This month’s automobile feature
combines an Austrian Alps excursion with a visit to the world’s largest collection of classic Rolls-Royce motorcars. The destination is Dornbirn, Austria, located in the country’s Western panhandle between Germany and Switzerland where the Rhine River flows into Europe’s third largest lake known as Lake Constance or, as the German’s call it, the Bodensee.
That’s where we met Johannes and Bernhard Vonier, the two brothers who are carrying on their father Franz’s passion for the preservation and display of what is perhaps the most famous of all British automobiles.
My wife Sylvia and I, along with our granddaughter Ashley, were again the beneficiaries of our son Brian’s film project for a television series featuring the world’s finest automobile museums.
We got to tag along and spend the entire day looking over more than 100 of the classics, including the Safari-Touring- Car of King George V, the Limousine of King Edward VIII, the sporting Phantom II of Prinz Aly Khan, the blue Rolls-Royce of Malcolm Campbell, the parade car of Dictator Franco, the personal vehicle of F.H. Royce, the Rolls-Royce of Lawrence of Arabia and many more. Among those others is what the Vonier brothers refer to as the “Landau of Queen Mum” – that would be none other than the celebration car of Queen Elizabeth II.
We tested the very same seat the monarch occupied
in the specially modified rear quarter so she could famously wave to her subjects lining parade routes on special public appearances.
The museum’s origin can be traced to Franz’s travels through Europe developing his transition from farmer to automobile mechanic and then as a Rolls Royce expert and collector.
He started collecting in 1971 in the family’s home, and Johannes likes to recall how he grew up there with a car in his bedroom bearing the RR iconic hood ornament, Spirit of Ecstasy Mascot peering down at him.
Ten years later, the museum opened in an historic textile factory that was converted over time to the showplace it is today housing not only the classic cars but also another one thousand or so exhibits related to the vehicles and the era of their day. The guys are particularly proud of an event they staged four winters ago (12/12/12), when they managed to get their pristine 1930 Phantom II on display at the observation deck atop Switzerland’s 8,200 ft. Santis Mountain – among the most prominent summits in the Alps.
The feat was made possible by attaching the 1.5-ton
noble car to the bottom of a counterbalanced funicular – otherwise known as a ski lift gondola. It dangled above the frozen slopes en route to the peak of the mountain.
Always a crowd pleaser is the 1933 Phantom II – a Rolls-Royce used by smugglers of diamonds from South African mines for transport to diamond cutters and then to distribution locations across Europe, even to prestigious Paris jewelry stores. It’s quite like the one owned by Mr. Goldfinger – the notorious villain planning on raiding Fort Knox in the 1964 James Bond film bearing his name. Johannes explains that there are five secret compartments that were built into the car’s body.
“We’ve found only three of them,” he says with a wry smile, “we are still looking for the other two.” The rear window in this car is also special – it rolls down so a machine gun can be fired from the back seat. One of the more unusual finds currently housed in the museum is a new 1927 Phantom I that had been hidden in a barn in the South of England during WWII. The Voniers located it in the 1970’s in the condition seen in the photo here.
To disguise it during the war,
the car had been covered with 16 coats of white paint applied with a brush.
But, with a little tinkering and tuning, the engine ran smoothly – perhaps a tribute to the engineering skills of 1920-era motor design and dependability.
Other than putting fresh tires on it, the car is displayed just as it was discovered.
Stories like these accompany every one of the famous vehicles. To hear about all the rest of them, plan to tour the museum the next time you are in the vicinity of this picturesque Alpine countryside.