They Believed In Ghosts

Some years ago I enjoyed myself in these columns comparing the top-cars that were available to wealthy purchasers after the Kaiser war ended in 1918. It was apparent that on paper the short-lived Leyland of Parry Thomas, the first British production car to have a straight-eight engine, was the most desirable car, that the new “aeroplane-type” cars with their overhead-camshaft engines, offered by Hispano-Suiza, Lanchester, Napier, Ensign, Farman and others, were regarded with suspicion by many who were in the market for a new post-war luxury car, and that the 7.4-litre 40/50 Rolls-Royce, although dating back to 1907, remained the motor-car that was the most sought-after, in spite of its antiquated side-by-side-valve power-unit, which had been likened at the Paris Salon as an untidy Christmas tree, and a car which one engineer had dismissed as a triumph of workmanship-over-design.

It is interesting to consider why the Rolls-Royce held this unique position, remaining supreme in the affections of so many people, at this point in motoring history. It has been said that while the aristocracy followed the lead set by the Royal Family and in many cases continued to use Daimlers, it was the newly-rich, the war-profiteers, who felt it necessary to endorse their unaccustomed lofty eminence by being seen to own Rolls-Royces. There must be an essence of truth in this, but it is by no means the whole story. I think perhaps the fine service given by Rolls-Royce cars and aero-engines from Derby, during the terrible years of the just-concluded European War, may have persuaded many who were able to purchase new motor-carriages in 1901/19 that Rolls-Royce was the only car to consider.

Those serving on the Western Front and in other theatres of the battle no doubt encountered 40/50 Rolls-Royces, still universally known as Silver Ghosts, serving the Army with considerable distinction. They would have heard of the great distances over appalling roads covered by Sir John French in his Rolls-Royce limousine and of how the Duke of Westminster, Lord Dalmeny, Capt. Frederick Guest and James Radley were among those Rolls-Royce owners who joined the RAC Corps and offered themselves and their cars for war service. When the retreat from Mons was at its height it was three 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royces that conveyed Sir General Snow at very high speed to GHQ at Le Gateau, after he had landed at Le Havre, so that he and his Staff could confer with Sir John French. The cars were driven by Radley, Oscar Morrison and Barrington-Stopford in formation across war-torn France, arriving far more quickly than the General had dared to hope. Radley then became the General’s personal driver. The Duke of Westminster drove Major Hugh Dawnay, who was killed leading a charge at the first Battle of Ypres, Capt. Guest was Sir John French’s ADC, and drove his Rolls himself, and Lord Dalmeny drove Col. (later General) Seeley. The late Brigadier-General Sadlier-Jackson, who raced a Type 43 Bugatti at Brooklands after the Armistice, used a Rolls-Royce offered to the British Army by the wealthy young Chilean, Raoul Edwards, and after two years and much driving along the shell-swept Menin and Zonnebeck roads, he described it as “a very gallant car indeed”. Baron Rothschild gave his Rolls-Royce to the Allied cause, learning to drive so that he could take it over from its Army driver. Alas, he hit a telegraph pole and had to abandon the car to the Germans. The Duchess of Gazes gave her husband’s Rolls-Royce to the military; it had done 25,000 miles without any attention and then did a further 25,000 miles, often in appalling conditions around Arras, requiring only the hand-brake relined before it was returned to her, still on its original sparking-plugs.

Although the Crossley tenders of the RFC, the Rover, Daimler, Sunbeam and Vauxhall staff-cars of the Army, and the Lancias of the RNAS, etc. also gave yeoman service under these abnormal conditions, it was no doubt these 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royces that were best-remembered. A French volunteer attached to a British cavalry regiment drove one 18,000 miles in five months under atrocious conditions, for example, the only reported stoppage being caused by dust choking the carburetter air-valve. The French War Minister, M. Millerand, was using a Rolls-Royce at the beginning of the war and he ordered two more, which did 20,000 miles in three months, often doing 400 miles in a day and taking to the woods and fields when this was expedient. General Gourand’s Rolls covered 60,000 miles under such conditions without need of repair and the then-Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig had his personal 40/50 Rolls-Royce. It cannot have escaped notice, too, that when HM King George V came to the Front it was invariably in a Rolls-Royce limousine and that HRH The Prince of Wales drove himself in one of these cars. Then there was that historic journey by Col. Tom Bridges, who was ordered to drive to Antwerp from Sir John French’s headquarters at Fere-en-Tarnenois. Leaving at 5 a.m., the open Ghost arrived at 10 p.m. the next night, and soon Bridges was with King Albert, explaining Sir John’s case. Much of this fast 400 mile journey had been over Belgian Pave. It was four cars of this kind that ran the daily messenger-service between the French ports and British GHQ near Paris, a service carried on for two years without any delays due to breakdowns. Then there were the Rolls-Royce ambulances moving the wounded, and those in the RFC must have been well aware of the record for reliability of the Rolls-Royce “Eagle” and later “Falcon” aero-engines. This great reputation was endorsed after the Armistice when the Vickers Vimy biplane powered by two 360 h.p. Rolls-Royce “Eagles” made the first crossing of the Atlantic by an aeroplane.

