CC Biography: John Blatchley of Rolls-Royce.

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For 24 years John Blatchley was responsible for the styling of Rolls-Royce automobiles that were decidedly stately, always proper and sometimes quite beautiful. He brought to the world shapes so iconic they spring to mind immediately as the pinnacle of quality and prestige for even those most uninterested in motor cars. He helped transition the famed grille into the post-war body, and set in place cues and proportions that are still referred to today. Despite his significant legacy he was never as famous as his peers, which is how he preferred things.

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Prior to WWII, when you wished to purchase a Rolls-Royce or Bentley (swallowed up by RR in 1931), you chose from a range of preferred coachbuilders for the body. Rolls supplied the running chassis and firms such as Hooper, Barker, HJ Mulliner, James Young, Park Ward and a selection of others would provide the coachwork – with styling approval from Rolls-Royce, of course.

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One such prestigious coachbuilder was J Gurney Nutting & Co. This firm enjoyed royal patronage and had also provided the bodywork for Malcom Campbell’s 1931 Blue Bird. In 1935 AF McNeil – in charge of styling at Gurney Nutting hired a young man named John Blatchley.

McNeil left Gurney Nutting for James Young in 1936, and at the tender age of 23 Blatchley was promoted to chief stylist. He was to maintain a long friendship with McNeil. These sketches of his demonstrate an unerring eye for proportion, volume and line within the late pre-war style.

1940 brought a standstill to orders at Gurney Nutting and John, unable to enlist, spent the war years designing aircraft cowlings for Rolls-Royce Aero Division.

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Towards the end of the war Blatchley heard whispers of an all-steel factory body for the post-war Rolls-Royce and applied to be part of the project. Unable to leave his war duties until 1945, the nascent Rolls-Royce Car Division Styling Department did a commendable, if uninspiring, job of the first ever ‘factory’ body for Rolls-Royce in his absence. The shape of the Mark VI was apparently drawn from a 1939 Park Ward body. Upon arrival, Blatchley only had time to provide the interior as well as redesign the door pillars in order to conceal exposed hinges.

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With panels manufactured by Pressed Steel of Coventry, and assembled by Rolls-Royce at their Crewe facilities, the 1946 Bentley Mark VI was joined by the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn three years later. British manufacturers, still on rationed supplies, were very strongly encouraged to export their product. Internationally, the Mark VI was welcomed, if not completely embraced.

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Other projects were in development early. The top two images show cars under consideration for the 4 cylinder Bentley ‘Junior’ range. Top left is a miniaturised version of the Mk VI shape. Top right, in a rendering by Blatchley, shows a ‘Junior’ bearing a face very similar to the pre-war ‘Corniche’ with which Evernden had been involved.

Bottom left is the Abbott-bodied Bentley Farnham, and bottom right is the Park Ward-bodied Bentley Estoril, both styled by Blatchley as initial concepts for the next ‘new’ model. Clearly, experimentation with the Bentley ‘face’ was taking place. Both bear the Bentley logo, so these exotic designs were not an attempt to obscure the marque.

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The 1948 or 1949 Bentley Blizzard. There is scant information on this car; but it appears this was being developed in the vein of the Jaguar XK120.

Ivan Evernden, Chief Projects Engineer and head of the Styling Department, had styled cars for Rolls-Royce in the past. By this time it appears he was leaving the shaping to his team; providing general instructions mostly, specific instructions occasionally and approving work. John Blatchley was the senior stylist, with Cecily Jenner and Bill Allen comprising the rest of the styling staff.

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In 1951 the Mark IV received a slight makeover from Blatchley including a larger boot and a more graceful tail. The Bentley became the ‘R’ type while Rolls-Royce retained the name ‘Silver Dawn’.

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One very notable variation of the Bentley R type was the 1952 Bentley Continental Sports Saloon with body built by HJ Mulliner. This beautiful shape had long been attributed to Blatchley, but in his retirement he was to deny this.

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“It was difficult not to be influenced by the American cars, and I was particularly amazed by the Cadillacs.” John Blatchley discussing American cars of the 40’s and 50’s with Giles Chapman of Classic and Sports Car in 1996.

I will return to this model in depth tomorrow.

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In 1951, the Rolls-Royce Styling Department moved from Clan Foundry, Belper to a light and airy studio at the Crewe facilities in picturesque Cheshire. Ivan Evernden took up another post within the company and John Blatchley was officially promoted to head of the three-person team. Here he is working on the later ‘Aspidistra’ project with Jenner and Allen in their new home.

