The best car in the world

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76

By “Baladeur”

The Editor informs me that a motoring journalist has been seriously suggesting that the Rolls-Royce is no longer the best car in the world, and that he has been airing his views to this effect in the columns of The People. If I did not know the Editor as well as I do, I might suspect that he was pulling my leg. But he assures me that he is not, and adds in fact that Messrs. Rolls-Royce have replied to the attack. Well, well . . . things have changed since I was a boy.

Among them, of course, the Rolls-Royce. The company, you will be surprised to hear, did not consult me about the nature of their reply to their latest critic, but if they had I should have been able to assure them that, for as long as I can remember, the Rolls-Royce, like Punch, never has been as good as it was. That is not just since the death of the late Sir Henry Royce either, let me assure you. I can remember far further back than that. I cannot remember the first appearance of the Silver Ghost, but even if I could it would not signify, because it was only after that that the Rolls-Royce began to call itself the best car in the world. And until it did, there was not, the same object in saying that it wasn’t.

But take 1922 when the 20-hp. Rolls-Royce appeared. Now that really did cause a commotion, and Sir Henry Royce was very much alive at the time, only he was plain Mr. F. H. Royce then, and instead of The Autocar being allowed to see the new chassis so that they could write an account of it, Mr. Royce wrote an account of it for them. He was described at the head of the article as “the designer and Chief Engineer to Rolls-Royce Ltd.,” so that he presumably designed this chassis as well as writing an account of it, and presumably too, therefore, there was no truth in the suggestions that, I remember, some people made at the time that most of it was designed by somebody quite different, who traded under the name of Buick. But even Henry Royce’s signature on this chassis did not stop the critics getting at it.

Not a bit of it. Why, the very next week Mr. Leslie Northcott was writing to say that his “impression was one of disappointment.” Mr. Royce, in his article, had said that one of his leading mottoes was “spend as much money in the construction as can be done wisely, but not unnecessarily.” I suspect that Sir Henry was better at designing motor cars than sentences, but it is fairly clear what he meant. Mr. Northcott, however, attributed his disappointment to his liking for thinking of the Rolls-Royce car as the best in both workmanship and design, “particularly as a leading ‘R-R’ motto is: ‘Spend as much money in the construction as can be done wisely but not necessarily’.” For more than 35 years now I have been wondering whether he or the printer was responsible for that joke.

Anyhow, although “in fairness to the Rolls-Royce” he admitted that he had not yet seen one of the new 20-h.p. models, let alone tried one on the road, he then proceeded to list a number of points in the design which he considered disappointing. He did this, I may say, not at all didactically, but in the form of questions which “perhaps a brainier reader than I can answer.” But my word he got a wigging, in spite of this diffident method of approach, for daring to criticise. It was quickly clear, in fact, that even at that date, the Rolls-Royce was not so much a motor car as a cult. Even rival manufacturers, who might have been expected to be pleased if anything by suggestions that the self-styled “best car in the world” was not, perhaps, all that much better than theirs, were evidently outraged by any such suggestion. “If I were Mr. Northcott,” declared Lord Nuffield—only he was plain W. R. Morris then—”I should not criticise the work of a firm which has for so many years held the reputation of designing and manufacturing the best car in the world.” Mr. G. Campbell Muir was even more indignant. “Who is this Mr. Leslie Northcott,” he wanted to know, “who has written you such a strange letter? . . . Just and sensible criticism is always interesting, so I hope you will not inflict us with any more samples like the letter I complain about.” No one seems to have pointed out that, if this means anything, it expresses a hope that the Editor will keep his correspondence columns dull by excluding just and sensible criticism like Mr. Northcott’s. But l don’t think Mr. Muir meant this at all. He said he was “tempted” to answer each of Mr. Northcott’s queries in detail, but he resisted this temptation and instead asked “why does Mr. Leslie Northcott not try the new 20-h.p. Rolls-Royce first of all, then write about it afterwards?” I must say I suspect from this that he had not tried it himself; otherwise he might not have been so free with invitations for comments on its performance.

Poor Mr. Northcott! However, the Army came gallantly to his rescue. Lt.-Col. C. Dawson confessed that “on reading Mr. Campbell Muir’s remarkable explosion, one is tempted to make an inquiry as to identity similar to that proposed by himself in the case of Mr. Leslie Northcott”; and Captain J. Guy Knight, who was “rather surprised at the tone of Mr. G. Campbell Muir’s letter,” suggested that “one would apparently be equally justified in beginning a reply to it by: Who is this Mr. G. Campbell Muir ?'” As so often before and since, too, it was Lord Brabazon who put the thing in perspective—only he was, I think, Colonel J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon at the time. “I very much resent the type of letter appearing in your last issue from Mr. G. Campbell Muir,” he wrote. “It contributes nothing to the world’s knowledge but a consciousness of bad manners. . . I know exactly Mr. Northcott’s feeling. He expected a super-car ‘out-bristling’ the French even in originality of design; what he finds is a very excellent vehicle of somewhat uninteresting standard American type.”

