A phaeton (also phaéton) was a form of sporty open carriage popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Drawn by one or two horses, a phaeton typically featured a minimal very lightly sprung body atop four extravagantly large wheels. With open seating, it was both fast and dangerous, giving rise to its name, drawn from the mythical Phaëton, son of Helios, who nearly set the Earth on fire while attempting to drive the chariot of the Sun.
With the advent of the automobile, the term was adapted to open touring cars, also known as phaetons.
The most impressive 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. The spider phaeton, of American origin and made for gentlemen drivers, was a high and lightly constructed carriage 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 two-wheeled carriage with an elaborate spring suspension system, with or without a top. A variation of this type of a carriage is called a Victoria, with a retractable cover over the rear passenger compartment.
Each June from 1978 to 2011, during the official Queen's Birthday celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II traveled 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.
In her later years, Queen Victoria greatly enjoyed travelling in a phaeton drawn by a single white donkey, or mule, when on her holidays in Cimiez, then a small village on the outskirts of Nice, in the south of France. There is a print of the monarch enjoying her morning excursions on page 490 of the Illustrated London News of 10 April 1897. In addition, there is a photograph in the Royal Collection, dated 1898. There are also other photographs, using a black donkey, taken at Windsor Castle.
Valerie, Lady Meux would startle London Society by driving herself in a high phaeton drawn by zebras.
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.
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 Turn: Washington's Spies, season 3 episode 1 Benedict Arnold is riding in a phaeton spider. He states to Peggy Shippen "Do you like it? It's a Phaeton Spider". then goes on to say "I had it fit with a Collinge axle for a smoother ride".
In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland rides a phaeton operated by John Thorpe. Also, in 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. She also references a phaeton in Agnes Grey, "the useful pony phaeton was sold."
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 wrote about sporting gentlemen driving their phaetons. Some of her heroines were also notable whips, such as Hero from Friday's Child who gets into a scrape by agreeing to participate in a 'Lady's Race' in her phaeton.
A jump seat phaeton
Phaeton carriage in Geraz do Lima Carriage museum
Basket phaeton engraved by John Henry Walker