1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith
When your profession trains you to the most thorough approach, a matter of mere distance won’t stop the search for the right car.
THE WRAITH THAT CROSSED CONTINENTS
WORDS: RICHARD HOLDSWORTH
PHOTOGRAPHY: RICHARD HOLDSWORTH, HOWARD WRAIGHT
FEATURE CAR 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith
CATCHING SUN DOWN UNDER
A Silver Spirit owner falls for a graceful 1930s R-R, but has to ship it 10,000 miles!
Howard Wraight is a medical professional specialising in early-phase clinical research in Melbourne, and a leader in that world. He is also the President of the Victorian branch of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club of Australia and is not someone to let 10,000 miles and a few continents get in his way in the search for a pristine pre-war example of the marque. Howard already owned a splendid 1990 Silver Spirit ll, but he was greatly drawn to pre-war Rolls-Royces and this desire was heightened at the Club’s Federal Rally in 2017. It was held in Canberra, the country’s political centre, and attended by cars and owners from across the country. I’ll let Howard explain.
‘It was my first National Rally and on this crisp winter’s morning as the cars gathered for the customary Rally Dawn Patrol, the sight of prewar Rolls-Royce cars in the early light stole my imagination. To say the cars were charming and very elegant was an understatement.’ Howard had entered the Silver Spirit ll in the concours and to his surprise and delight it had won its class. But that didn’t take away his immediate love affair with pre-war cars and by the time he arrived back home he determined to seek out one of his own.
‘It is a long drive from Canberra to Melbourne,’ he says, ‘and that time only served to fuel my ambition. It was too late for turning, I was captivated and my search for a pre-war car had begun.’ First stop in the search were the classic car websites, while Howard also scoured classic car dealers’ showrooms, perused Rolls-Royce owners’ clubs’ classifieds and corresponded with various vendors from all over the world. ‘All of this enabled me to gain a valuable insight and knowledge into the unique pre-war Rolls-Royce cars, the mechanical specification, their attributes and the very spirit of a Rolls-Royce built in those halcyon days,’ he says.
A year passed and yet another Federal Rally and the marvellous display of pre-war cars only served to fuel Howard’s desire to find a good example somewhere in Australia – or beyond the country’s shores, if it came to it. On one notable occasion, Howard took a flight across Australia to Perth in the west to inspect a ‘…rather lovely 25/30 Sedanca de Ville…’ But the nine hours in the air and more than 3500 miles covered proved to be unfruitful. Howard is explaining how membership of the Rolls-Royce Club helped, as did the advice and knowledge that Club members passed on to him. ‘Their good sense and wise counsel helped me to narrow my search.
Taking into consideration the driving experience, driving position, size and handling, a small horsepower car, so a 20/25, 25/30 or Wraith – preferably without division – would be an excellent choice. In the words of the inimitable Commander Hugh Keller, famed salesman of London dealers, Paddon Brothers: “If you like old cars, what better all-purpose car is there than a small Rolls-Royce with a light saloon body. Steering, brakes, suspension and gearbox are second to none and a sweeter running engine does not exist.”’
For my story on Howard, his search and his car, I have to admit to not having the greatest knowledge of Rolls or Bentley cars of this era and so it was rewarding to take on board what I was being told.
‘A pre-war Wraith is particularly attractive as it has the same mechanical advances found on its larger sibling, the Phantom III, with independent front suspension and synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and top gears,’ Howard smiles, ‘So there it is — a Wraith was my quest! As I have said, I was not limiting my search to within the shores of Australia and on opening the Hemmings website in the States one bright June morning in 2018, a Rolls- Royce Wraith with bodywork by H J Mulliner caught my eye. It was a 1938 saloon without division, chassis number WXA50, and from the photographs it looked perfect for my needs. It was a very handsome car, with smart razor edge styling and lovely proportions.’ Howard looks satisfied, as well he might.
‘The car was in deep claret over black and looked not dissimilar to the Queen’s Phantom lV. It had a regal presence.’ Buying from some 10,000 miles away and without sight of the car can be a challenge, as Howard modestly puts it. But he was reassured by the description of the car, photographs and a plethora of information that backed up the owner’s claim that the Wraith had been lovingly cared for over his two decades of ownership.
Claude Dubois and his wife, Pauline, the owners, had been active members of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club of America, the car had travelled extensively and was well known. ‘Obviously a car of this vintage needs work doing to it,’ says Howard, ‘but the history of mechanical and coachwork restoration carried out during Claude’s ownership was reassuring. I researched the many articles in the Flying Lady featuring WXA50. This revealed another body-off, chassis-up, total restoration in the mid 1970’s as well as numerous photos of this very handsome car touring around Canada and the United States.’ Howard is smiling again. ‘If it seemed I was still to be convinced, Claude offered as an inducement their set of 1938-style period clothes.’ Would that tip the balance?
‘The obvious question was, why part with such a fine example of a pre-war Rolls, but the owner’s explanation seemed reasonable enough. They had enjoyed the car for more than two decades, anno domini was catching up and they no longer toured in the car as extensively as they had done before. It seems Claude Dubois wanted to hand the car over to another good owner rather than let it fade away in his garage.
‘Then, by chance I stumbled on a video of WXA50 posted on YouTube and taken by a member of the public at the 2012 Concours d’Elegance. The unknown enthusiast attending the concours had filmed the car extensively while it was on display and revealed WXA50 to be in marvellous condition. This convinced me that I had found the right car. The sale was agreed, brake linings were replaced with nonasbestos material (Australia has strict regulations governing asbestos), an import permit issued and soon the car was securely in a container from Canada, crossing the Atlantic for transit through Hamburg and on down to Australia.’ I do like a story with a happy ending, and this is one of the very best. Now that we’ve heard Howard’s story, it’s time to photograph this refined car in some glorious Melbourne sunshine. Couldn’t be better! Let’s see if we can do the car justice…
WHY SO POPULAR? THE ROLLS ROYCE AND BENTLEY SCENE IN AUSTRALIA
Interestingly, Australia was the third largest market for Rolls- Royce and Bentley cars before the Second World War – this being one of the reasons the Club counts such a wonderful array of vintage cars within its membership. Sales remained strong in subsequent decades, too.
The Rolls-Royce Owners Club of Australia (RROCA) came into existence in 1956 and has evolved into an Australia-wide organisation which, today, has almost 1000 members representing some 850 Rolls-Royce cars and 390 Bentleys. The Club now has branches in all Australian states or territories with Victoria and New South Wales being the largest memberships. Rolls-Royce cars in the Club represent some of the earliest to be built – including a 1909 Silver Ghost – right up to the very latest models from the Goodwood factory.
Howard Wraight was elected President of the Victoria Branch in September 2021. Howard has continued the good work of his predecessor, Greg Wayman, negotiating various Covid-19 lockdowns – that includes the period in 2021 when Melbourne became the city with more days in lockdown than any other in the world! During this time, the Club held regular virtual events via Zoom and physical events when possible. And the State branch took the opportunity of a break in lockdowns in May 2021 to organise an extremely successful National Rally in Victoria’s second largest city, Geelong. In 2022, the Club has returned to regular monthly face-to-face meetings, taking in social gatherings, technical sessions, plus weekend and midweek runs, driving events and interstate rallies as well as the annual Concours. There is considerable overlap with the Australia-wide Bentley Drivers’ Club and many Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners attend events by both clubs.
Car's condition is stunning throughout, from neatly-filled tool tray to immaculate engine bay. Full marks for the choice of reading material! H.J. Mulliner's razor-edge styling works beautifully with the Wraith's proportions.