LUXURY MOTORS: Fiennes Restoration

 

When on a quest to find the ‘best car in the world’ many would look no further than Rolls-Royce: the pinnacle of engineering excellence, beautiful design and a prestigious brand matched by none – the most luxurious driving experience ever created.

What then of the best of the best? Which is the finest Rolls-Royce in the world? Doubtless there are several contenders for the crown. However, beyond the Silver Ghosts and Phantoms we have found a wholly unique, perfectly crafted and elegant Rolls-Royce which certainly warrants consideration.

” She has been owned by royalty, credited with saving the lives of her owners, survived an encounter with bears, been submerged in Lake Geneva and witnessed
the liberation of Rome.”

Having been lost for decades she has now finally been restored to her former glory with no expense spared by the world-renowned firm of Fiennes Restoration. Classic Cars magazine has described her as “The most glamorous and perfectly-proportioned Rolls-Royce 20/25 ever built”.

Her name is GRW59, the chassis number Rolls-Royce gave her at birth, and it is thanks to the vision and skill of her owner and restorers, Richard Raynsford and Will Fiennes, that she survives today.

These pages tell her story.

 

 

A decade-long hunt

Richard Raynsford’s decade-long hunt, and 30 year fascination with GRW59 started in 1985; he was listening to his motherin-law Felcie Evill reminisce about the Rolls-Royce that her husband, Brigadier Tom Evill DSO CBE, had bought in Austria in 1948 and brought back to England.

Raynsford’s interest was piqued: perhaps it was Felcie’s tone of voice, as well as the car’s disappearance, or a mention of a mysterious prince who once owned it, but he became determined to find the motorcar which had been owned by his wife’s family.

All I had, was an old photograph of GRW59, the Rolls-Royce drop-head coupé which had been so loved by the father-inlaw I never met,’ remembers Raynsford.

Raynsford started piecing together the car’s long and complicated history but the weave of time could not be untangled until 1996. He placed that old photo in the Rolls-Royce Bulletin and by astonishing coincidence, a Lee Noble of Seattle, in the next issue of the same Bulletin, put a photo of the same car, from the same angle; with the car sitting in his garage, Lee Noble was asking for information about it. Incredibly, neither Noble nor Raynsford saw each other’s articles, but it was a third eagle-eyed enthusiast who alerted them to each other’s existence.

The decades lost in America are an obscure time in the car’s life, yet Raynsford’s relentless efforts to piece the car’s lifetime fragments together have yielded exceptional results, and the coincidences do not stop at its discovery, forlorn and neglected, in Seattle.

‘Being reunited with this mythical car after a ten-year search was a highly emotional moment’ admits Raynsford.
In January 1997 he flew to an icy Seattle to buy back the car. ‘There was snow thick on the ground, and she was there sitting in pieces.’ Together with Noble, Raynsford packed up the car and its ancillaries. She arrived back in her birthplace two months later, ready for her next wave of adventures, with even more coincidences to follow.

Bodies crafted by the finest artisans of the day

A little known fact about early Rolls-Royce motorcars was that specialist coachbuilders, from across the world, built the bodies. This allowed the owner to commission truly be spoke cars, yet another way to display their taste and wealth. GRW59’s current body was modelled by Hermann Graber, one of the most famous coachbuilders of his day. Born in 1904, he was the son of a wheelwright and builder of horsedrawn vehicles. In the Thirties he created some of the most stunning bodies of the era, rivalling the designs of Figoni et Falaschi (famed for some of the most outrageous designs of the day for Delahaye), and Saoutchik.

Graber’s work is instantly recognisable with its supremely elegant lines, sophistication and class, making his workmanship some of the most sought-after in the world.

After extensive research, Raynsford established that there were only two surviving Graber-bodied Rolls-Royces, one locked away in a Swiss museum and the other is GRW59, the only Graber-bodied 20/25, making her one of the most rare (and beautiful) Rolls-Royce motorcars in existence.

Establishing the car’s unique provenance

However, more mysteries revealed themselves when Raynsford found that not Graber, but another famed coachbuilder, Georges Gangloff originally bodied the car. This seemed strange, as when Raynsford’s father-in-law bought the car in 1948, it was a drop-head coupé. The plot thickened for Raynsford, who was spurred by the car’s patchy history and the thrill of a chase.

‘The more I discovered about GRW59, the more determined I was to take her back to her former glory,’ said Raynsford about his quest which spanned at least three continents. ‘She is one of those rare machines which seem to live a life of her own.’

To help piece together the history of the car, and to bring her back to her original condition, Raynsford needed the skills and expertise of only the very best restorer. For that, he turned to Will Fiennes, the oldest, most highly-respected and preeminent pre-war Rolls-Royce and Bentley restorer. An Oxford graduate with a PhD in nuclear physics, Fiennes had built his international reputation on an encyclopaedic knowledge of pre-war engineering, running the 30-strong team of craftsmen at Fiennes Restoration.

Understanding a car’s history is essential to achieving a
proper restoration. It takes a fair amount of dogged determination to achieve the former and exceptional skill to carry out the latter, especially on a car whose past was as elusive as this.

Will Fiennes was also perplexed by a Rolls-Royce whose records showed it as a saloon by Gangloff, but which now sported a different body.

Another amazing coincidence solved the mystery: ‘By
chance I happened to come across a very attractive Bugatti with a body by Graber; we saw that parts of the Rolls-Royce and Graber Bugatti were very similar. Further analysis confirmed that GRW59’s body was by Graber,’ explains Will Fiennes.

