Cars have always been a fixture within pop culture, present in stories told in books and movies, and sometimes even in song. From Herbie the Love Bug to the Dodge Challenger in 1971’s Vanishing Point, cars have always been a source of fascination in fiction, and are often as much the heroes of the stories as the people driving them. The other side is the use of cars as villains, such as with Stephen King’s Christine, a book in which a 1958 Plymouth Fury is possessed by a vengeful spirit and commits a variety of murders before being destroyed.
A recent novel, NOS4A2, by Joe Hill, happens to focus on the 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith as its villain, the weapon of a man named Charlie Manx who uses it to drive children into a world that literally exists in his mind, which he calls “Christmasland.” Once the children are driven there, they cannot escape. NOS4A2, the title and the license plate on the Wraith, is a play on “nosferatu,” a word associated with vampires due to F.W. Murnau’s famous 1922 film, Nosferatu.
Although Charlie Manx is the main antagonist, the Wraith has a will of its own, shutting its doors or driving itself, or trapping victims in a “pocket universe” in the backseat. The Wraith also drains the life from those within, transferring the energy to Charlie Manx and allowing him to heal or to remain young forever. It is up to a troubled biker named Victoria McQueen to stop Manx (with her restored Triumph motorcycle, no less), whom she simply calls “The Wraith.” The image of the Wraith slicing up a drive through the fog, its narrow headlights like two eyes, becomes a frankly terrifying image by the end of the novel.
The Rolls Royce Wraith itself was a very rare pre-war model, produced over only 2 years, 1938-1939, before production ceased due to World War II. In all, there were only 491 Wraiths ever made. It was meant to be an updated 25/30, and had the same engine, a 4257 cc Straight 6, but with larger valves and new crankshaft. The chassis was now welded rather than riveted, and was designed along the Phantom III lines, but on a smaller scale. The wheelbase was 136.0 inches, extended 4 inches from the 25/30, and the car was heavier. It was not much faster than the 25/30, maxing out at about 80 mph.
After the war, production on the Wraith never restarted, and instead Rolls Royce began building the new Silver Wraith, which was similar to the pre-war Wraith in that it shared the cylinder block and gearbox, as well as a similar chassis. However, the head was changed to an inlet-over-exhaust model, and over time a variety of other changes were made. The production of Silver Wraiths would continue until 1959.
The Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection contains a variety of photographs of both the 1938-1939 Wraith as well as the post-war Silver Wraith models. While processing the collection, I was thrilled to come across images of the very car that had been so recently haunting me as I read NOS4A2, and to be able to see the car as it was first presented to the world, especially considering the rarity of the 1938-1939 model.
Strangely enough, Rolls Royce announced in January of this year a new Wraith, which of course looks nothing like the 1938-1939 model, but was declared by Rolls Royce to be “the most potent and technologically advanced Rolls-Royce in history.” Some of the promotional footage is eerily similar to the imagery in NOS4A2, the lights slicing through the fog once again, perhaps hunting another victim in a new form.
Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1356-1361.
Sedgwick, M. and Gilles, M., A-Z Cars of the 1930s; Bideford, Devon: Bay View Books, 1989, p. 169.
Annalise Berdini is a Z. Taylor Vinson Collection summer intern in the Imprints Department at Hagley Museum and Library.