Phaeton (carriage)

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For other uses, see Phaeton (disambiguation).
The sporty Lord Lonsdale's yellow phaeton with a calash top, ca 1900 (Mossman Collection)
Hooper's - royal coachbuilders - stylish design for a phaeton

Phaeton (also Phaéton) is the late eighteenth-early nineteenth-century term for a sporty open carriage drawn by a single horse or a pair of horses, typically with four extravagantly large wheels, very lightly sprung, with a minimal body, that was fast and dangerous. It usually had no sidepieces in front of the seats. The rather self-consciously classicizing name refers to the disastrous ride of mythical Phaëton, son of Helios, who nearly set the earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the sun.

Types of phaeton[edit]

Phaeton 1816 with a pair of outsized, swan-neck leaf springs at the rear and the body mounted daringly high

The most spectacular[clarification needed] phaeton was the English four-wheeled high flyer. The mail and spider phaetons were more conservatively constructed. The mail phaeton was used chiefly to carry passengers with luggage and was named for its construction, using "mail" springs originally designed for use on mail coaches.[1] The spider phaeton, of American origin and made for gentlemen drivers,[1] was a high and lightly constructed carriage with a covered seat in front and a footman's seat behind.[2] Fashionable phaetons used at horse shows included the Stanhope, typically having a high seat and closed back,[citation needed] and the Tilbury, a two-wheeled carriage with an elaborate spring suspension system, with or without a top.[3]

Historical and current use of phaetons[edit]

Each June, during the official Queen's Birthday celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II travels to and from Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards Parade in an ivory-mounted phaeton carriage made in 1842 for her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.[4]

Bolshevik revolutionaries used a phaeton in order to get away after carrying out the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery.

Valerie, Lady Meux owned a pair of zebras and would startle London Society by driving herself, in a high phaeton, drawn by the zebras.

Phaetons in fiction[edit]


1794 - Ladies taking an airing in their phaeton
A Stanhope gig depicted in an oil painting, circa 1815-1830

In the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility, the character Mr. Willoughby drives a yellow phaeton. While the phaeton seems to exhibit his reckless and dashing character, in the novel on which the film is based, the original character drives a curricle. [5]

In the 2012 Bengali film Bhooter Bhabishyat, Raibahadur Darpo Narayan Chowdhury often refers to phaetons in reference to Sir Donald Ramsay and to his own aristocratic status.


In Frances Burney's novel, Evelina (1778), young gentlemen race their phaetons on the public highways of Clifton, near Bristol, not without incident.

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mr Collins says of Lady Catherine De Bourgh's daughter, "she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies."

In Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Mr. Huntingdon drives a "light phaeton" that comes "bowling merrily up the lawn" (Ch. 18). The sporty character of the carriage reflects Huntingdon's devil-may-care attitude.

British author William Black published in 1862 a novel called The Strange Adventures of a Phaeton, based on a driving excursion that the author made from London to Edinburgh.[6]

In the 1928 American children's book Freddy Goes to Florida (formerly published as To and Again) by Walter R. Brooks, Hank the farm horse draws an old phaeton that carries the animals and their treasure back from Florida to the Bean farm.

In Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, Sutpen's wife Ellen had a phaeton that caused her daughter to become greatly distressed when it arrived in place of their normal carriage.

In the short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Roger Button, Benjamin's father, owns a phaeton that is his primary mode of transportation until Benjamin buys the first automobile in Baltimore.

In Susannah Kells' novel Fallen Angels, a phaeton is the transportation of choice for the main character, Campion, who later crashes the carriage in a perfect example of its dangerous and fickle reputation.

The character Mr. Spenlow from the novel David Copperfield dies suddenly of a heart attack while driving his phaeton home.

Henry James, in his short story "An International Episode" (1878) has Lord Lambeth driven through town in "a little basket-phaeton" by his companion Bessie Aldon. "His companion went into seventeen shops — he amused himself with counting them — and accumulated, at the bottom of the phaeton, a pile of bundles that hardly left the young Englishman a place for his feet. As she had no groom nor footman, he sat in the phaeton to hold the ponies..."

Georgette Heyer, the Regency Romance novelist, frequently wrote about sporting gentlemen driving their phaetons. Sometimes they allowed young ladies to drive their phaetons, but only in exceptional circumstances.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gregersen, Erik; Levy, Michael I., eds. (2012). The Complete History of Wheeled Transportation: From Cars and Trucks to Buses and Bikes. Britannica Educational Publishing. ISBN 978-1-61530-728-9. Retrieved 2014-05-20. 
  2. ^ Gove, Philip Babcock, ed. (1966). "S". Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged L–Z. Springfield, Mass.: G & C Merriam. p. 2194. ISBN 0-7135-1037-4. 
  3. ^ Smith, D. J. (2004) [1994]. "Owner-driven passenger vehicles". Discovering Horse-drawn Vehicles. Princes Risborough, Bucks. UK: Shire Publications. p. 68. ISBN 0 7478 0208 4. Retrieved 2014-05-20. 
  4. ^ "Trooping the Colour (The Queen's Birthday Parade)", The British Army official website
  5. ^ Sense and Sensibility/Chapter 13
  6. ^ William Black, The Strange Adventures of a Phaeton: A Novel at Google Books

External links[edit]