The American Rolls-Royces
R-R’s early Stateside history is intriguing and its reputation disputed
I have no compunction about discussing Rolls-Royces, those ‘Best Cars in the World’, in Motor Sport, because those who regard them as non-sports cars have overlooked the Derby Bentleys, which, for example, gave Eddie Hall very impressive results in the Ards TT races, etc. Those same people may have forgotten that the R-R Phantom II saloon has a maximum of over 90mph, or that three Silver Ghosts competed in Brooklands races, even though in normal service the marque’s near-inaudible cars may have achieved this enviable status with the aid of very large engines of relatively low power figures, which R-R make it a rule never to publish.
My reason is to describe how the legendary Royces were made in America, and to rebut some criticism of these cars from Cadillac’s official historian Maurice Hendry, along with two quips. The first is from the late Leonard Setright: “The Rolls-Royce is the most American of our cars,” and the second is from Bob Hope: “The Rolls-Royce? That’s a Cadillac that’s been to Oxford.” No harm here, just their way of promoting what they saw as the USA’s best car.
In case it still appears that the luxurious Royces are not sporting cars, let us not overlook successes in the Alpine Trial, that 101mph single-seater Ghost, those R-Rs run in Brooklands races, and a lady driving one in a speed hillclimb. As well as appearing in MCC long-distance trials, R-Rs featured in that very arduous winter event, the Monte Carlo Rally: in 1914 Count Malvasia della Serra finished fourth in his 1912 Ghost landaulette, and in 1928 another 1914 Ghost put in a good showing, while in 1933 Margaret Allan and R Jacques were 30th with a 1930 Phantom II drophead coupé. Among other Rolls-Royce drivers involved in the Monte were Prince de Schaumburg-Lippe, placed 40th in a rebodied pre-war Ghost, S C Gilchrist in a PIII saloon, Sam Harris (27th) in a PII with racing driver George Newman, R Beaumont-Thomas in a PII, J D Bambridge (of MCC trials) with a 20/25hp R-R and racing man Mike Couper in a Silver Wraith R-R and Rolls-Bentley. For these names I am indebted to records held by the USA’s Flying Lady club magazine. These were in some cases probably entered to appear in the post-rally coachwork competition, but it was praiseworthy to get such cumbersome cars to successfully complete the rally itself. Nor should that Spanish ‘GP’ win and the 1933 drive from England to Nairobi in a PIII R-R by Humphrey Symons of The Sunday Times be forgotten.
Hendry agrees that the 20hp four-cylinder Royce cars sold well, and we know the subsequent 30hp six-cylinder model was unreliable because of an engine vibration and broken crankshafts. Cadillac’s New York agent, Walter C Martin, had imported only a few before abandoning his R-R sales venture.
But Henry Royce had, by 1906, introduced his 40/50hp Silver Ghost, and from 1907 it was among the best British luxury cars. Because there were more millionaires in America than anywhere else, an American company was set up to sell the 40/50 R-R in 1921 at Springfield, Mass. Hendry described R-R before this as mere jobbers compared with Pierce-Arrow, which had made 400 cars in 1905 against 105 R-Rs in the same year. He saw the USA’s three Ps (Pierce-Arrow, Packhard and Peerless) as tough competition for R-R, and described the Hon Charles Rolls – a man who had won a TT race, flown early aircraft and been killed in one during a dangerous competition! – as “dandified and foppish”. Hendry also wrote that when ER Thomas suggested a race between a Thomas Flyer and an R-R, Rolls refused, and when the 1909 New York-to-Paris marathon was won by a Thomas, R-R, with what Setright called “the fearsome R-R propaganda machine”, claimed Rolls had won.
When the Silver Ghost was born it is said that Royce had as his first chief draughtsman American-trained AJ Adams, and that the factories at Lillie Hall, Fulham, and Manchester used American machine tools. These included a Bullard vertical borer machining the Ghost cylinder blocks, the ignition coils being made on a modified Singer sewing machine. None of this, alas, am I able to deny or confirm. Nor am I sure that in 1913 R-R had appointed Robert Schutte to deal in its cars in New York or that this continued for some time after WWI had started, with coach-builder Brewster becoming an R-R agent. Before war prevented shipment from Britain late in 1916, they imported 46 Ghost chassis.
After the armistice in 1918, Claude Johnston decided that the way to get cars into the USA under the tariff wall was to build them there, and provide a better back-up service. So in November 1919 R-R of America was incorporated, with the wealthy LJ Belnap as President and the USA bankers HJ Fuller and JM Aldred providing capital of $3,200,000.
The factory was at Springfield, where Indian motorcycles were made. The first American Silver Ghost was completed by February 1921, and the output was nine chassis a week.
Changes had to be made to the American Royces. The ride quality was unsatisfactory for roads there, the cooling unsuited to the climate and the electrics unreliable, says Hendry. Left-hand drive had to be designed and, apparently, a new three-speed transmission using a central, ball-shaft gear lever (I had known that sometimes on rough ground a Ghost’s chassis twisted and locked-up the lever). Gleason gears were used from 1923 in the Springfield back axle and were quieter than those in the British Ghosts. R-R later adopted these. Hendry does not miss telling us that when R-R used Bijur chassis lubrication in the 1960s, they omitted to acknowledge that Springfield did this first. He also says the first 65 USA cars did not have Rolls-Royce’s mechanical servo brake system, and that American PIs had Delco ignition and their own oil filter.
Brewster bodies were used on the American R-R but some of these styles were given English names, such as Mayfair, Buckingham, York and Fleetwood. The Springfield venture gradually ran down and by 1931 is said to have made a loss of a million dollars. Apparently GM, Ford, Studebaker and Dodge Brothers all turned it down. Hendry tells us that, after it closed, Brewster was selling off R-Rs, some for £100 each.
