A Legacy Inherited
Irish immigrant Thomas Taggart, influential Democrat, U.S. Senator, three-time Indianapolis mayor, and owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel, died in March 1929. In August 1929 his son Thomas D. Taggart, who was now charged with running the famed southern Indiana resort, purchased a brand new Rolls-Royce Phantom I to the tune of $18,500. The younger Taggart, known by resort employees as “young Mr. Tom” had been heavily involved with the company since his graduation from Yale in 1909.
When Taggart purchased the vehicle he reportedly asked his favorite chauffeur, Bill Bird (great uncle of Larry Bird), to retrieve the luxury seven-passenger vehicle from New York. Back in French Lick, the car was used to transport various high-profile hotel guests throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Though Taggart’s political achievements did not quite rival those of his father, the son made a name for himself serving the Democratic National Committee from 1931 to 1938 and continuing the resort’s reputation for hosting the political elite. In coverage of young Tom’s funeral, The Indianapolis Star cited President Truman as “one of Taggart’s oldest and closest friends.” Taggart, who laid groundwork for nomination of President Roosevelt during the 1931 Governor’s Conference held at French Lick Springs Hotel, was known as a significant donor to Democratic campaigns. He operated the resort until the family sold it in 1946. He died in January 1949.
French Lick’s Flying Lady
French Lick Resort Transportation Manager Sam Ray and fellow employee Ben Fortner have made a hobby of researching young Mr. Tom’s Rolls-Royce, including the change of the car’s ownership. Part of the challenge of the research, they say, has been separating fact from fiction. Fortner believes the most credible account comes from a 1949 Paoli newspaper interview with local American Legion board members who stated the Taggart estate gave the Rolls-Royce to American Legion Post 76 two weeks after Thomas D. Taggart’s death.
Varied stories have circulated over the years regarding stipulations for the car’s care, the most common being that remaining Taggart family members have the first option to buy if the vehicle is ever sold, and that the car never be cut down for use with a wagon or trailer.
The “French Lick Flying Lady” (as the car is known locally) remained a prized possession at the American Legion Post for decades, but in 2010 members approached the Cook family, restorer and owner of French Lick Resort, for help in its restoration. The two parties agreed the American Legion would retain ownership while the resort would maintain the vehicle to transport VIP guests and participants in resort weddings, as well as to display at conventions and car shows.
Restored Inside and Out
To first repair mechanical operation, the resort shipped the Rolls-Royce to Dennison-Jayne Motors in West Chester, PA. Owner and operator Timothy Jayne, Jr. summarized the extensive repairs done over the course of five years: “Restoration involved rebuilding the engine, making a new fuel tank, re-coring the radiator, replacing all wiring, rebuilding all the electrical components, re-spoking and replacing wheel rims, fitting new tires, and repairing the chassis lubrication system. The engine was well-worn and full of sludge, requiring a complete rebuild to match the processes used by Rolls-Royce of America.” The car’s cylinder head and generator, says Jayne, were also replaced after a difficult search for appropriate components.
More recently, Stoinoff Restorations of Batesville, IN gained custody of the car for restoration of the interior and body, preserving materials where possible, including original wood and nickel plating.
“All the passenger doors needed to be disassembled and remade,” says Sam Ray. “A lot of wood suffered from rotting and damage. All the detailed wood work inside the coach was cleaned. We wanted the modern repairs to be as minimal as possible, to show it has survived this long with little intervention.”
If the painstaking restoration overseen by French Lick Resort is any indication, the Taggart estate need not have worried about the car ever being inappropriately altered. According to Ray, the restoration has totaled over $362,000.
As caretaker, Ray has also become a knowledgeable fan of the Rolls-Royce Phantom I: “One of the coolest features is the lubricating system. The lube system is manually operated by the driver. About every 50 miles you pull the handle located by the driver’s left knee and release it. This pumps straight 30-weight oil through the system, lubing all the moving suspension and chassis components. The drive train system is lubricated by 600 weight steam cylinder oil. It is some pretty thick oil, almost like maple syrup. The car also features a dual ignition system cars of that time didn’t usually have. This ensures that you have a smooth running engine. If you foul out one plug you have a backup. Most old carbureted cars had a choke for starting. This one doesn’t. It has a second mini-carburetor that is just for starting.”
For visitors who want a closer look, Ray is happy to oblige if he’s on the premises and the weather is agreeable. He often brings the car out for guests to view at either French Lick or West Baden.
Stay up to date on the latest news, stories, and events from Indiana Landmarks, around the state or in your area.