The Levit Wraith

The first coachbuilt Rolls-Royce orchestrated by Ayrspeed has now been completed and delivered to Chicago.

Final trial assembly. The car is a beauty. The tail is a tad long, but that’s balanced up by the long apron and faux chassis horns at the front.  

The 1950 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith rolling chassis had been around for a while, with a Weymann-style open touring ash and fabric body planned for it. The Wraith project was then pushed out of the way by a Bentley special, a MkVI parts car rescued and fitted with an aluminium boat-tailed body inspired by Type 35 Bugattis admired at French vintage racing events. This was a fascinating sculptural exercise, but did not end up as a beauty. The big vintage Phantom-style RR tourer was still the ultimate aim, and the Bentley was a sidetrack.

The surplus-to-requirements Bentley special was mentioned in a story in the RROC club magazine and put up for sale, to see if any other club member might want to take it on and finish it. Al Levit in Chicago read the story, which featured a drawing by Vancouver designer Brian Johnston. Al fell in love with the boat-tailed speedster idea, and asked if he could buy the Wraith chassis as well as the Bentley’s boat-tailed body, and also asked if he could commission Ayrspeed to build the car as a 1930s-style Rolls-Royce speedster, using Brian’s sketch for inspiration where that was practical. Brian had created an artist’s impression rather than a functional design drawing.

Did Iain want to sell his Rolls chassis with the Bentley body and build a big, spectacular, unique, properly funded motor car? Excellent idea, let’s do that. Ayrspeed the design company rose from its slumber, and conceptual thinking and sketching commenced.

The choice of craftsman for the mechanical, chassis and body frame work was Adam Trinder of, who was chosen because of clever, elegant, creative, economical work displayed in a Mini he had built with a bike engine in the back seat. He had retained both the Mini rear subframe and a fully functional boot space, and he offered a full machine shop and good engineering skills.

The coachbuilt Silver Wraiths had a long wheelbase of 127” compared to the MkVI Bentley’s more reasonable 120”. This chassis allows plenty of length for either a large Phantom-style open four-seat tourer or a truly spectacular two-door speedster.
The Wraith chassis is mocked up to see how it’s going to look as a car. Lots of room for a Vanden Plas style open touring body. Mudguards shown here are 1930s Talbot: they weren’t used in the end.
Brian Johnston’s sketch, very grubby from frequent referral to it during the design stage in Adam’s workshop.
This how we design cars. Sketching has its place, but you can’t beat hands-on 3D design action to get it right. 

The original 4¼-litre Rolls engine came with the Silver Wraith, but in 1950 these engines still had design faults, and this one had not been rebuilt. It will remain with the car, but it has been replaced in the engine bay by the biggest and best of the postwar RR and Bentley straight sixes: in the final 4.9-litre Silver Cloud incarnation of the engine from 1955 to 1957, all the issues have been ironed out, and its power and torque are certainly “adequate”. This particular 4.9 engine was rebuilt by Tom Mellor, Vancouver RROC tech consultant, who has persuaded a 1970s Triumph Trident motorcycle to top 200mph at Bonneville. So he knows whereof he speaks.

With the team of contractors in place, the orchestration of the car began. It was designed with only basic sketching and with no computers, initially by mocking up shapes and parts in Iain’s garage, and then for real in Adam Trinder’s workshop, by the simplistic but reliable method of doing it by doing it.

There are rules for vintage car design.The front axle must be on or behind the front axle line. The bonnet must tilt down at the front by 1-3 degrees. An Ayrspeed rule is that the car must be genuinely drivable for long-distance use, so the seat has to be both a proper car seat and mounted high enough for a proper driving position. Most low flat-floor Bentley specials fail in this. We sit on a milk crate or box on the chassis, and move it around until its position on the car feels right. Then we stand back and look at the driving position and thus where the cockpit and doors will be. Is the relationship between the longish front of the car and the less long back of the car pleasing? Move the crate (and the future cockpit) back and forth to find the optimum position.

The chassis of the Wraith is 7” longer than the MkVI Bentley. It’s a little too long for a two-seater, but Al previously had a bad hip, now successfully restored, and we needed to design in long doors that could be leaned on, so we made it work. Iain also nipped a little off the back of the chassis. We balance the car’s height against its length: the higher it is, the less over-long the tail will look. We know the minimum height of the car’s body, dictated by the seats. Its final height is a visual judgment call.

The 2018 Bentley special was a sidetrack: its body was destined for the Wraith, but it was the wrong shape for a Rolls. It will be developed as Beast I, a prototype for a series of supercharged MkVI specials specials planned by Ayrspeed for 2023. Check out the Beast section of the website.

