We all remember those adverts in Exchange & Mart for a vintage car that we dreamed of owning: 1928 Rolls Royce Convertible, low mileage, excellent condition for its age, one careful owner from new, used for church on Sundays, low price to a good home. In most cases, when we rolled-up to inspect our potential prize, the truth would be somewhat disappointing, in either having to chase the chickens out of their improvised coop or contemplate the tree that had grown up through the cab over many years, which would need to be cut down before the surviving hulk could be moved.
The 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom 1 Piccadilly Roadster in the picture above, however, did fit that description when it’s owner disposed of it back in 2005. I became aware of it when one of those much-forwarded e-mails arrived in my inbox the other day from a good friend who knows of my interest in this type of vehicle. I often send these on, as he had, to other friends, but having been caught-out several times in past years, I now check their voracity on sites such as Snopes before I do so. Much to my delight, although it had been in circulation for some seven years, I found the contents of this one to be mainly accurate, apart from the car’s claimed mileage which had acquired an extra zero at some time in its many iterations. What the e-mail didn’t tell, however, was the interesting heritage of the car, and the story of the remarkable man who owned it.
The gentleman in the photograph was the owner of the car, and is referred to as Allen Swift in various articles across the web, most of which emanate from a combination of the chain e-mail and a short press release from the Springfield Museums of Massachusetts. The e-mail story goes that he was given the car as a graduation gift from his father in 1928, and he owned it right up to a couple of months before his death in 2005, at the grand age of 102, when he donated it to the museum, along with one million dollars in cash to enable them to purchase the building that it now resides in. My e-mail said that the car had done … 1,070,000 miles, still runs like a Swiss watch, dead silent at any speed and is in perfect cosmetic condition.
Most of that is true, except for the mileage, which is ‘only’ 170,000 miles. The owner’s full name was Matthew Allen Swift, and although there is no record of whether the car was given to him on his graduation, his family would certainly have been able to afford such a gift. Because Mr Swift was the third generation of his family to bear the Christian name of Matthew, and to enter the family firm of M Swift & Sons of West Hartford, Connecticut, at that time one of the largest manufacturers of gold leaf in the world.
Hand-beating of gold was a well-established industry in Hartford when Matthew Allen Swift’s grandfather arrived there from Sheffield, England, in 1864. A skilled metalworker, he soon found employment with J M Ney & Co, the largest company of its type at that time. During his near-25 years with them, he worked on a prestigious contract to supply 4,000 square feet of gold leaf for the dome of the State Capitol building. In 1887 he left to set-up on his own, working initially from a clapperboard house he built on a plot of land he had purchased in Love Lane. By the mid-1890s, the company had moved into a workshop erected on the same site, and in 1902 M Swift & Sons was listed as the largest gold-beating firm in Connecticut employing 32 workers, half of whom were women; this was four times the number working for his old employer.
When the grandfather died in 1912, the company passed to his two sons Matthew H Swift and Ernest Swift. The younger of the two, Ernest, was a gifted engineer and inventor, who worked on developing machinery to automate parts of the manufacturing process. When he died three years later, at the age of just 35, full control of the company passed to his elder brother, Matthew Allen’s father. It was he that oversaw the expansion of the business which included the finalisation of a patent originally registered by Ernest for a roll for holding metallic films for printing. This essentially revolutionised the use of gold foils in the printing industry by providing the material in roll form, enabling gold-blocking of book covers to be automated.
With the success this brought to the company, a manufacturing plant was erected in Love Lane, which had doubled in size by 1928, when the company was incorporated and the 25-year-old Matthew Allen Swift became one of its three directors. In 1930 the company, which by then employed more than 150, won a contract from Argentina to supply 100,000 gold leaves a month for two years, the first time that an American business had won such a deal in South America, a market then-dominated by European suppliers. This enabled the company to diversify into using similar processes on other metals, and by 1936 it was responsible for supplying 99% of the beaten-aluminium used for manufacturing photographic flash bulbs.
Matthew Allen Swift was a significant influence on these developments, and by the end of World War Two he had succeeded his father as Chief Executive of the company, a position he would hold for more than sixty years. During that time he oversaw the introduction of infra-red technology for curing the foils, which led to the creation of a process for creating ‘Golden Touch’ decals that allowed the application of gold leaf in greater quantities by less-skilled craftsmen. He also won the contract for regilding the dome of the State Capitol that his grandfather had worked on nearly 100 years previously.
By 1968 the factory in Love Lane had expanded to 61,000 square feet, and housed over 500 workers, but the removal of the gold-standard in that year marked the turning-point for the industry. That, together with changes in aesthetic tastes fuelled by advances in polymer and composite materials, brought a gradual decline in demand, and by the time that Matthew Allen was interviewed by the local newspaper on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2003, most of the plant was no longer in use. Remarkably, he was still the Chief Executive of the company, which had undergone a small renaissance through demand created by the crafts of picture frame and hand-bound book restoration.
After his death two years later, the company closed its doors for the final time, and the factory site fell silent. Having suffered some dilapidation, in 2010 the family gave the entire site to the local community, and it has now been listed as a place of National Historic Interest. In 2011, work began on restoring the buildings, including the original house and workshop, and returning them to use as part of a newly-designated Historic District.
It was just two months prior to his death that Matthew Allen Swift made his donations to the Springfield Museum, in Massachusetts, about thirty miles north of Hartford. The cash donation enabled the purchase of disused building for the creation of a new Museum of Springfield History, and the significance of the car being housed in that building is that Springfield was the home of Rolls Royce’s first American manufacturing plant from 1920 to 1931, during which time nearly 3000 cars were produced there, one of which was Mr Swift’s Phantom.
Today the car takes pride of place in the first floor automobile gallery, alongside a 1925 Silver Ghost originally owned by the founder of Friendly’s Ice Cream, and several examples from the Stevens, Duryea, Knox and Atlas Motor Companies which were also manufactured in Springfield. The floor above houses a magnificent collection of Indian motorcycles, made in the town between 1901 and 1953, and hanging from the ceiling is a beautifully-made replica of a Gee-Bee R1 air racer, made by local aircraft company Granville Brothers. This was the plane piloted to victory in the 1932 Thompson Trophy by Jimmy Doolittle, who later became one of America’s most famous pilots of World War Two.
All-in-all the museum is a gilt-edged tribute to a man who may not only have been one of the oldest-ever chief executives of a company, but probably also holds the world record, at 77 years, for the longest ownership of one car from new.