Veteran Types XXIX

A 1911 40/50-h.p. “Silver Ghost” Rolls-Royce described by its owner, John Bolster.

It all started when I bought a 1912 Rolls-Royce catalogue. This sumptuous publication was full of coloured pictures of the most beautiful cars I had ever seen. Delightful country-house scenes formed the backgrounds, and Rolls-trained, chauffeurs, who, one could sense, were as proud of their sensitive handling of a thoroughbred car as their fathers had been of their coachmanship, were in attendance. I ran a couple of “Twenties,” nice enough little cars, and a 1921 “40/50” open van, which made a pleasure out of the dreariest farm-haulage jobs, but always those Edwardian Royces, with their low radiators and the lightness and poise of a ballerina, were at the back of my mind.

I began a search, and immediately found dozens of Edwardian Rolls-Royce cars, but all of them had either been turned into breakdown vans or “modernised” beyond recall. Then, via Bunny Tubbs, I heard a tantalising rumour of a very old tourer, hidden at the back of a country house garage under a dust sheet, but not open to inspection. Month after month I pestered Bunny, until at last he telephoned the incredible news that the car might be bought if I played my cards right. The deal was completed without delay, for I knew only too well that several other Royce enthusiasts were scouring the country, cheque book in hand, in search of just such a car.

So, early one winter’s morning, Ken Waller and I set out to collect the “new” car. It had been “niggled” into the far end of the garage by the barbarous process of jacking it up and then pushing it sideways off the jacks a number of times, and we had a terrible job to get it out, but when at last we had dragged it into the light of day, we beheld an early 1911 short-chassis tourer, in absolutely original condition.

The car had not been run since 1923, but two of the tyres, though very hard and mis-shapen, would hold their air, the other two having to be sawn into pieces before they would leave the rims. The petrol tank was found to be half full of 1923 benzole, so we fitted a new battery, drained and refilled the sump, filled the radiator, and started the engine without any difficulty. Shortly after we took the road the perished water hoses collapsed, and several rolls of insulation tape were required to staunch the flow. Then darkness fell, and we found that the car had been robbed of its lamp bulbs, but providentially we were able to obtain the rather scarce double-pole bulbs, and the remainder of the journey was completed without serious mishap.

Examination of the car proved that, apart from faded and cracked paintwnrk, the only damage was a bent prop-shaft, probably caused by the aforementioned jacking process. Ken made up a new shaft, and Longford coachworks did a capital paint job, after I had spent weary weeks stripping the old paint off the panels. We then decided to run the car for a few thousand miles as-it stood, though I suppose it really needs a decoke and valve-grind, among other things. A considerable distance has now been covered, including Elstree speed trials, a rather slow Shelsley, due to being overgeared, two firsts at Prescott, and the London Cavalcade. We have never had to open the bonnet, except when the inevitable shellac trouble attacked the Bosch magneto.

This car has a very similar 7 1/2-litre side-valve engine to my 1921 machine, though the 1911 model has cast iron pistons, a slightly smaller carburetter, and fractionally less valve-lift. It has a leather cone-clutch with clutch stop, and a 3-speed gearbox. (The earlier “Silver Ghosts” had a “direct third” overdrive box, and the later ones a normal 4-speed box.) Top gear on my car is 2.7 to 1, the other gears being of the order of 4 to 1 for second, and 7 1/2 to 1 for bottom. A slightly lower axle ratio of 2.9 to I was also available, and actually gave a higher maximum speed, though at the expense of more revs, at cruising speed.

I have not yet timed my car in both directions over a measured distance, so cannot give the maximum speed. The R.A.C. timed a 1911 tourer at 78 m.p.h. on Brooklands, but this was a “London-Edinburgh” model with the lower gear ratio, and I feel that an honest “seventy” would be nearer the mark for my car, with something like fifty on second.