This discourse is, I hope, of some interest to historians, but as the information came with no covering letter, I must apologise if it breaks any copyright. It may be that R-R did not balance its cranks as well as Springfield did, and that it acquired many American cars to inspect. I’m sorry to learn that apparently Pierce-Arrow and Cadillac bought R-R’s USA buildings.
Hendry is entitled to regard the Cadillac, Packhard, Lincoln, Pierce-Arrow and Peerless as superior to a Rolls-Royce, but I do not accept his sheer contempt for the Ghosts and PIs and PIIs. I tested 11 Royces for Motor Sport between 1951 and 1980 and headed my report on the Silver Cloud as ‘Not So Much a Motor Car, More a Way of Life’. I found the Silver Shadow a wonderful experience, even after a few minor faults developed, and despite the fact that the mirror controls were so complicated that the person with me when I collected the car had to read the instruction book to find out how they worked.
I confess that, when I was told there was no test car for me when I called at the depot and was kept waiting for ages the following day, I did suggest that, as the Rover I was in – like the R-R – had a V8 engine, GM automatic transmission and the latest Triplex safety glass and cost far less, perhaps I shouldn’t bother to wait. Still, I had been taught to regard any R-R as the ‘World’s Best Car’ – although I added that I thought Mercedes-Benz to be the world’s best-engineered cars. If this offends anyone, so be it.
Why not? the story of charles stewart rolls
It might be thought that every aspect of the life and achievements of the Honourable C S Rolls had been documented. Not so! Because David Baines has written an incredibly complete account of this famous character. I have reviewed innumerable books and many of the rooms in my house are crammed with them. But none has taken my breath away so much as this incredible achievement. It is weighty with fascinating historical information.
Rolls’s career is told in such detail backed by hitherto unpublished letters, documents and other items, in 22 chapters and 23 appendices, occupying 307 pages, and so many fine and rare pictures that I have shirked counting them. Even the endpapers contain a long list of Rolls’s balloon flights.
This wonderful book is published by Dalton Watson Fine Books of Ferring, West Sussex and Deerfield, USA. They are noted for top-quality studies of fine cars, especially Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, at appropriate prices, so it is a pleasant surprise to find this enormous biography is available for only £49. Truly it is something that no historian can afford to miss.
Published by Dalton Watson Fine Books, ISBN 978-85443-224-7, £49
The Morgan Three Wheeler Club thrives, with an excellent monthly Bulletin and a full events list (Secretary: Dennis Plater, Holbrooks, Thorby Lane, Montnessing, Brentwood, Essex CM15 0TA).
It was noteworthy that at the Brooklands Centenary Celebrations five Morgans, ranging from 1921 to 1934, that actually raced there were present, those driven by Francis Beart, Cyril Hale, Ron Horton/R R Jackson, Geoff Harris, Clive Lones and T A Rhodes.
For me it was a reminder of the tense battle between Austin 7 and Morgan in the 1931 LCC Relay Race. I wanted to see the Morgans beat the works Austin team. The Morgan drivers lapped very fast in the pouring rain, it being said with their hand-throttle levers held fully open with rubber bands. But in the end the Austins won, at 81.77mph, the drivers Donald Barnes, Leon Cushman and Charles Goodacre, Turner and Selby. The Morgan team came in 12th after various setbacks, a brave effort in these fierce V-twin three-wheelers, driven by Lones, Maskell and Rhodes. It had been exciting to watch!
I had the same thrills during the 1934 Relay race, when in torrential rain the Morgans of Rhodes, Laird and Lones finished second, at 90.91mph, fastest of all, but just beaten on handicap by the supercharged Austins of W L Thompson, R F Turner and T V E Selby with an average speed, including the changeovers, of 84.65mph.
Morgans were not permitted in BARC races but were in the JCC 200-mile events, until in the 1924 race, when at a pitstop, Parry Thomas in his Thomas Special reported a smell of burning rubber as he was overtaking Ware’s Morgan. Too late. Lapping at nearly 90mph the back tyre burst and the little car overturned after crashing near the Vickers’ sheds at the Fork. Ware and his mechanic Allchin were thrown out and sustained long hospital internment. This caused a ban on three-wheelers in all Brooklands races for several years but, ironically, when this was lifted, at the first Club meeting it was an Austin Seven that overturned.
Barrie Price & Jean Louis-Arbey
The Bugatti is a make of car for which most people have great respect and about which a considerable number of excellent volumes have been published. The most recent is Bugatti by Barrie Price and Jean Louis-Arbey, the former a long-standing expert and the latter Hon Vice-President of the French Bugatti Club. This is a worthwhile account confined to Types 28 to 49, of the period 1920-1934. The text is supported by 216 monochrome pictures of every conceivable body style from 37 coachbuilders.
I can forgive the suggestion on the first page that Bugatti made cars of 13cc and 27cc.
A treat few enthusiasts for these cars will wish to forego.
Published by Veloce, ISBN 978-1-901295-95-5, £30
Sunbeam record car
National Motor Museum
To mark the loan of the 200mph LSR Sunbeam from the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu to appear at Pendine Sands on the 80th anniversary of Segrave’s epic performance, the STD Register has produced a most acceptable little book about the record-breaking twin-engined car in all its aspects, from its design, building and achievement, together with wonderful photographic coverage, including all the personnel involved.
Copies are available while stocks last for £10 from Alan Richens, Doric House, Main Street, Easenhall, Rugby CV23 0JA, or e-mail [email protected] Cheques payable to the STD Register. It is a most desirable souvenir.
Published by Veloce, ISBN 978-1-940295-95-5, £30