Rolls-Royce - The Cars And Their Competitors 1906-1965

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Rolls-Royce — The Cars And Their Competitors 1906-1965 by A B Price. 192pp. 10″ x 7″. (B T Batsford Ltd, 4 Fitzhardinge Street, London W1. £17.50)

Last month we reviewed two very important new Rolls-Royce books, and now we have a trio. The idea of comparing R-R cars from the Ghost to the last of the Clouds with rival makes was a clever one, and the author’s long experience of the motor trade and of Rolls-Royce and Bugatti cars in particular, makes him a fitting person to tackle it. Whether it has quite come off is another matter.

Price’s masterful approach to Lea-Francis history set high standards, difficult to follow. His new book has to stand or fall by the comparisons of R-R with other cars, because a lot of the lead-in material will be old hat to many followers of motoring history. There are a few printing errors, the worst being “Rolly-Royce”, and the layout of the book is rather haphazard. This is forgiveable, though, because it has enabled a most interesting correspondence between Dr Lanchester and Percy Martin, about an advanced but stillborn design for a post-WW1 car, to form the last of six appendices.

The comparisons are absolutely enthralling. These comprise Ghost v Napier 60, post-war Ghost v Lanchester 40, R-R 20 v 20.9 hp Sunbeam, Phantom 1 v sleeve-valve Daimler, P11 v 8-litre Bentley, R-R 20/25 v Hispano Suizas, Derby Bentley v Bugatti Type 57, and P111 v R-R’s own 25/30 and Wraith cars. Barrie also provides equally fascinating asides, such as correspondence from R-R about a 1928 2-litre straight-eight Bugatti in which Royce observes sagely, of owning such a car: “certainly I am too old; it might seem rather crazy”. The R-R surveys of competitors’ products, namely Lanchester, Chrysler, SS-Jaguar, Humber Super Snipe, Essex Terraplane, Cadillac V8, Cadillac V16, Buick, Austin Eight, Citroen, Hotchkiss, and V12 Lagonda, may have been released elsewhere, but the author’s comments are very interesting.

It would be unfair to reveal any of the author’s findings in his comparisons, but I cannot resist quoting his very high opinion of the George Lanchester cars: “If Lanchester had been able to command the worldwide sales and service backup which the Derby company enjoyed, the title of Best Car in the World would probably have been lost to Birmingham.” No-one can accuse Price of bias, as might have been expected, knowing his close trade associations with R.R. I was interested, too, to read his explanation for certain problems that assailed Rolls-Royce in spite of their great reputation and exhaustive testing methods, such as bearing failures on the Derby Bentleys and the oil-sludging in Phantom III engines. He states: “It is difficult to understand why some of the problems, such as handling and ride, should have proved so intractable, taking into account the weight of brain power, endless discussion and vast expenditure in the experimental department. Research among surviving papers reveals a surprising amount of personality problems, a facet which at the least would have an effect upon general efficiency, and at worst could act as a brake on the firm’s progress.”

The book, aside from its general purpose, contains many snippets of fresh data. There is a table showing the number of components in one front-brake assembly, with R-R and with a Girling mechanism (264 against 137!); and another showing the kind of service problems the Bugatti works had to contend with in 1934. There are also chapters on the post-war R-R cars, examples of R-R engineering style with many pictures, appendices about the relationship of R-R to the Sunbeam and SS companies and notes on famous engineering personalities. If one missed anything in the engineering comparisons, it was that matters of tappet-adjustment, for example on R-R v ohc Hispano Suiza, might have been mentioned; likewise R-R’s adjustment of reardamper stiffness. However, the author’s detailed notes on his personal experience with the later R-R and Bentley cars is valuable indeed to prospective buyers of used cars.

The theme of the book is irresistible, and although Rolls-Royce enthusiasts may not like it, they and all motoring historians will have to read it. WB