coachwork (RRCC) and Brewster, whose family had been building horse carriages dating back to 1804. Bodies were available in a variety of styles, from formal limousines and enclosed sedans to open sporting roadsters like the Piccadilly. American sales were brisk until the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929. As sales declined, Rolls-Royce of America was gradually liquated until finally closing its doors in October 1936.
One of the most popular American Rolls-Royce car bodies was the Piccadilly Roadster, a two-seater convertible with side curtains and a comfortable “rumble” seat. Rolls-Royce records indicate that 79 Silver Ghost chassis were fitted with the sporting Piccadilly Roadster body.
History on this vehicle:
In January 1925, Howard Hughes, at the age of 20, purchased S135MK from the posh Rolls-Royce Eighth Avenue and 58th Street New York showroom. At the same time, Hughes purchased a second Piccadilly Roadster, 411MF, a right-hand drive, 4-speed, 6-volt car. Hughes had 411MF shipped to Beverly Hills, California, where he gifted the car to his “friend,” actress Gloria Swanson.
Noted Rolls-Royce author John de Campi chronicled S135MK in his authoritative work Rolls-Royce in America, the “bible” on Springfield cars. Hughes’ Piccadilly Roadster was sold for $13,450, twice the average American’s annual income in 1925. By comparison, a 1925 Ford Model T sold for about $260. According to Roll-Royce records, S135MK was delivered to Howard Hughes on October 5, 1925, shipped from New York to California by train. He reportedly drove the car around Beverly Hills for the next several years as he was developing his reputation in the movie industry.
From February 1931, to early 1959, S135MK changed hands several times.
On January 13, 1959, E.B. McCormack, 6438 W. 74th Street, Overland Park, Kansas purchased S135MK. Several months later, in April 1959, McCormack listed the car for sale for $3,500 in the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club magazine, describing it as black with red wheels, new tires, and new red upholstery. A picture of the car appears on page 58 in Lawrence Dalton’s Those Elegant Rolls-Royce.
In 1959, S135MK was sold to extravagant Rolls-Royce collector Jimmy Leake, first appearing under his name in the 1960 Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club records. Jimmy Leake was a colorful and charismatic Oklahoma businessman and philanthropist, was recognized as the foremost expert on Rolls-Royce, and owned the largest and finest private collection of Rolls-Royce ever assembled with S135MK being the first Rolls in his collection. Leake undertook a comprehensive restoration of S135MK, changing the color from black with red wheels to yellow with black fenders and black wheels. He also changed the red interior to black.
In 1974, S135MK was offered for sale in the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club magazine for $35,000, boasting an “extensive restoration.”
In late 1979, famed automotive artist Ken Dallison created a limited-edition lithograph of S135MK with a striking likeness of a dapperly-dressed Howard Hughes with two planes in the background. The artist captures S135MK in what appears to be its original color scheme of tan with red wheels and a tan top. The lithograph car is a spot-on likeness down to the “chopped” windscreen and dual front bumpers. The drawing is contained in the artist’s lithograph collection, The Spirit: Celebrating 75 Years of the Rolls-Royce Motor Car.
Circa 1980, Floridian Andy Thornal purchased S135MK along with a low-mileage 1981 Camargue from a Chicago broker. S135MK had been advertised in the Roll-Royce Owner’s Club magazine for $95,000, and having won a Classic Car Club of America national first prize award. It was described as “yellow and black,” in “excellent condition,” with “13,000 miles.” Andy was a colorful character in his own right, owning a successful “J. Peterman-like” business in Winter Haven, Florida. After purchasing S135MK, it sat dormant for the most part of the next 40 years.
We were asked to recommission S135MK to its original glory.