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tom hawthorn

Mechanic Jim Walters is the only person allowed to drive John Lennon's old Rolls-Royce Phantom V, shown Tuesday in the Royal BC Museum.

Rolls-Royce painted it black. John Lennon had other ideas.

His car is parked in the lobby of the Royal B.C. Museum, a surprise attraction for those exploring the history of the province. The Rolls travelled a long and winding road from London's Carnaby Street to Spain to Manhattan to South Carolina before ending up in a city Mr. Lennon never visited.

Only one person is allowed to drive the car. Jim Walters, a 56-year-old mechanic and proprietor of Bristol Motors, is named on the insurance forms. He recently drove the Rolls off a flatbed truck before squeezing the car between double cars and easing it to a stop in front of the museum's ticket desk.

The body is painted a garish yellow with flowers on the door and signs of the zodiac on the roof, all framed by fanciful scrollwork.

The car is so valuable now that it can no longer be driven on city streets. It last had a spin along the Pat Bay Highway three years ago. Before that, it was even piloted as far afield as Seattle by Mr. Walters.

"It floats down the road," he said. "Very, very smooth and quiet. Absolutely silent. You don't feel bumps like you would in a normal car. You don't feel the transmission shifting. No clunk, or jump."

What's it like to drive a car that has ferried the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, and Elton John?

"You feel like you're in another world. It feels like you're back in the 1960s."

In 1965, shortly after getting his driver's license at age 24, the famous Beatle bought a sports car and a luxury car. The latter was a Rolls-Royce Phantom V Limousine, serial number 5VD73, painted a sober shade known as "Valentine black." The Phantom was the carriage of choice for the upper classes. The Fab Four rode in Mr. Lennon's new limousine to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) medals from the Queen.

Soon after, Mr. Lennon had the rear bench modified to convert into a Pullman-style double bed, a shagadelic bit of interior decorating. A radio telephone was added, followed by a television, a refrigerator, and a floating turntable for some 45-rpm rock 'n' rolls. A loud-hailer was also installed, so that he could address people outside the cocoon of his luxury ride.

The Rolls was shipped to Spain, where Mr. Lennon was portraying Gripweed, a private, in the filming of the anti-war comedy How I Won the War. A chauffeur drove him to and from the set, and the blowing sands of the arid Spanish soil, as well as the limousine's low clearance, necessitated repairs on his return to England.

Inspired by an old gypsy caravan he had bought for his garden, Mr. Lennon ordered his Rolls to be painted in a similar motif. An English coach builder commissioned the artist Steve Weaver to paint the Romany-inspired flourishes, which are often mistaken for psychedelia. The repainted car was delivered to Mr. Lennon, along with a bill for £290, on May 25, 1967.

One tale, perhaps apocryphal, describes an elderly woman setting upon the car with her umbrella while yelling, "You swine! You swine! How dare you do this to a Rolls-Royce?"

The vehicle followed Mr. Lennon and Yoko Ono to New York after the Beatles broke up, though the crowded streets of Manhattan did not prove welcoming to a behemoth stretching more than six metres.

The couple donated the car to a museum in 1978 in exchange for a tax credit. It soon wound up in storage. In 1985, five years after Mr. Lennon was shot to death by a deranged fan, the car was placed for auction with Sotheby's, which expected to fetch about $300,000 (U.S.).

A fierce bidding war was won by Jimmy Pattison, the Vancouver entrepreneur and car dealer, who bid a shocking $2.2-million for the car, which he wished to place in his Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museums. It was displayed for a time in South Carolina, before being put on exhibit in a glass case outdoors during Expo 86 in Vancouver.

Mr. Pattison donated the Rolls to the province. It spent several years at an automotive museum in suburban Vancouver before winding up in the hands of the Royal B.C. Museum.

In 1993, Mr. Walters was contracted by the museum to maintain the vehicle. He had been shocked to discover it beneath an old parachute in an underground garage in which pigeons had taken roost.

Some of the chrome yellow paint had flaked, so he undertook the painstaking task of repairing the paint job without altering the hand-painted gypsy flourishes.

For years, the car could be found in his shop on Chatham Street, near Chinatown, a gobsmacking sight for the unsuspecting. "It blew a lot of minds," Mr. Walters said. These days, the Rolls is usually stored in a climate-controlled warehouse in suburban Saanich. On occasion the museum presents it for display.

One repair remains. He haunts thrift stores in search of a 1967 portable, black-and-white Sony television to replace the original that has gone missing.

To keep the car in running order, it needs to be taken for a spin.

Mr. Walters thinks the solution is to rent Western Speedway and have a street sweeper clean the debris from weekend races. "Get all the seals lubricated," he said. "Oil pumped through everything."

Of course, he will be behind the wheel.

Otherwise, baby, you cannot drive the car. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. Yeah.

On Feb. 5 in Paris, the British auction house Bonhams will be selling Mr. Lennon's first automobile, a blue 1965 Ferrari 330 GT. The auctioneer's upper estimate for Lot 363 is €170,000 (about $226,000). The Beatle bought the Ferrari in April, 1965. Six weeks later, he took delivery of his Rolls.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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