Governor-General David Hurley visited Duntroon military college on the morning of 12 June, 2021, for the Queen’s Birthday Parade. The guns were fired, the Honours List was published, and as a nation we celebrated the official birthday of Her Majesty with a long weekend.
But in all this, we can’t gloss over the car the Governor-General and Mrs Hurley arrived in for the occasion.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison may be chauffeured around in a fully armoured BMW 7 Series, but the best of the best is saved for the Queen’s representative. No other car gathers as many ‘oohs and aahs’ quite like a sparkling black Rolls-Royce.
The 1970 Phantom VI is one of only two in government use in Australia. The other is a dark-blue model acquired by the Office of the Governor in Queensland.
It emerges from behind the gates at Government House in Yarralumla for ceremonial occasions, such as the swearing in of a new Governor-General, the opening of parliament, or the Queen’s Birthday Parade. Other uses include chauffeuring foreign diplomats to and from Government House.
There is also usually a Government House open day every year where members of the public have the opportunity to get up close to it, although COVID-19 has curtailed these for the moment.
So to get a closer look at this regal Uber, I’ve been invited to the grounds for a little private tour.
The Rolls-Royce lives in a converted stable on the grounds of Government House, alongside a Holden Caprice and several pushbikes. Waking it up is similar to waking up your grandfather – there’s some coughing and throat-clearing, and the odd fart. But soon enough graceful poise is resumed and it’s rolling out into the daylight.
And what a beast it is.
Norm Dunn has been here nearly as long as the car itself, initially working as one of two full-time drivers, but now filling more of a stand-in role. He talks me through it.
A total of 371 Phantom VIs were hand-built by Rolls-Royce, with the bodywork and interior done by Mulliner Park Ward in London – each one taking about two years to complete. All up, it measures close to six metres long and weighs nearly three tonnes.
Beneath the signature Rolls-Royce ‘Spirit of Ecstacy’ mascot and hefty bonnet sits a 6.2-litre V8 engine, although Rolls-Royce prefers we call it ‘two banks of four’. This engine is coupled to a four-speed automatic gearbox.
Leather, wood and plush carpet dominate the interior, along with other luxuries such as a small drinks cabinet, silk blinds on all the windows, and a sliding glass partition behind the driver so you can comment on his combover without him hearing. It’s a veritable living room on wheels.
Norm also points out the folding dickey seats, although adds they’re probably best reserved for corgis given the size.
And, yes, the Queen herself has sat back here on her occasional visits to Canberra. A blue light on the roof marks whenever Her Majesty is inside, otherwise it’s just the three flags on the front and two brass hand-painted crown motifs front and back for the Governor-General.
When it comes time for routine maintenance, it’s driven to Moss Vale to a mechanic who specialises in old Rolls-Royces. Even with the crowns removed and normal ACT plates screwed in their place, Norm says there have been several near-misses en route from overtakers trying to wave and gawk.
Now that it’s warmed up and firing on all cylinders, we waft about the grounds in it, and never – on this side of the world at least – has a car suited its surroundings more.
As for its future, Norm tells me Government House used to own two Phantom VIs but the cost of maintenance pushed one out. Despite the royal connection, it’s still classified as a government car and as such its fate was no more auspicious than that of any other government car: it was sold on a Pickles auction lot.
From here, it could be onto anything from a quiet life in a collector’s shed to an off-road, cross-county rally.
Certainly that was the case for one of the Federal Government Rolls-Royces in 1995, which was sold to a Sydney doctor. He went on to do what you’d expect anyone to do with a classic Rolls and entered it in the 1997 Peking to Paris challenge, where it came to be known as ‘Lizzie’s Taxi’. It did finish and Australia came in fourth place.
But here’s hoping this beautiful beast holds its current job for a long while yet.