Now one of the criticisms of the current Rolls-Royce is, I gather, that it uses an American-type automatic gearbox built under licence from General Motors. And I think it would be true to say that over a long period of years, both in Sir Henry Royce’s day and subsequently, Rolls-Royce have been more willing to adopt design features from America than from the Continent. As far as I know, for instance, the present chassis does not incorporate a modernistic suspension system made under licence from say Citroën or Mercedes-Benz. And this, I believe, is the basic reason for the ambivalent attitude adopted towards Rolls-Royce in motoring circles, because while the majority of motorists in this country would probably be happier with an American than with a continental car, the opposite might well be true of the readers of Motor Sport. It certainly would have been, I think, in 1922.

Anyhow it is time perhaps to return to that distant period, see what it was that Mr. Northcott found to criticise, and, with the hindsight of 1958, try and determine how far he was justified. Some of his points were not, of course, of vital importance even if they were valid criticisms. For example, he asked why the petrol gauge was on the rear tank instead of on the dashboard. The answer may well have been that the only reliable gauge for remote mounting at that time was French. Then he wanted to know why there was no grid or other provision for luggage on the “touring” car, but then this omission was still nothing exceptional in 1922. Even open touring cars were still frequently driven by chauffeurs, with the result that ample leg-room had to be provided for the owner in the back seat, and the designer found himself at the end of the chassis before the question of luggage had so much as presented itself. Nowadays, as far as I can make out, we have gone to the other extreme: designers, I sometimes think, start with the boot and work forward towards the driver’s seat, with the result that you are forced to have children, if you want to fill up the back seat with passengers who do not justifiably complain of lack of leg-room.

Another question, as to why semi-elliptic rear springs were used instead of cantilevers, has a decidedly period air about it today, but curiously enough the question that Mr. Northcott probably thought most important of all has hardly dated in 35 years. Why push-rod operated overhead valves, he asked, instead of an overhead camshaft? Would it, in fact, have been possible in 1922, assuming that the cost was no object, to design an engine which conformed with Rolls-Royce standards of silence and so on, but which was on the lines of the present-day Jaguar? For a designer of genius, I think that it would have been, and if, as a result, he could have produced a little more power, it would have given the car, as it turned out, just what it wanted. But push-rods already had a venerable tradition behind them, on the Bedford-Buick; overhead camshafts, in spite of such British exponents as Maudslay, Napier, A.C., Leyland Eight and others still smacked terribly of racing cars and the continent.

Mr. Northcott wanted to know why the radiator shutters had to be operated by the driver instead of being automatic, which was not, perhaps, an epoch-making matter anyhow, and he was also puzzled by Royce’s claim that “the oil consumption is remarkably low, the car running 1,000 miles to the gallon.” This consumption, he said, was not, in his opinion, remarkably low at all, and one is inclined to agree with him, without, perhaps, getting very worked up about it anyway. But his next question was calculated to arouse much more passionate interest. Why, he asked, only three forward speeds, and why central control?

To take the second point first, it has amused me a lot in recent years to read bitter complaints of steering-column gear levers coupled with pleas for a return to the good traditional central control, for in 1922 central control instead of being regarded as good and traditional was apostrophised as new-fangled, American, cheap and nasty. So much so that Rolls-Royce very soon gave it up, and it is, I think, surprising that Royce ever expected his customers not to be shocked by this particular Americanism. They very soon gave up the 3-speed gearbox too, and some people will think that the choice of this in the original design was even more surprising. I am myself a bit heretical over the tenet that “every 3-speed car would be a better car with four speeds,” but if three speeds can be defended anywhere it is not, I should have thought, on the 20-h.p. Rolls-Royce, which was listed from the start with a chauffeur-driven landaulet body and had an engine whose middle name was scarcely torque. But one must of course remember that synchromesh mechanisms were still hidden in the womb of time.

And anyhow I have left what is, in my opinion, the crux of Mr. Northcott’s indictment to the last. “Why,” he asked, “not front-wheel brakes?” How, indeed, could anyone have designed a high-class chassis from scratch in 1922 and omitted them? The Birkigt mechanical servo system, which, with slight modification’s, Rolls-Royce were eventually to adopt, had been extant on the Hispano-Suiza since 1919 and had been close to perfection from the start. To this last point in the indictment there is, I think, no reply.

But of course this is not the end of the story. To that genial correspondent of The Autocar who used to write in those days from Amsterdam and who signed himself “Observer,” these criticisms of the new Rolls-Royce came as no great surprise. “I think it is an exaggeration,” he wrote, “to call the Rolls the best car in the world. It is, of course, a good car, but there are many other cars, like the Hispano-Suiza, Lanchester, Napier, etc., which are as good as, if not better than, the Rolls …” I wonder if “Observer” is observing still, and if he still thinks that there are cars “as good as, if not better than, the Rolls”? The Bentley, perhaps?

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