 

 

 An ‘unwelcome bath’ in Lake Geneva

Still, two bodies by two renowned coachbuilders were not the only surprise GRW59 threw at the men who were investigating its past: another illustrious owner stepped up, HRH Field Marshal
Prince Sardar Shah Ali Wali Khan Ghazi, Victor of Kabul (1888-1977) and brother to King Shah Nader Khan of Afghanistan (assassinated in 1933). Shah Wali Khan served as Ambassador to the
Court of St James London, Berne, Paris, Rome and Warsaw from 1929 to 1945, then became Prime Minister of Afghanistan.

Whilst in the prince’s possession, the Rolls-Royce led as colourful a life as that of its owner: In one of many adventures, the prince overshot a bend near the Swiss village of St Gingolph and plunged 60ft into Lake Geneva. Surprisingly, neither he nor GRW59 sustained serious damage. Newspapers at the time covered the story, with pictures of the car being pulled from the lake after ‘an unwelcome bath’.

Shah Wali Khan enjoyed a privileged status in Italy during WWII. The relationship between Italy and Afghanistan was strong (the first country to recognise Mussolini’s regime), to the extent that the Afghan prince could drive around Rome unchallenged in an overtly British car whose fuel consumption would have been prohibited even to the indigenous Alfa Romeos of the time.

After Shah Wali Khan, the Rolls-Royce became the car of choice for newly married Reverend George Irving, who took the drop-head coupé on honeymoon around the Lakes in Northern Italy. GRW59 then passed to Major Jack Comyn MBE, who wife declared “that car saved my life” after suffering from a head-on collision in the Alps. Thence she went to Colonel David Balmain, who needed a car with a spacious front compartment to accommodate his wooden leg which he had lost whilst saving a boy from a tiger in India.

A decade of searching, followed by a decade of restoring

Once back in England, Fiennes had to muster all the skill and expertise of his team to coax GRW59 back to her former glory.

‘Not only had GRW59 been badly damaged by the fire, but earlier repair attempts had damaged her even further,’ Will Fiennes recalls. ‘A particularly complicated area was the hood mechanism, which was significantly distorted. This was not obvious to start with, as it had been extensively repaired in the US, but the repairs masked the problems. The hood had to be dismantled and realigned using laser tools then carefully reassembled.’

As much of the original interior detail, like trim and seats, had not survived the fire, Fiennes’ team of coachwork specialists had to analyse other examples of Graber’s period work to manufacture something as close to authentic as possible.

‘We need to recreate hundreds of details: seat-adjusters, door handles, seathinge mechanisms, external chrome body trims,’ says Will Fiennes.

Wherever possible, the restoration route was preferred: ‘the windscreen frame is made out of polished aluminium rather than chrome plated brass, as are the cappings that are fitted to the doors’ top edges. It is a feature of that particular model and one we were keen to protect: they had not been destroyed in the fire but – as they are quite delicate – being able to restore them was a real achievement.’ After twelve-years of painstaking restoration from Fiennes and his team, as well as the unwavering support of Raynsford and his family, the Rolls-Royce 20/25 drop-head coupé was ready to woo again.

One of the most decorated cars in history

Once back in England, Fiennes had to muster all the skill and expertise of his team to coax GRW59 back to her former glory.

‘Not only had GRW59 been badly damaged by the fire, but earlier repair attempts had damaged her even further,’ Will Fiennes recalls. ‘A particularly complicated area was the hood mechanism, which was significantly distorted. This was not obvious to start with, as it had been extensively repaired in the US, but the repairs masked the problems. The hood had to be dismantled and realigned using laser tools then carefully reassembled.’

As much of the original interior detail, like trim and seats, had not survived the fire, Fiennes’ team of coachwork specialists had to analyse other examples of Graber’s period work to manufacture something as close to authentic as possible.

‘We need to recreate hundreds of details: seat-adjusters, door handles, seathinge mechanisms, external chrome body trims,’ says Will Fiennes.

Wherever possible, the restoration route was preferred: ‘the windscreen frame is made out of polished aluminium rather than chrome plated brass, as are the cappings that are fitted to the doors’ top edges. It is a feature of that particular model and one we were keen to protect: they had not been destroyed in the fire but – as they are quite delicate – being able to restore them was a real achievement.’

After twelve-years of painstaking restoration from Fiennes and his team, as well as the unwavering support of Raynsford and his family, the Rolls-Royce 20/25 drop-head coupé was ready to woo again.

APPENDIX

The restorer

Oxford University educated nuclear physicist William Fiennes founded Fiennes Restoration forty years ago, and is internationally renowned for being the leading restorer of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars. Cars restored by Fiennes go on to win at the world’s most prestigious concours competitions, and are well known for running better following their restoration than when they originally rolled off the factory floor. In fact, Fiennes exceptional reputation explains why the cars they restore are themselves highly sought after.

Will Fiennes explains that the company has seen a surge of interest from car enthusiasts in South East Asia, “the appeal of classic motoring has always been strong across the continent, however, as the wealth and affluence of collectors increases we’re seeing more enthusiasts wishing to add an additional distinctive indicator of taste to their collections, and pre-war Rolls-Royce and Bentleys certainly
do that.”

 

 

Fiennes’ customers come from all over the world, but there is a growing number across the ASEAN region. They range from enthusiasts seeking to establish their interest with one or two cars as their ‘pride and joy’ through to established collectors with vast collections.

Fiennes Restoration is based in Oxfordshire, England, and provides a range of brokering, restoration, coachbuilding, maintenance, servicing and storage services.

www.fiennes.co.uk.

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