Saturday, May 06, 2017

the strange cars of Nubar Gulbenkian, his taxis and Rolls Royces (thanks Dave!)

He had two Austin FX4 London taxis re-bodied for him in true brougham style, upright at the back with gold plated carriage lamps and an open chauffeur’s compartment. They were fitted with Rolls Royce engines.

They were built by FLM Panelcraft in Battersea, and at least one had wickerwork covered side panels.

Gulbenkian is supposed to have said two things about these conversions. First, that ‘it will turn on a sixpence – whatever that is’ and second to the effect that he liked his driver to be exposed to the elements since he never felt totally dry unless he could see someone who was totally wet.

“I wanted my taxi dolled-up, more comfortable inside and more distinguished outside, without losing its mobility. People recognize it. After a party or an opening they come and tell me where it is and I don’t have to wait.”

Nubar Gulbekian, one of the richest men in the world in his day. An Armenian business magnate born in the Ottoman empire, he was smuggled out to escape the genocide when only weeks old, in a Gladstone suitcase.

Nubar Sarkis Gulbenkian (1896-1972) was a British industrialist, philanthropist, bon vivant, oil tycoon, socialite, commercial attache to the Iranian Embassy (1926-51, 1955-56), he was one of the world's wealthiest men. He wore a monocle with aplomb, and a fresh orchid every day - custom-dyed if nature did not already provide a color suitable to the occasion. He held an Iranian, Turkish, and British citizenship.

 Son of multimillionaire financier Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, nicknamed “Mr. Five Percent” because that was his usual cut on Middle Eastern oil and who owned possibly the world’s greatest art collection.

His father created a utopian foundation with 450 million dollars, his family got a five percent cut of the crude oil pumped from Iraq. While filling out a market research form one day, Gulbenkian answered the question "Position in life." with "Enviable!"

He was married three times, "I've had good wives, as wives go, and as wives go, two of them went". In 1922, he married Herminia Fejo. In 1928, he married Dora Freeland (aka Doré Plowden) in London.

 He courted Marie Berthe Edmée de Ayala, daughter of the French champagne tycoon Louis d'Ayala, for 14 years before they married in 1948.

Gulbenkian began as an unpaid worker for his father, who was as noted for his miserly tendencies as his son would be for his spending, but later sued his father for $10 million, bizarrely after a refusal by the company to allow him $4.50 for a lunch of chicken in tarragon jelly.

It derived from Nubar’s taste for fine food – in this instance, a lunch of chicken in tarragon jelly with asparagus tips. When he was working for his father, Nubar had the meal sent into his office and allowed it to be paid for out of petty cash. His father was furious. Overreacting in turn to his father’s anger, Nubar took him to court to claim his share of the profits of a Gulbenkian subsidiary in Canada. By the time the argument was settled, the court costs amounted to $84,000, which the elder Gulbenkian paid. “That,” says Nubar, “was surely the most expensive chicken in history.”

Although he ultimately inherited $2.5 million from his father, as well as more in a settlement from the Foundation, Gulbenkian also became independently wealthy through his own oil dealings. He was initially the protégé of Henri Deterding at Royal Dutch Shell

Nubar was interviewed in Life magazine in Oct 1965

His autobiography, Portrait In Oil, in which he discusses not only his finances but his voracious appetite for preferred pleasures like foxhunting, riding, food, drink, the odes of Horace, and driving, which he took up shortly after his 65th birthday.

A genial man with the sexual mores of a Turkish pasha and the impeccable manners of an Oxford gentleman, Gulbenkian wrote an elegantly self-mocking, vastly entertaining book.

Early in life he approached the subject of women with gusto, although there is no evidence that he ever approached it with the same enthusiasm as his father. That august gentleman, on advice of physician, had a mistress no older than 18, which he changed every year, until he was 80.

Portrait in Oil: The Autobiography of Nubar Gulbenkian

Nubar Gulbenkian's very unique 1947 Silver Wraith was the result of car production almost ceasing during World War II so Gulbenkian suggested to Hooper to build a car as though the war had never happened. It would show just what car design WOULD have evolved to, and was dubbed ‘Pantechnicon’

Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith by Hooper for Nubar Gulbenkian
 Perspex Roof 1956
 Intended for use in the South of France, this car has a transparent Perspex roof with an electrically operated fabric inner blind to keep the interior cool. The interior woodwork and dashboard are trimmed in leather. It has a speedometer fitted in the rear passenger compartment, air conditioning, electric windows.

He eventually sold the car, and it had a brief appearance as a movie prop in the 1964 French motion picture, Les Félins (released in the USA as Joy House and the UK as The Love Cage) which starred Hanoi Jane Fonda and Alain Delon.

in 1968 a nightclub owner in Nice France bought the car and parked it inside the club, so patrons could sit in it and order drinks.

Years pass and a French employee of a British used Rolls dealer steps into the nightclub, sees the car and bells go off in his head. He knows a bespoke Rolls when he sees one. He buys it, but there is this problem, the door that it came into the club has been walled up. No problem, a sledgehammer is proffered, the wall is broken down and the car liberated.

it went to auction with Bonhams in 2008


  1. Fascinating stuff! Thanks.

  2. A 'sixpence' is British for a 'flat cap'.

    "That august gentleman, on advice of physician, had a mistress no older than 18, which he changed every year, until he was 80." (My kind of doctor...)

  3. I think the sixpence meant here is the link meaning; a small coin, not headgear. You have "turns on a dime" in American, and the same in many other languages.

    I think "whatever that is" was this very rich man's joke, perhaps mainly on himself: that he didn't know there were such small denominations of money.