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How John Lennon’s Rolls Royce Phantom V Became a Psychedelic Party Machine

Getty images
Getty images

The Rolls Royce Phantom V is the epitome of the English classic car and this beautiful example of vintage motoring design has had some illustrious owners. Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother both used the Phantom V, and even Elvis Presley was known to have added one to his car collection.

However, according to Rolling Stone, the Phantom V owned by Beatles legend John Lennon is completely unique. This car is covered from top to bottom in a bright, floral, psychedelic motif: a fitting testament to Beatlemania and the pop culture of the swinging sixties.

Rolls Royce Phantom V (1965) – replica of John Lennon’s car. Photo by Andrew Bone CC BY 2.0
Rolls Royce Phantom V (1965) – replica of John Lennon’s car. Photo by Andrew Bone CC BY 2.0

The Phantom V is a highly prized, exclusive car, as only 514 were ever manufactured. With its sleek lines and up-to-the-minute accessories, the Phantom was in high demand from the outset, and it didn’t take long before John Lennon purchased one, apparently in order to out-do his then manager Brian Epstein, Rolling Stone reports.

In 1964, Lennon spent around £11,000 (approximately $240,000 in modern terms) on the exclusive car, despite not yet having a full driving license. Even once he obtained his license, he was a notoriously bad driver, and eventually hired a six-foot-four bodyguard named Les Anthony, who also worked for him as a chauffeur.

Lennon’s Phantom came painted entirely in a deep Valentine black, with custom made interiors. Inside, the upholstery was made from black leather, and the fittings included a writing desk, a record player, a portable television, a cocktail cabinet and a fridge. According to Rolling Stone, it was also one of the first cars in the United Kingdom to come with tinted windows, meaning that Lennon could be sure of having some much-needed privacy as he went on his way.

John Lennon’s Phantom V. Photo by edvvc CC BY 2.0
John Lennon’s Phantom V. Photo by edvvc CC BY 2.0

The following year, Lennon made a series of upgrades to the car. He installed a new state-of-the-art record player, to allow him to play music on the move without the needle bouncing, and installed heavy-duty speakers on the inside and outside of the car. The back seat could now be converted into a double bed, and according to his housekeeper, Dot Jarlett, he modified the hooter to play ‘Lilli Marlene’. The car was now a rolling party vehicle.

In 1966, Lennon was offered a role on Richard Lester’s How I Won the War, which was shot in Spain. Although Lennon didn’t enjoy the process of shooting the film, he brought his car with him, and in downtime between takes, composed the song that would become ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from the backseat of the car.

In a related story, watch how a Prince song resulted in the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker here:

On his return to England, the car badly needed a new paint job as a result of the bumpy, sandy roads of the Spanish countryside. However, Lennon had tired of the sleek black exterior, and decided to shake things up.

According to Rolling Stone, it’s not clear where exactly he got the idea for his crazy psychedelic design, but it is rumored that one day, while he and Ringo Starr were driving past a fairground, Starr suggested that he paint the car in the same bright colors as the garish rides. However, others suggest that the idea came from the Dutch designer Marijke Koger, who would also go on to paint Lennon’s piano.

John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce. Royal BC Museum, Victoria. Photo by Gord Webster – Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce. Royal BC Museum, Victoria. Photo by Gord Webster – Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Either way, Lennon took the car to a private dealer, where it was spray-painted orange, and then local artist Steve Weaver set to work. He covered the car in a bright, art nouveau design in red, yellow, green and blue, with floral patterns and swirls, and a Libra symbol on the roof.

The choice to paint this classic English car in a design so closely intertwined with 1960s counterculture was a deeply subversive statement. In true Beatles style, Lennon was making an artistic point using a symbol of elite wealth and status as his canvas.

According to Rolling Stone, Lennon delighted in the polarized responses he got to his psychedelic Rolls Royce. On one memorable occasion, he was driving through Piccadilly in the newly decorated car, when an elderly lady lunged forward, brandishing an umbrella. According to Lennon, she exclaimed, “You swine! How dare you do that to a Rolls Royce!”

Read another story from us: Psychedelic Celebrity Cars of the 1960s

Lennon’s modifications to this classic British car may have shocked his contemporaries, but today it’s seen as an iconic piece of 1960s counterculture and a tribute to the psychedelic aesthetic of the swinging sixties. This beautiful car is certainly one of a kind.

Louise Flatley

Louise Flatley is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News