John Lennon’s Austin Princess. Imagine all the people, driving round in this. You may say they are dreamers… but experts estimate that John and Yoko’s ‘Imagine’ hearse will fetch at least £250,000 this autumn. Words David Lillywhite. Photography Stephen Kim.
John Lennon’s Hearse. John and Yoko’s oddball family transport.
Of all the cars that John and Yoko could have owned, a 1956 Austin Princess hearse might seem the least likely. But just say you’re willing to accept the pair’s automotive foibles; would you then expect the rear of the hearse to have been refitted with aircraft seats?
That is indeed the case, though, as is clear opposite. Flick over a couple of pages and you’ll see Lennon’s signature on the hearse’s logbook, should you need proof. Track down a copy of the 1972 Imagine film, and you’ll see the hearse transport John and Yoko across their country estate. More of that in a moment…
For the last eight years, the hearse has been on show at the Austin Rock and Roll Car Museum in Texas, having been donated by its owner Milton Verret – an Austin-based entrepreneur better known for his turbine cars, including the STP Lotus Type 56 and the ‘Jet Vette’.
Now the museum is selling the hearse, with Milton’s blessing, and promising a portion of the funds to the UNICEF charity. This is how we’ve finally had the opportunity to see it in the metal before it heads to the RM Sotheby’s London sale on 7 September.
It’s an imposing vehicle, with a suitably dignified appearance despite a little ‘patina’ to the bodywork, chrome and interior. It’s clearly going to be forever known as ‘the Lennon hearse’ but more pragmatically it’s an Austin A135 Princess – though around the time this one was built, the Austin badges were dropped, to help sales against the competing (but much more expensive) Rolls and Bentleys.
Above left and left The Austin’s original logbook, showing John Lennon’s signature and Apple Corps’ Savile Row address; 4-litre engine is basic but smooth.
The Beatles had a thing for the limousine versions of these Austins, but in their case neither name nor price made much difference: the appeal was in wider-opening rear doors, which allowed them to leap into the back and escape frenzied fans suffering acute Beatlemania.
Most of the limousines would have been built by Vanden Plas but Lennon’s hearse, chassis DH2-12785, headed for Arthur Mulliner Ltd of Northampton, almost certainly on the instructions of the buyer, Ann Bonham & Son funeral directors, also of Northampton. Indeed, the company still exists at the same address today.
Mulliner also exists, as the bespoke division of Bentley. Arthur Mulliner was the third generation of the family to run the coachbuilding company, which had been formed in 1760. Better-known Chiswick-based HJ Mulliner was an offshoot by Arthur’s cousin Henry Jervis Mulliner.
Anyway… Ann Bonham & Son kept the hearse right through the 1960s, and it wasn’t until 3 August 1971 that it was registered to one John Ono Lennon – he had changed his middle name from Winston to Ono in 1969 in a ceremony atop the Apple Building at 3 Savile Row, London. This was the Beatles’ HQ and is the address given in the hearse’s logbook, along with a ‘kept in Berks’ addendum in red, referring to John and Yoko’s 72-acre country estate, Tittenhurst Park near Ascot, Berkshire.
The couple lived at Tittenhurst from the summer of 1969 to 31 August 1971, when they moved to New York, selling the house to Ringo Starr. It was one of the settings for the 1972 Imagine film, half-fiction, half-documentary, used to promote Lennon’s album of the same name. In it there’s a two-and-a-half minute sequence in which the hearse pulls up outside the house, and John and Yoko climb in via the front passenger door onto the bench seat. The car drives across the landscaped gardens and onto the banks of the then-new guitar-shaped lake (commissioned by Lennon without planning permission), where the couple get out and walk to a boat moored at the shore.
Clockwise from left Lennon at Tittenhurst for Imagine; five airplane seats visible; John and Yoko squeezed into front alongside driver for Imagine film sequence.
There doesn’t seem to have been much of a gap between the purchase of the hearse and the move from Tittenhurst, and at sometime after the shooting of the film, it’s thought, Lennon had the five aircraft seats installed too. But by 17 August 1972 it was gone, sold to Oscarwinning film producer William McGaw of La Jolla, California, who used it to tour Ireland with his family, before shipping it home. He registered it EMAJIN and kept it until 1987, when it was sold by Sotheby’s.
‘Wherever we went it attracted crowds,’ McGaw said at the time. ‘I think everyone responds instinctively to Lennon’s marvelous understanding of the absurd.’ Why was he selling? ‘It is not the most practical car in the world – and maybe now is the time,’ he said.
Milton Verret bought the hearse in 2005 at Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles – ‘the auction house to the stars’. Now the hearse is back in London and estimated to sell for £250,000. Imagine that.
TECHNICAL DATA 1956 Austin A135 Princess hearse
Engine 3995cc straightsix, overhead valves, single carburettor
Power 130bhp @ 3700rpm
Torque 212lb ft @ 2200rpm
Transmission Four-speed non-synchro gearbox, rear-wheel-drive
Suspension Front: independent, coil and wishbone. Rear: semielliptic leaf springs, anti-roll bar
Steering cam and peg steering box
Brakes Drums all round, hydraulically operated
Performance Top speed 79mph. 0-60mph 23sec
Weight 2200kg approx.
‘In the Imagine film you’ll see the hearse transport John and Yoko across their country estate’