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A Phantom hearse with a royal pedigree

A Rolls-Royce hearse with royal heritage from Lower Hutt, New Zealand, now serves the community with the same elegant dignity bestowed on senior members of our royal family, when a limousine. Christopher Moor reports

The New Zealand government purchased two Rolls-Royce Phantom VI limousines to ferry Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne around the country during their 1970 royal visit.

After the tour, one limousine went into vice regal service as the official car for New Zealand’s governor generals until 1996, while the other Rolls-Royce has had a more eventful life.

During the royal tour its front grille and radiator were battered when the car hit a sheep on a country road. With the front end repaired, the limousine was sold to the Westhaven cabaret in Auckland, which used the car as a courtesy vehicle for its customers for two years.

Auckland Funeral directors W H Tongue and Son Ltd bought the car and had the limousine converted to a hearse. In the conversion the rear seats that so comfortably supported the backs of New Zealand’s royal guests went to create the casket area.

Gavin Murphy Gee & Hickton’s general manager bought the hearse in 2008 from Sibuns, which had joined with W H Tongue from 1996.

He got the idea of buying after hearing of his grandmother winning a radio competition, with the prize of sipping tea at the same lakeside spot where the Queen had partaken tea during the 1970 royal visit.

A royalist himself, he says his grandmother would have loved to have ridden in this Phantom VI. “It’s a piece of New Zealand history,” he proudly states.

“People see the Rolls-Royce as an attention-getter for the business. It’s a real point of difference. They’re just beautiful hand-made vehicles. It’s so big – it’s got a real persona about it.” This Phantom VI is more than six metres long and two metres wide, and weighs around 2.75 tons.

When the hearse arrived at Gee and Hickton Limited, the Phantom had seen better days. It was in need of much TLC. The engine had seized up and the body and frame required stripping back to bare metal. Gavin says he even saw the start of a few rust blisters on the old paint.

The hearse went to David Wilkens and his dedicated team at Bristols Automotive Specialists in Upper Hutt, where the extensive restoration took place over some months. Their skilled efforts resulted in the Rolls-Royce leaving the workshop looking absolutely pristine to begin its new role in November 2009.

The work included restoring the original 6.2 litre V8 motor, a body repaint, recovering the two-part front seat in tan leather, and replacing the linings in the casket area with fawn macro suede. An electronic ignition added in the upgrade ensures the engine always starts the first time, and an electronic motor was fitted to control the casket deck.

Gavin has never publicly divulged the cost of the hearse, nor that of the restoration. In an interview, he did say the restoration cost was “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

Parts and maintenance are “horrendously expensive”, and he claims he doesn’t know the fuel consumption, which is estimated at 8-10mpg in city areas.

Kevin Algar ably deputised for Gavin on the drive to the photo shoot at Vogel House, a listed Lower Hutt heritage home, where Her Majesty has dined as the guest of a former New Zealand prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, in 1977.

He agrees with Gavin that part of the hearse’s appeal lies in its foibles. Braking requires some prudence to overcome the sluggishness caused by the length and weight. Neither appears noticeable from its smooth road handling.

Kevin says the flag blowing in the breeze from the mudguard on the driver’s side is changed to that of the deceased’s birth country, as a mark of respect, when the hearse is chosen for their service.

Seeing the spare wheel concealed under the casket deck was unexpected, as was finding the side doors hiding the running boards when they’re closed.

This hearse has no name. Kevin affectionately calling it ‘The Phantom’ seemed to fit nicely.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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