Photos: Vintage Rolls Royce Tricked Out for Tiger Hunting (Machine Gun Included)
Don't let the obvious refinement fool you: This is one tough ride. "It sounds odd to say you'd take a Rolls Royce off-road, but in this period, a lot of these cars were used for hunting because they are very durable," says Swig. "They have a lot of torque, and with the low gearing ordered for this model, they can tackle some pretty difficult terrain. It's perfect for creeping through the jungle in pursuit of game."
Once upon a time, in a land far away, it would have been considered the ultimate hunting rig: A 1925 Rolls Royce New Phantom Torpedo Sport Tourer outfitted with multiple spotlights, an arsenal of big-game firearms (including a cannon and machine gun) and enough champagne iceboxes and other creature comforts to entertain a Maharaja and his entourage. In fact, it was a Maharaja–the Maharaja of Kotah, Umed Singh II–who ordered the car custom built for hunting Bengal tigers. It was an era when India’s princes fixated on the British-made icon of opulence and power with a fervor bordering on mania as they vied to outdo one another with ever more extravagant custom cars. Between 1900 and 1950, some 800 Rolls Royces were imported from Britain to India, becoming the status symbol of choice for India’s royalty. Now a relic of a bygone era of big-game hunting, the New Phantom will be among the headline items in the Bonhams Sale of Exceptional Motorcars, a two-day auction at Quail Lodge August 18-19 in Carmel, California. Field & Stream got to kick the tires (figuratively, at least) on this one-of-a-kind tiger tank, which is projected to bring between $750,000 and $1 million. Here’s what we learned.
“Rolls Royce and Bentley cars of this period were much more exclusive cars than they are today,” says David Swig, Assistant Manager of Collectors’ Motorcars for auctioneer Bonhams & Butterfields. “They were built-to-order motor cars. The build sheet on this car has three pages of options specified by the Maharaja, many of those related specifically to hunting purposes. While there are a number of cars ordered by Maharajas for personal transport or hunting, no two are identical.”
Umed Singh II was Maharaja of Kotah, a city in northern India, from 1889 to his death in 1940. At the end of his life he was known by the impressive full title Colonel His Highness Maharajadhiraj Maharaja Mahimahendra Maharao Raja Shri Sir Umed Singh II Sahib Bahadur, Maharao Raja of Kotah, GCSI, GCIE, GBE. Swig estimates that his highness would have paid around $17,000 for the Rolls Phantom in 1925. By comparison, a basic 1925 Ford Model T cost $290.
Don’t let the obvious refinement fool you: This is one tough ride. “It sounds odd to say you’d take a Rolls Royce off-road, but in this period, a lot of these cars were used for hunting because they are very durable,” says Swig. “They have a lot of torque, and with the low gearing ordered for this model, they can tackle some pretty difficult terrain. It’s perfect for creeping through the jungle in pursuit of game.”
That combination of toughness and luxury is evident in the instrument panel, which is extensive for a day in which most cars had a speedometer and little else, Swig says. The polished aluminum and wooden trim are part of the car’s nautical theme.
Note the gradient meter (left), which would display the slope of any hill the driver decided to tackle.
A pair of Stephen Grebel spotlights (one fore, one aft) stood ready to locate and startle game–hardly sporting by today’s standards, of course. The lights swivel from left to right and are controlled by a lever in the cockpit.
The Maharaja’s hunting companions reportedly included monarchs, world leaders and captains of industry. They would have had plenty of arms to choose from. The carmaker fitted two gun racks in the rear passenger compartment to hold rifles and shotguns. A howdah gun, a large-caliber, multi-barreled pistol on a swivel mount, would have likely been used to repel animals bent on attacking the car. The name is a holdover from an earlier era, when hunters used elephants rather than automobiles to track down tigers, according to Bonhams’ firearms expert James Ferrell. (Because he has not examined the firearms being sold with the car, he could comment only on the general history of these types of guns.) “The howdah is that little compartment on elephants’ backs. The hunter would be up there with his rifle, of course, but he’d have some kind of large caliber pistol, so if the tiger came up on the elephant’s back to get you, you had your howdah pistol to stop him at the last minute,” Ferrell says.
The Lantaka cannon carried on the rear bumper may have been used as an elephant gun. “Lantakas were typically made of bronze and were modeled on the 16th and 17th century Portuguese boat guns,” says Ferrell. “They range anywhere from small signal guns a foot-and-a-half long to reasonably large boat guns maybe 3 or 4 feet long, and usually they were mounted in the prow of a boat.” Evidently, no land yacht was complete without one either. “The Lantaka is a muzzleloading gun with a touchhole in the breach. You’d mount it on a swivel and turn that to aim the gun, then stick a fuse or a hot wire in the touchhole. Pretty simple.”
A rare carriage-mounted Bira Gun, circa 1890s, can be hitched to the car. Hard to believe that a .577/450 Martini-Henry caliber, hand-cranked field piece, similar to a Gatling gun, was once considered suitable for hunting Bengal tigers. The big cats are now listed as endangered. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, today only about 2,500 survive on the Indian subcontinent, with population estimates for India ranging from 1100 to 1600.
A plaque on the Bira Gun testifies to its origins: It was invented by General Gehendra Shamsher Jang Bahudar Rana in Nepal and made there by hand in 1895-’96. “It’s not really a machine gun because it’s hand operated, not gas operated,” Ferrell says. “I think they’re pretty rare. I’ve only run across a Bira gun once, a few years ago. Not a lot is known is about them. It’s a military gun, made in a fairly standard British military caliber.”
As with any luxury cars, it’s the little touches that make a big difference. An icebox for champagne and thermos bottles for water and other potables kept spirits high.
Copper mesh curtains could be attached to serve as window screens to keep bugs at bay.
The Spirit of Ecstasy, Roll Royce’s mascot, adds a distinctive touch of class.
So does the nickel-plated snake horn, which was operated by a rubber bulb located outside the driver’s window.
One of the tiger car’s more unique features is a Chubb safe. “Included in the original specifications, it secured contingency money set aside to compensate families of hunting assistants killed while stalking big game,” Bonhams reports.
“All Rolls Royce cars included a custom tool set for roadside repairs,” Swig says, and the Maharaja’s ride was no different. The running boards were built with hinged lids that lift to reveal the tools nestled in velvet-lined cases.
The chassis plate on the firewall detailing the vehicle’s original serial number (No. 25RC) seems pretty basic compared to today’s 17-digit VIN numbers.
The 467-cubic inch engine–a straight six cylinder with overhead valves–is the original.
The car was discovered and purchased in India in 1968 by Christopher Renwick, who tracked down many treasures from India’s Maharaja era. It was brought to the United Kingdom at that time and to the United States in the mid 1970s. Restored more than once, it was originally painted dove gray but has sported a red finish since at least the 1980s, Swig says, and the original crocodile upholstery has been replaced by leather.
The Phantom made the rounds of the major car shows in the U.S. and won the first-in-class award at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, considered the top collector car show in the world. Now it’s available at public auction for what’s believed to be the first time. “It’s a truly stunning motor car,” Swig says. “It’s very unique, it has a very interesting history and it’s got a hell of a lot of eyeball. Media interest has been off the charts.” If that’s any gauge, the hunting rig custom-built for a Maharaja should be a major draw for high-end car enthusiasts looking to add a centerpiece to their collection. “It’s going to make someone very, very happy. This was one guy’s dream in 1925, and now it’s going to be another guy’s dream almost 90 years later.”