Make the judgment; Adam measures where Iain’s hand is, tacks some steel in place, job done. Adam also cut the bulkheads and, delightfully, cut down the heads of the front bulkhead’s securing bolts in a lathe so that they looked like big rivets. Okay, that is much of the base design achieved. The gear lever has to be where Al’s hand expects to find it, and that, combined with the radiator position and a semi-rule that you ideally move the engine towards the centre of the car to reduce its polar moment of inertia, dictates the ideal engine position as well. Gear levers can be slightly angled, but we don’t want a weird unnatural shift action. The steering wheel must also please and must fall to hand, so the steering box is repositioned on the chassis, and the angle of the steering column is set.  The milk crate comes out again for that. The radiator’s position is dictated by the front axle line rule, but its height is now fixed – it’s an inch below the centre of the main bulkhead. If the engine is here, the pedals need to be here, although luckily they’re Rolls-Royce pedals so the pads are adjustable by a few inches. The rear bulkhead position is more flexible, but the cutaways on the suicide doors must have a pleasing curve, and the suicide doors will hang from the rear bulkhead.  The cutaways have to be low and sexy enough to please Al, but not so low that they scare his wife with the road visibly whizzing past.

As the shapes of the body frame design themselves, Adam Trinder is tacking steel body tubing in place with Iain, then later finish-welding it all in position, while Iain comes by a few times a week to steer the project and to fit the car to himself – luckily he’s the same size as Al, so if the car fits the designer it will fit the owner. A car has to be drivable by both Kylie Minogue and Jason Momoa, so there has to be full adjustability in the driving position. The Wraith has enough flexibility in the seat rails and backrest bracing and pedals for any size person to drive the Wraith: this turned out to be wise, as Al’s wife Lana also loves this car and will be learning to drive a manual gearbox so that she can enjoy it.

Adam creates an exquisite set of exhaust manifolds, running down to a custom 3” bore exhaust system with a resonator box but no silencer.
Dashboard, scuttle and new bulkhead in heavy aluminum. There will be no scuttle shake in this car.
Designed with long bottoms for easy and comfy access, the doors work well, and a little more of the tops are chopped off to give Al all the elbow room he wants.
The Smiths Classic clocks looked 1950s rather than 1930s, so we redesigned them with new faces, using period type fonts from the Glasgow School in 1912. Macintosh was a huge influence on the Art Deco movement anyway, so the typeface works perfectly. RR logos, Jaeger logos and the notations in French complete the illusion.
The finished instruments. They were reworked with period fonts by Mrs Ayre, who is usefully a graphic designer.A pleasing fudge was translating the logo on the period-inappropriate voltmeter as “Puissance Electrique” or just electric power.
The dashboard is a work of art, carved in solid Canadian maple to tone with the nickel plating, by local cabinetmaker Greg Sharpe. Clock is the real thing from the 1920s.

One excellent innovation for Ayrspeed and for Al has been the Sunday report. Every Sunday evening, Iain sits down with a glass of Laphroaig and writes Al a report on the week’s progress. This creates discipline. It makes sure Iain doesn’t get sidetracked and keeps his eye on the ball, it means at least one weekly physical visit to the car to take photos to send, and a discussion of progress with the relevant craftsman. It also imposes a regular time to stand back and look at the project, and helps to keep a firm grip on all aspects of the build. The chassis visibly wears some of its history: it is a real post-vintage coachbuilt Rolls getting a new body, and we’re not pretending otherwise.

With the main structure and bones of the car finished, the Wraith was drivable and after brief winter road testing, the skinning of the frames and chassis began. The direction of the project then changed, and the cost and timescale quadrupled. From a cool speedster, it evolved into a world-class 1930-styled show car valued by Hagerty at half a million dollars. One of the brutally expensive but worthwhile decisions was to replace all the chrome plating on the car with nickel: its warm colour changes the whole visual feel of the car, and locks it in the period as well.

The wooden buck for the aluminium Bentley body was cut down to make the narrower RR body.  None of the Bentley body panels ended up being used, as the sharp Greek-temple RR grille dictated a completely different approach.
A wire buck is made, referring to the coal-scuttle shapes of the Brian Johnston sketch, and then the wire frame goes into service as a tool for making the mudguards. Unlike wood, it doesn’t burn and thus contaminate welds.
The sixteen pieces of mudguards are welded together and checked for shape constantly against the buck. The mudguards have a pleasing but brutally expensive reverse curve at their tails: each mudguard is in the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars.

This upscale change of direction was a conscious decision made with Al the owner, and the end result approached perfection, until the body contractor amputated the front apron and faux chassis horns at the front of the car, and the paint colours went wrong. The mistakes will be corrected in Scotland ready for the car’s eventual formal debut on the Ayrspeed stand at Retromobile in Paris.