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The Mk VIII project was the projected replacement of the Mk VI/R type. Early in this project, the above prototype was built positioning the engine, radiator and cabin further forward on the Mk VI/ R type chassis. Though only an engineering test mule, it was not considered an acceptable option.

As the project progressed it went from the MkVIII to the MkIX. Chief Engineer Harry Grylls – exasperated with so many Marks – decided experimental projects for Rolls-Royce were to henceforth be named after far-eastern countries. And so the MkIX was named ‘Siam’. And Siam became the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Bentley S series.

The transition from the MkVIII to the MkIX/Siam took an interesting turn…

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“I spent years working on one full-size mockup of ‘the new car’ only to be told when it was finished to put it on the bonfire. It was too modern. So I was asked to do a quick sketch of something more traditional, more in keeping with the Rolls image, which I did in about 10 minutes. It was taken into a board meeting and they decided to make it there and then.” Blatchley would tell Giles Chapman.

Although the differences may appear negligible to 21st century eyes, Blatchley’s efforts on the MkVIII to place the headlights in the fenders and to maintain a high top edge and relatively flat side to the front fenders as they trailed over the rear doors was clearly too modern for the Rolls-Royce board in 1951.

The lower image is John Blatchley’s ‘10 minute’ sketch.

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Despite its rushed birth, the 1955 Silver Cloud/S series was an instant classic. Blatchley delivered a powerful sea-vessel ploughing through teeming waves. With its haughty greenhouse and rounded volumes it was the epitome of aristocratic grandeur. Where the Silver Dawn looked as sparse as a ration coupon, the Silver Cloud was the brimming expression of the good life.

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The Silver Cloud underwent two major upgrades during its ten year lifespan. In 1959, it received a new V8 replacing the straight six. In Bentley terms, this became the S2. For 1962 – in anticipation of their upcoming replacements – the Silver Cloud III and Bentley S3 received quad headlamps and turning lights were positioned at the leading edge of the re-profiled fenders.

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There is perhaps no shape that better represents a Rolls-Royce. Even when it’s a Bentley.

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An interesting side note to the Silver Cloud/S series. The above image appears in a 1953 Bentley marketing brochure featuring the work of coachbuilder James Young. The similarities with the 1955-launched Silver Cloud/Bentley S1 are striking and I don’t think its just coincidence. I suspect Rolls-Royce had Blatchley pass the Silver Cloud shape to his old mentor AF McNeil – by now a Director at James Young – and it was presented in the brochure as the ‘James Young Four Door Sports Saloon’ as a discrete method of gauging customer response. That it appears in branded Bentley literature after the decision to proceed with the Silver Cloud/S strongly suggests this.

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As Chief Styling Engineer for Rolls-Royce, Blatchley also enjoyed responsibility for shaping the output of coachbuilder Park Ward, owned by Rolls since 1939. One such project was ‘Aspidistra’, the 1959 Park Ward Phantom V.

This was the Silver Cloud spread out cleanly. The proportions are perfect, the greenhouse far more in equilibrium with the body. The wings flow superbly, but this is a much crisper design than the Silver Cloud. It’s a personal favourite of mine. Based on a lengthened Silver Cloud chassis, it was the largest Rolls-Royce ever made and, by far, the most regal-looking of its peers.

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The 1950 Phantom IV prototype with the ‘Scalded Cat’ engine had so impressed the Duke of Edinburgh, it enabled Rolls Royce to wrest the Royal imprimatur from Daimler. The Phantom V (here in Royal ‘Canberra’ configuration) consolidated that position.

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A comparison with its local and continental contemporaries bears out the success of this design. The Daimler appears cumbersome, and the Armstrong Siddeley more so. The Lancia Flaminia is prettier but less regal; and the slightly later Mercedes Benz is too severely imperious. The Phantom V was developed into the Phantom VI with minimal exterior change and was in production until 1990.

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Park Ward also offered 2 door bodies on the Continental platform. At top is the R type styled by John Blatchley. This shape, with minor changes, was to become the S1 Park Ward body.

The S2 (middle) was styled by Vilhelm Koren who joined Blatchely’s department as senior styling engineer in 1957. It’s quite an extraordinary design, and the first ‘factory’ effort to use a straight through wingline. Koren’s original had single headlights; Blatchley replaced them with canted twinsets in 1963.

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Park Ward was used for another project, codenamed ‘Korea’. “The nearest thing to a four-seater Ferrari with traditional Bentley luxury and comfort.” Koren wrote later, recalling the brief. “We built two prototypes but the project was axed by the sales people as “too modern and too expensive” and did not go into production.” Koren was to leave Rolls-Royce after only 4 years.

