Phaeton (also Phaéton) is the early 19th-century term for a sporty open carriage drawn by a single horse or a pair, typically with four extravagantly large wheels, very lightly sprung, with a minimal body, 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.
The most spectacular phaeton was the English four-wheeled high flyer. The mail and spider phaetons were much more conservatively constructed. The mail phaeton was used chiefly to convey passengers with luggage and was named for its construction, using "mail" springs originally designed for use on mail coaches. The spider phaeton, of American origin and made for gentlemen drivers, had a very high carriage of light construction, with a covered seat in front and a footman's seat behind. Fashionable phaetons used at horse shows included the Stanhope, typically having a high seat and closed back, and the Tilbury, a light two-wheeled carriage with an elaborate spring suspension system, with or without a top.
Phaetons in real life and fiction
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.
Phaetons rarely appear in movies, but a very glamorous one, painted yellow and driven by the character Mr. Willoughby, made an appearance in Sense and Sensibility, 1995, based on the Jane Austen novel of 1811. It perfectly exemplifies Mr. Willoughby's reckless and dashing character, although in the book he actually drives a curricle.
Of the daughter of the irritatingly grand Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the lickspittle Mr Collins declares, "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.
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 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.
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 writes about sporting gentlemen driving their phaetons. Sometimes they allowed young ladies to drive their phaetons, but only in exceptional circumstances.
In the 2012 Bengali motion picture Bhooter Bhabishyat Raibahadur Darpo Narayan Chowdhury played by Paran Bandyopadhyay refers to phaetons (carriage) numerous times in reference to Sir Donald Ramsay played by (George Baker) and his own aristocratic status in the movie.
A jump seat phaeton
Phaeton carriage in Geraz do Lima Carriage museum.
engraved by John Henry Walker.
- "Trooping the Colour (The Queen's Birthday Parade)", The British Army official website
- Sense and Sensibility/Chapter 13
- William Black, The Strange Adventures of a Phaeton: A Novel. Google Books.