Not unnaturally, therefore, the 40/50 Rolls-Royce was regarded as the leading luxury-car when post-war sales were resumed. I think it was this amassed reputation that was mainly responsible, together, of course, with this car’s splendidly quiet and smooth functioning. Those who could afford to buy a post-war chassis priced at £1,575 would no doubt also have been impressed by the system of inspection of owner’s cars carried out by public-school staff and the R-R Chauffeur’s School to which they could send their drivers to receive instruction in how to operate and maintain their owner’s choice of motor-car.

Before the war the one-model policy of Rolls-Royce had turned out perhaps 200 40/50 chassis a year and certainly overall output out-stripped that of other luxury chassis by a notable margin – a total of 6,173 Rolls-Royce 40/50s was made, not including the American Springfield cars. Compare this to the output of Napier, Hispano-Suiza, Lanchester and Leyland Eight, etc. and the impact of the R-R Silver Ghost can be appreciated, regarded as a commercial proposition, although ironically, it was the aero-engine side only of the Derby Company that made a profit, in later years. The quality of the Rolls-Royce compared to that of rival makes is a popular topic of discussion among R-R followers but just two examples must suffice here – the American cars of the post-war period often used knobs and Bowden cables to operate their minor controls, at a cost of under a dollar, whereas the Rolls-Royce system of using control rods and quadrants to control the governor, early-and-late ignition timing, and carburetter settings involved 227 components and 205 fasteners, and required the use of 23 patterns, 22 drop-forging dies, two punch-press dies, a hard-rubber moulding die and numerous drill-jigs, milling fixtures, chuck jaws, turret tools and engraving and brazing fixtures, bringing the price up to over 69 dollars. A R-R horn-button cost the equivalent of 12 to 14 dollars, whereas an American car would have had a button costing 75 cents. Yet it is interesting that the R-R mechanical servo brakes, r.h. gear lever, and governor-control of the throttle cost only 2% of the total chassis price in the immediate pre-war costing period, which indicates that these individual features did not contribute much to the cost of buying a Rolls-Royce (or a Derby Bentley).

If we follow our would-be customer for a new luxury car to the 1919 Olympia Motor Show, a year after the war-to-end-all-wars was over, what do we find? Rolls-Royce occupied Stand No. 74 and on it showed a car with interior-drive cabriolet body built for HRH The Prince of Wales and another, with limousine body, for the King of Romania, the third exhibit being an open touring car. This caused The Autocar to suggest that a third “R” might well be applied to the car’s initials, to stand for “Royal Rolls-Royce”, which was a bit of a snub fur Daimler. The 40/50 R-R engine had been given lighter parts, and improved internally for better performance, and the cantilever rear suspension was also improved, while easier starting via a Rolls-Royce chain-drive starter-motor was incorporated. Although those who were feeling the aftermath of the war might look at lesser cars on the stands of Armstrong Siddeley, Austin (whose new Twenty was admirable value-for-money), Crossley, Sunbeam, Wolseley and Vauxhall, etc., it is not hard to see why the majority bought a new 40/50 Rolls-Royce, or patronised the 30 and 45 h.p. models with their silent sleeve-valve engines, on the Daimler stand. Strikes in Italy had prevented Guilio Foresti getting a new Isotta-Fraschini to Olympia and anyway this, and the fine new overhead-camshaft, servo four-wheel-braked, Hispano Suiza, were distrusted by many British buyers, although they no doubt made a pilgrimage to the stands where the new o.h.c. Napier and Lanchester chassis were on view. Having seen these much publicised new cars, it says a great deal for Rolls-Royce that their back-braked, side-valve chassis took most of the sales. Yet the Silver Ghost, or more correctly this 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce was continued, with little change since about 1912, in its chassis, right down to 1929, if we regard the R-R Phantom I as just a push-rod overhead-valve version of the Ghost….

In spite of this creditable success with the World’s luxury-car buyers, Rolls-Royce themselves were not very clear in 1919 in which direction the future lay. Henry Royce (not yet knighted) began work after the war on the Kite, Goshawk or Twenty Rolls-Royce, which followed American practice at first in having only three forward speeds and a central gear-lever. This new model was intended to off-set the cost of making the 40/50 h.p. car having increased due to the war from £506 (made up of £124 for wages, £196 for materials, and overheads of 150% on wages) to £1,083, to which had to be added the agent’s fee of 20% on the selling price of the chassis at £1,145, which lifted the total cost to £1,373, giving a profit of £77 per chassis sold through the Trade, or £387 if sold direct by the Rolls-Royce Company. During 1919 the chassis price was increased in March to £1,450 from £1,350, then to £1,850 in December, to £2,000 in April 1920, and to £2,250 in June 1920, orders for 110 chassis suffering 26 cancellations from the final price-increase, with another 48% of cancellations by November 1920.