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The heady days of the British coachbuilder were coming to an end. Of the 50 or so coachbuilders providing bodies for Rolls-Royce cars before the war, only 20 had survived by 1946. By 1961 there was only one independent coachbuilder exhibiting at the London Motor Show.

In 1959 HJ Mulliner was purchased by RR and amalgamated with Park Ward in 1961. Hooper, thought to be the creator of the ‘Rolls-Royce in the London fog’ that had inspired Bill Mitchell to produce the 1963 Buick Riviera, was reduced to building bodies for ice-cream trucks.

And as the final nail in the coffin, the next Rolls-Royce was to be built as a monocoque.

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In the mid 50s preparations began for the Silver Cloud/S series replacements. Coded ‘Tibet’ (top, circa 1958) and ‘Burma’ (bottom, circa 1960), it was initially decided to separate the marques with vehicles of different sizes, the Bentley intended as the smaller and sportier of the two. By the early 1960s the two projects had been merged into one, code named ‘SY’. These prototypes bear most of the styling hallmarks of the models that were to become known as the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Bentley T series.

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“Styling this car was very much an architectural exercise… The specification demanded it be lower, narrower and shorter with more luggage space, and a bigger petrol tank. It just had to be the ‘mostest’. My biggest challenge was getting all this paraphernalia, plus passengers, into a car that still looked all right.” recalled Blatchley to Chapman.

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While not quite the quantum leap demonstrated by Lincoln at the turn of the decade, the 1965 Silver Shadow was as far removed from the Silver Cloud as propriety would allow. Although it looks very linear when compared with its predecessor, it is actually a very subtle combination of curves.

And most significantly, it incorporated those trademark grilles without it appearing to have been an afterthought. Another difficult task accomplished with barely a murmur.

In its note-perfect solution to an immensely difficult brief, I find this model to be John Blatchley’s greatest achievement.

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It wasn’t just a range of fashionable factory hues that was to carry the Silver Shadow well through the 1970s; it was also its deceptive mass. By now, the era of the owner/driver was the primary market for Rolls-Royce. Against such prestige low-line saloon competition as the Jaguar XJ and Mercedes Benz W116, the Silver Shadow was a more comfortable option for the well-fed person of means who was likely advancing in years.

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The Silver Shadow was a much needed success for the company.

In the early sixties the Silver Cloud was starting to age, and sales were dropping alarmingly. Rolls-Royce had approached BMC for help in developing a premium range of vehicles at a low cost using BMC product in the pipeline or already on the road. The Bengal (top left), Alpha (top right) Java (bottom left) and Java 3 (bottom right) emerged from this endeavour, with the only tangible result being the ill-fated Vanden Plas Princess 4-litre R featuring an I6 engine provided by Rolls. When BMC merged with Jaguar in the late 60s, this collaboration was left to wither.

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John Blatchley’s final design was another handsome creation. The 1966 Mulliner Park Ward Two Door Fixed Head Coupé was a handbuilt variation of the Silver Shadow theme. That gentle kick up over the rear wheels makes me think Blatchley was still looking across the Atlantic, this time to the 1963 Riviera. But equally, that accent line along the side – not used on the saloon – and the mastery of curvature shows Blatchley referencing his own work.

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In 1971, this two-door range was renamed ‘Corniche’. The drophead, launched in 1967, stayed in production until 1995. With a 28 year lifespan, this model was a part of Rolls-Royce for only one year less than Blatchley himself. The drophead was so successful that during the 1970s there was a four-year waiting period and even second-hand models commanded asking prices in excess of the dealer list.

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During his time as Chief Stylist, John Blatchley had enjoyed relative autonomy in his position. In 1968 his colleagues atop Rolls-Royce, Managing Director Dr Frederick Llewellyn-Smith and Chief Engineer Harry Grylls, both retired and the new management wasn’t to Blatchley’s liking.

As Martin Bourne (centre, who replaced Cecily Jenner in 1959), described it: ‘Then to the surprise of no-one but to the regret of a great many, especially those who worked with him, one day in March 1969 – and without saying goodbye to anyone – he slipped out of the main gate and turned his back on Rolls-Royce for the last time.’

At the age of 55, John Polwhele Blatchley retired to a 16th century cottage on the south coast of England to care for his ailing wife. This quietly-spoken man was not to discuss his work in public for another 27 years.

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John Blatchley’s cars for Rolls-Royce looked so natural it was as if they had designed themselves. And that is exactly as was intended.

Related reading:

Martin Bourne’s obituary for John Blatchley

Silver Cloud

1973 Frua Phantom Drophead

1982 Corniche

1987 Bentley Mulsanne Turbo R