There are few cars that become movie stars in their own right. One is the Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback that Steve McQueen drove in “Bullitt.”
The other is the yellow Rolls-Royce that Robert Redford drove in the 1974 movie, “The Great Gatsby.” In fact, it’s one of just a handful of cars to make the cover of Newsweek and GQ magazines.
“The car is super rare,” said Harry Clark, founder of Classic Promenade in Phoenix. “It was a star component, not unlike the ‘Bullitt’ Mustang, in the film. The difference is, with the ‘Bullitt’ Mustang they made two. This car is the only one.”
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Now the car, a 1928 Rolls-Royce 40/50 HP Phantom I Ascot Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton, could be yours.
Classic Promenade Auctions will hold an online-only auction of 30 high-end collector cars and motorcycles, the Gatsby Rolls-Royce being one of them. This “virtual” auction starts in early September; the Gatsby Rolls-Royce goes up for auction October 12-25.
‘Simple millionaire to billionaire’
Until then, the car is in the Classic Promenade’s showroom in Phoenix where two people have already tried to buy it, Clark said. He told them they have wait for the auction, which is sure to be a zinger. The published auction price is $1.5 million to $2 million.
“Analogous to the ‘Bullitt’ Mustang, we think if three or four buyers want it — and we think they will — it’s up to them to determine how much they bid, but we think it’ll be a lot of money,” Clark said. “The ‘Bullitt’ Mustang sold for $3.7 million, but the car was worth $20,000. This car is worth a whole bunch more just as a car. Then, Robert Redford in the ‘Great Gatsby’ takes it to a whole new level.”
But hitting the upper end of Clark’s range is unlikely, said John Wiley, manager of valuation analytics at Hagerty, a Traverse City-based company that specializes in collector car insurance and valuations.
“Hitting the high end of that estimate would make this the most expensive Phantom I ever sold at auction,” Wiley said.
The current record is $1.98 million, set at Gooding & Company’s 2013 Amelia Island auction, Wiley said.
“Typically, originality matters more, but when a car has been a star, the originality to that period is more important,” Wiley said. “I’d expect the sale to come in closer to the low end of the estimate.”
Potential buyers will range from, “Simple millionaire to billionaires,” Clark said. “It could be someone who sold their business or an oligarch Middle Eastern or Chinese billionaire. This car will appeal to the gentleman who is a car collector and married to someone who loves ‘Gatsby.’ “
The auction is unique too in that every vehicle undergoes a third party inspection that is published for the buyers.
“That’s a big deal because right now, if you’re buying a car sight unseen, that’s like going to Vegas,” Clark said. “It’s buyer beware and we don’t believe in that. I’m a collector myself and I’ve been burned many times so we’re dedicating ourselves to being fully transparent.”
The car is currently owned by The Chamberlain Foundation, a not-for-profit. It was bought in October 2011 for about $400,000. It has had $800,000 in additional restoration, Clark said.
The sale of the car will serve as seed money to fund educational programs for future mechanics for collector cars, watchmakers and other craftsman, Clark said. And, the buyer may have a tax advantage in the purchase.
More: Famous 1968 ‘Bullitt’ Mustang driven by Steve McQueen to be auctioned
More: Mystery surrounds $3.74M sale of 1968 Mustang Bullitt: ‘Only one person knows’ buyer
Paramount’s search for a star
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” Jay Gatsby’s car was symbolic of the roaring twenties, the tangible symbol of the decadent wealth of the nouveau riche at the time.
Fitzgerald described it as “a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length, with triumphant hatboxes and toolboxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns.”
At the time, classic car collector Ted Leonard owned the 1928 Rolls-Royce. Leonard lived in Seekonk, Massachusetts, near Newport, Rhode Island, the location where Paramount Pictures would shoot the movie.
“The studio was networking, looking for the car that was described in the book,” Clark said. “Leonard was a known collector and they asked him if he had a car that would work. He said he had the right car.”
But the wrong color. The Ascot body was a two-tone brown and tan. So the studio painted it the color it is now, changed the interior and did a quick restoration to get it to mirror the car in the book, Clark said.
A notorious history
It’s not the first time the car has undergone a makeover. Its history and the characters who have owned it is one of continual transformation.
Rolls-Royce vehicles are built in England, but from 1921 to 1931, the automaker had a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, because demand in the states was high. In those days, the automaker built the chassis and engine and the buyer would select a body for it from a coach builder. The chassis and engine on the Gatsby car were made in Springfield in 1928, Clark said.
The original body on it was an enclosed style called a Town Brougham. The complete car was delivered to its first owner, Mildred Loring Logan of New York City, on Jan. 22, 1929, Clark said. He said it would have cost about $18,000. That’s about $273,000 today.
But Logan didn’t own it long because on Nov. 16, 1929, the president of the American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill, bought it. Clark said the records are unclear as to how long Hill owned it, but the body style was changed to its current Ascot style in 1945. The Ascot is one of the best designs and this is one of 28 made, Clark said.
By 1964, a Rolls-Royce car dealer named Jim Carlson of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, owned it and that is when it started showing up on the records of Rolls-Royce owner clubs and car club magazines, providing a solid ownership history to date, Clark said.
Carlson didn’t have it long before Ralph Lehtola of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, bought it from him. Lehtola was a veteran car collector who sold it to Ted Leonard in 1973.
After the car costarred in the movie, Leonard held on to it until he died in 2009. In June of that year, famous Texas trial lawyer John O’Quinn bought it. O’Quinn was a highly successful, aggressive plaintiff’s attorney who amassed a lavish car collection.
In a 2011 article titled “Law and Disorder,” Texas Monthly magazine wrote, “John O’Quinn didn’t just set out to be a lawyer, he set out to be the best (and the richest) lawyer who ever lived. And over the course of a long career, he amassed the astronomical courtroom paydays, outrageous car collection, luxury homes, and list of mortal enemies to prove it.”
Almost sounds like a character in the Great Gatsby, so who better to own the car? But O’Quinn would own it for just a few months. In October 2009, “O’Quinn took a sharp curve on a rain-slicked Houston parkway at more than 60 miles per hour and lost control of his (Chevrolet) Suburban, which jumped the median, barely missed oncoming traffic, and struck a thirty-foot-tall oak tree,” Texas Monthly said. O’Quinn and his passenger, Johnny Cutliff, who usually did the driving, were killed instantly. Neither was wearing a seat belt.
Rolls vs. Mustang
From there, the Gatsby Rolls-Royce went to Charles Crail, a Rolls-Royce dealer in Santa Barbara, California, who did some restoration on it before the present owner bought it in 2011, Clark said.
And just because the car has belonged to collectors doesn’t mean it doesn’t move.
“I drove it and it was driven. The car is absolutely stunning,” Clark said. “It gets immediate attention, lots and lots of attention.”
Still as far as movie-star cars go, Hagerty’s Wiley said nothing compares to the “Bullitt” Mustang.
“As important as this car was to the image it helped create in Gatsby, it was ultimately a prop, and not the star that McQueen’s Mustang was,” Wiley said. “The ‘Bullitt’ Mustang is alone on its pedestal. It was the star character in a ground-breaking chase scene, in which it was driven by an actor whose association raised the values of cars he drove off screen by a factor of two to three, and (it) crossed the block unrestored.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: A rare Rolls-Royce used in ‘The Great Gatsby’ could fetch millions at auction