Not surprisingly, R-R set about the production of their high-quality Goshawk or Twenty – about which I am expecting one of the most comprehensive of all Rolls-Royce histories to emanate soon, from the pen of John Fiscal. There were thoughts at this time of a 12 h.p. R-R chassis at a works cost of £500-£575 and Claude Johnson had asked for an estimate of a 10/15 h.p. Humber “improved to Rolls-Royce standards”, which would have sold for £850 if not less than 1,000 were made – which must have infuriated Humber’s, had they been told! In 1921 the Rolls-Royce Board decided that to reduce the Silver Ghost price below £1,850 would lead to the impression that “the present chassis was not up to the past R-R standard”. So the great, if long-lived, 40/50 Rolls-Royce reigned supreme. But what did people do who had some personal reason for not investing in a Rolls-Royce? I am greatly indebted to the well-known Rolls-Royce historian and owner, John Oldham of Jersey, who had a relation in just this predicament for a time and who has allowed me to quote his letters about it. Mr. Oldham writes as follows: –

“I have always looked upon the Daimler, especially the sleeve-valve models, as Britain’s premier make and it was always owned by the true Landed Gentry, if they could afford one, if not owing to taxation etc., then they ran an Austin Twenty, Armstrong-Siddeley or Humber, unless they went for a foreign make like Buick, Packard, Minerva. They were what they were and they did not need a pretentious car to try and show their position. The Rolls-Royce was purchased in most cases by the wealthy industrialist and trades people who had made a lot of money.

My grandfather started motoring in about 1903 in South Wales and his first car was a Crossley open tourer. He changed this for a landaulette in about 1908; he favoured a Crossley as these engines did give very good service in the works, Richard Thomas & Co. in South Wales.

In about 1912 as he had a lot to do with Vickers he favoured a 50 h.p. Wolseley, but his younger brother Frank Treherne-Thomas had already purchased a Rolls-Royce with twin tyres on the back wheels (see page 27 of my R-R 40/50 h.p. “Ghosts, Phantoms and Spectres” book).

My grandmother, Nora Beaumont-Thomas, hated this Rolls-Royce 2445, when they took delivery. She wanted a cabriolet with a big window at the rear. This Barkers could not supply as the hood had to fold down, so the car was given two rear windows. There were constant rows over the bodywork on it.

A tour to the Chateau country in 1913 did not improve things; the car was virtually brand new and they had four bursts in the day, arrived late at Le Touquet with the tyres filled up with grass, and found that the rooms which they had booked had been let to someone else, so had to sleep in the car on the front for the night!

My grandmother sold 2445 (see page 126 “The Hyphen in Rolls-Royce” for details, and a picture of the car Plate No. 22).

At the end of the 1914/1918 War my grandmother had a Peugeot with coupe-Cabriolet body; she always said there was no place like England in the summer, so in the winter of 1919, having loaded the car with food from Fortnum and Mason (she did not like foreign fare), she and my Uncle Reggie Beaumont-Thomas, who would then have been just 17, set off with the chauffeur sitting in the dickey across, France making for Switzerland. I gather they had snow en route and the chauffeur gave notice, as he said he could stand no more of this!

In Geneva they visited the Mercedes showrooms and my grandmother bought the very first chassis to come out of Germany; it had no copper or brass on it, it was about 24 h.p., a 4-cyl. sleeve-valve. So, as the chauffeur was returning to England, my grandmother got him to drive the Mercedes in chassis form back to England, whilst she and my uncle went on down to Cannes. The Mercedes on reaching England was fitted with a saloon-limousine body built by William Osborne, the yacht builders, who had a coachbuilding business in Whitechapel and who had already built a body on a Buick for my mother. The Mercedes was everlastingly breaking sleeves when going to and fro between London and Brighton; I rather think my uncle over-drove it.

It was for this reason that when my grandmother came to think of purchasing a big luxury British car she would not consider a Daimler because of the sleeve-valves and as she was anti-R-R owing to the problems with the Barker body, on asking my uncle what to purchase, he told her the choice lay between a Leyland-8, to which my grandmother replied “Certainly not they make motor lorries”. My uncle then said the next choice is a Napier, to which my grandmother said “They make London taxicabs”.