The acceleration on the two lower ratios is quite lively, and one can hold powerful American cars away from the traffic lights. Their low top gears stand them in good stead in the higher ranges, however, and they can hold 70 m.p.h. up the kind of slight hill that drops me below “sixty.” Petrol consumption is not unduly heavy, though by hard driving it is possible to bring it down to 14 m.p.g. Oil consumption is negligible, a very uncommon virtue among the Edwardians.

My car is one of the rather rare short-chassis type which were not made after 1911. 11 ft. 2 in. doesn’t sound a very small car, but it feels quite a baby after driving the longer and higher 1921 machine. The built-up rear axle with aluminium centre has three-quarter elliptic springs instead of the later cantilevers, and it also has much smaller side brakes supplemented by a large transmission brake, which was deleted in subsequent models. The axle is located by radius rods and a torque arm, instead of the conventional torque tube later adopted. The result of all this is to give rather harder suspension and much lower unsprung weight than the later cars, with a consequent gain in roadholding. Curiously enough, the metal-to-metal brakes are quite outstanding for a rear-wheel-only job, and never require adjustment, nor do they fade.

As regards handling, the car is not particularly easy to drive, the controls obviously being intended for a driver with more delicacy and precision than most modern conductors would care to exhibit. Thus, the cone-clutch is a delightfully responsive instrument, being capable of inching the car forward or backward with the engine ticking over, or starting away from a standstill on top gear, but to the modern insensitive foot it would seem uncomfortably fierce. Similarly, the gear-change demands absolute accuracy of timing, though it is perfectly straightforward once one has got used to the lateral movement of the locking gate. The steering is light, sensitive and extremely high-geared, the sensation being at first unusual because the car will corner very fast without rolling at all. It is so balanced that both ends break away very gradually and exactly together, and one can take fast corners in an absolutely controlled four-wheel slide.

It is as a silent, high-speed cruising car that the “Silver Ghost” excels; 2,000 r.p.m. would be equivalent to a road speed around 75 m.p.h., and with cylinder dimensions of 114 by 121 mm., the piston speed is never very alarming. The lack of volatility of Pool petrol does not suit the unheated induction system, the low-speed flexibility being much impaired thereby, and the car has never gone so well as on the 1923 benzole. With its comfortable touring body and almost instantaneously erected hood, it would be ideal for an extended Scottish or Continental tour, and that is exactly the use to which I propose to put it.

The design of the “Silver Ghost” is too well known to describe in detail, but one is so often asked how to distinguish the approximate year of manufacture, that I will mention a few particulars as an appendix.

The original “Silver Ghost” of 1906 had a “square” engine of 114 by 114 mm.

It had “platform” springing at the rear, with a transverse spring uniting the rear ends of two semi-elliptics. It also had a geared-up fourth speed, which was dropped in 1910 beeause drivers made too much use of it. Around 1908, 7 mm. was added to the stroke, and the rear springs were three-quarter elliptics. The petrol tank of the earliest cars was under the front seat instead of at the rear.

By 1911 the mixture control and the switch for the ignition had moved from the dashboard to the steering wheel, above the ignition timing and governor speed controls. Later in 1911 the torque tube transmission superseded the open shaft, and cantilever springs could be had as an alternative to the three-quarter elliptics, and were eventually standardised: The “London-Edinburgh” model was also introduced in 1911 and had a larger carburetter and higher valve-lift for increased performance. Later, this “hotted-up” engine became available in a chassis with a higher radiator and 4-speed gearbox, and was called the “Alpine Eagle.” When manufacture recommenced in 1921, the “Alpine Eagle” engine and 4-speed gearbox were fitted to all cars. The ignition coil lost its trembler, and the usual axle ratio was down to 3.25 to 1. A very quiet electric starter drove through the gearbox via an electrically-operated clutch, and the fuel pressure pump was moved from the gearbox to the engine. In 1924 the famous “servo” four-wheel-brakes appeared, and the “Silver Ghost” was finally superseded in 1925.

As always happens, the car gradually grew heavier throughout its life, and it is the earlier models, with their light weight and high gear, which appeal most to the enthusiast. This is not intended in any way as a criticism of the later cars, which gained in refinement and ease of driving what they lost in the more sporting qualities.