Playing by the Rolls
Car aficionados might call it a crime. A British doctor left a beautiful, but decrepit, Rolls Royce sitting in the town of Bethany Beach to rust.
Like many small-town physicians in the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Charles King was well-known for his home and practice, which were located on Hollywood Street. But heads also turned for his 1936 Rolls Royce Phantom III Park Ward Sedanca de Ville.
Yet, after a failed repair job in 1959, the dissembled Phantom III was condemned to decades of storage — sometimes out in the salt air — until King’s sons swooped in from England. They rescued the machine from Bethany Beach after their father’s death in 1991. And they finally renovated it in 2011, into an award-winning beauty that is now turning heads in Europe.
King and his wife had come to the area from Wales and had three children: Susan, Richard and Michael. The family had lived in Cairo, Egypt, until the 1956 Suez Crisis made the Britons consider a move to Washington, D.C.
As a surgeon, King drove the Rolls to work at Georgetown University Hospital on a regular basis. The car definitely attracted attention, “particularly when it regularly overheated in downtown Washington traffic,” Richard King recalled.
“He used it for a couple of years, and it started to overheat, and it started to break down,” he said recently from London.
King searched long and hard for a mechanic who could repair the silted water galleries. Finally, he found a mechanic who stripped the V-12 engine before deciding the repair was beyond his capability. King eventually moved his medical practice to Bethany Beach, still hoping to someday restore the car.
The doctor in Bethany
In the late 1950s, King took over the practice of another well-known physician, Dr. Campbell, who owned the Hollywood Street house but worked nearby. King then consolidated his home and practice at Hollywood Street.
“We loved it. We spent quite a few summers there,” Richard King said. “We used to love holidays there.
The beach was a great place for the family to come together each summer. Typically, King escaped the city, while his children were schooled in England and their mother worked in D.C., continuing teaching as a professor of anatomy.
So King’s staff helped with some housekeeping to keep the place presentable to patients.
“He was here mostly by himself. … We kind of took him under our wing,” said his former medical secretary, Wanda Powell of Ocean View.
King was remembered as a nice person who later joined a Rehoboth Beach medical practice.
“He was a jack of all trades,” Powell said. “He did surgery. He was the only doctor around at the time.”
As for the Phantom, “He was completely delighted with that car. … He was very proud of his car, I remember that,” Powell said.
As a boy, Richard King didn’t fully appreciate the classic car.
“I used to get to taken to the school in it. … People kept asking questions. I was embarrassed. I said, ‘Drop me round the back.’”
But, Richard King inherited the car when his dad passed away, and the brothers discussed repairs. Richard King was now an orthopedic surgeon, and Michael King was a lawyer, both living in London.
“When he died, I thought, ‘I’ve got to rescue the car, get it back to England, get it done,’” said Richard King. But work didn’t begin immediately. “When it came back to England, it went into another barn.”
The Phantom sat in a friend’s Essex garage for another 10 years, until about 2001. Finally, a solution walked into Richard King’s medical practice: a patient named Ted Overton wanted to restore the car.
That was a tall order. Other mechanics had never given the Phantom high odds of survival. By the time the car was shipped back to England, it was a mess.
Less than 800 of the elegant cars had been built in the 1930s, before World War II. Most had an aluminum body. But, according to Richard King, only two steel-bodied Phantom IIIs were ever built, and one is now in his garage.
The Kings’ Phantom was special-ordered and delivered to a Lord Glendyne in 1936, who later sold the car to W.E. Lillywhite, and finally to Charles King.
In 1957, the car followed King across the Atlantic (sailing from London to Baltimore) to the family’s new home in Washington D.C.
Repairing a classic
But the car just sat, from 1959 until Charles King’s death in 1991. Renovations wouldn’t even begin until the new millennium.
“It sort of deteriorated in the sea air. Everything deteriorated — the leather, the wood…” Richard King said.
Although the bodywork was terribly corroded and even rotting away, the chassis and aluminum bonnet were “surprisingly intact.”
The Rolls surprised everyone by revealing that the main cause of its overheating was an easily-fixed broken water pump impeller.
The whole block was also restored with larger channels and new radiator.
When it comes to color, “We wanted to jazz it up a little bit,” Richard King said. They replaced the austere black-and-brown color scheme with a more art deco styling. Meanwhile, the dull interior fabric made way for bright red leather.
They modernized it with air conditioning, a new sound system, navigation and reversing camera systems. It’s better suited to modern-day traffic, too, with special-made fans and overdrive on the higher gears.
The delicate finishing touches include a kneeling Spirit of Ecstasy figurine purchased in the 1990s in anticipation of the project. A Gold Angel motif was on both sides of the car, designed by Fiona, Richard King’s late wife, who supported the project from the beginning.
All the work was done near London, by Overton Vehicle Overhauls of Essex, Gary Creasey of Wheathampstead and Greg and Simon Morris of Auto Audio.
“It’s a stunning car. I think it’s been valued at $300,000,” Richard King said.
Despite the considerable price tag, the car was “a commemoration of my father’s life,” Richard King said. His parents, both from Wales, have now both passed away. “But as time has gone on, the appreciation has exceeded the cost of the restoration.”
Richard King said the Phantom has shined alongside other luxury cars at the Cartier Style et Luxe Concours d’Elegance in Goodwood Festival of Speed and won its category at the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club 2011 Annual Rally & Concours d’Elegance.
That’s a great honor for the mechanics, but Richard King enjoys actually using the car.
“My brother and I want to take it for a trip, take it to Italy, Spain, Italy or Poland — a nice long run,” Richard King said.
Despite being a large, old car, he said, the steering is “lighter than you’d anticipate,” with a quiet engine. “It’s very nice to ride — but not on too small a road.”
He uses a Bentley for everyday driving and also owns a de Havilland Tiger Moth 1944 biplane.
Richard King’s love for classic cars may stem from a sense of nostalgia.
“When we lived in Egypt, we used to go through the desert in these old cars. It’s that era that appealed,” he said of his childhood.
Moreover, he said, these are just beautiful machines.
“They’re sort of a work of art. That’s what it is — not just a machine that can travel at about 150 mph… That’s what makes them interesting, is the shape. They’ve got something to them. Modern cars — a lot of them look the same, don’t they? There’s nothing terribly exciting about them,” Richard King said. “It’s just art — mobile art.”