So my uncle said this leaves only Lanchester and the one which my grandmother purchased had a Thorn saloon landaulctte body, which had been built for a Maharajah, but which he refused to accept delivery of. The car had wire wheels, but as they had already had endless trouble with spokes breaking on the Peugeot, through the way my uncle cornered it, he suggested to Archie Millership of Lanchester that as the Lanchcsier was a “40” and far heavier and faster than the Peugeot, the wheels be changed to Michelin discs, which were later to become a standard Lanchester fitting on both “40” and “21” models.

When four-wheel-brakes came into being my grandmother went into the question of converting the Lanchester, but as it was going to be so expensive, she decided, on hearing from my mother that Major Colin Cooper (Cooper’s Stores) was thinking of selling his low-mileage 1925 Rolls-Royce Chassis No. 85 AU with Connaught limousine body, a hideous body with a very ugly oval window at the rear, to buy that car. My grandmother had it until 1930, when she took delivery of her Phantom II chassis, 167 GN, shown in “Those Elegant Rolls-Royce” and in “The Hyphen in Rolls-Royce”, as Plate No. 23.

My grandmother spent her time divided between 106, Marine Parade, Brighton and her fiat in Whitehall Court, going to London on a Tuesday and returning to Brighton on a Friday. She used the Phantom II 167 GN for this purpose, always heavily loaded. Sometimes she would drive the car herself, much to the chauffeur’s horror; she was the only woman that I have ever known to drive one of the Phantom Ils, as usually women found them much too heavy. She never drove further than the Sutton by-pass. I did come up once with her at the wheel; it was in 1934, so as she was 78 when she died in 1944, she must have been 68. I know we touched 70 m.p.h. several times and the chauffeur, who was in front with her, had to ease the wheel to get the car on its correct side of the road at least twice. I was in the back with the sewing-maid and the pekinese dog. At Sutton Marston, the chauffeur took over. The other two cars which my grandmother drove regularly about Brighton, but always accompanied by the chauffeur, were a 1928 2-litre Rover with fabric 4-light saloon body and folding head and a 1931 Standard Big Nine coachbuilt saloon with sunshine roof; the Standard was vile, I drove it several times.

I think the whole point about Rolls-Royce is the clear-cut policies which Claude Johnson laid down; no car was ever obsolete, that spares are always available, and it is the endeavour of the Company that each owner will be more and more satisfied. Claude Johnson gave the cars a mystique, which they have never lost; the Company are charming to deal with and most efficient. Added to this they made so few models, that each in its way is a classic type, though the 20 h.p. and 20/25 were looked upon very much by my family and their friends as 2nd-class citizens; it was the 40/50 that was the “King of Cars” and until the time when I had my 20/25 none of the small horsepower models had ever been owned by the family. The Austin Twenty, Buick and Hupmobile Straight Eight were considered much better “buys” as the original outlay was much smaller and these cars performed better. One thing too, Rolls-Royce have always been fiends to break up with all the masses of nuts and bolts, and breakers who had them in took a long while to junk them; they liked to see them standing about their yards.

Daimler, on the other hand, made so many different models each sub-divided into a different type, so that the original purchaser could have exactly what he or she wanted. Spares were difficult at the outset, the Company saying they made cars to sell, not spare parts, that there is not really a classic Daimler type. The cars contained so much copper and brass and a great phosphor-bronze worm-wheel in the back axle, that the breakers found them very profitable, so that as soon as a Daimler entered the yard they broke it up. The sporting motorist does not as a rule like sleeve-valve engines, some Daimlers carried such gigantic bodywork that they gave the car generally the name of being sluggish as undoubtedly some of the models were. No effort was ever made by the Daimler Co. to sell their cars to the American market and only very few were imported; in fact, the only one I can think of was a 25 h.p. Maythorn saloon with fluid flywheel transmission and self-changing gears. What has happened to this car I have no idea; it is not on display at the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, which I have visited. It was purchased from the Show Stand at Olympia by Edsel Ford.”

As for American cars, Mr. Oldham thinks that at first there was an anti-American feeling in this country, as the USA came late into WW1 and made profits from it. Which probably explains why there was not much interest in the classic three American cars of the period, Cadillac, Packard and Lincoln, for some time after the Armistice. Fred Bennett showed the 5.4-litre VS Cadillac on Stand No. 96 at the 1919 Olympia Motor Show, as a limousine with electric communication between the rear parlour and the chauffeur, but perhaps the presence on the same stand of the cheap Chevrolet cars kept the elite at a distance. Ford’s luxury Lincoln was not yet available; Mr. Oldham tells me that in later years his mother, then a staunch Hupmobile user, tried a Lincoln but thought its V8 engine too heavy on petrol, compared with her straight-eight Hupmobiles. The Packard had also failed to show up at Olympia in 1919. So it was back to Rolls-Royce for many of the post-war customers…. – W. B.