In the days before Rolls-Royce announced the 40/50hp Silver Ghost, the Napier was regarded by many as Britain’s Top Car. Rolls-Royce soon corrected that, the Derby company doing everything it knew how to build a quality car, including taking a close look at its opposition. In fact in the 35 years or so from 1909 onwards, R-R engineers tried a total of some 36 other makes. Naturally, one of the first was their rival, the Napier from Acton.
Claude Johnson had sampled the 30 and 60hp Napier by 1909 and found their gearboxes more silent and with an easier change than on the current Rolls-Royce cars. He thought the easy change might be due to the plate clutch but said it was R-R’s duty to find out, and advised buying one of its cars.
By May 1912, the R-R test driver was asked for an opinion of a Napier he had driven from London to Derby. He told Mr Johnson that it had reminded him of a poor Rolls-Royce with too high a c.r, a light flywheel and no slipper-drive. The clutch was the best plate type he had tried. Gearbox good, engine not very flexible, and not as quiet as R-R’s when idling. Rolls were very concerned that their cars were near-silent “when standing”.
By that September the matter had become serious and Johnson said that if the R-R gears could not be improved they would need to resort to finishing the gears with Brown and Sharpe cutters, in spite of the difficulty of getting these from America. R-R’s Mr Clarke was surprised that the box on a 15hp Napier had been thought so good, as these varied considerably, but conceded that the 45hp Napier had by far the best to come out of Acton.
Napier had the same problem as R-R with metal engine gears rattling at idle and ringing at high rpm. Carburation was found too weak, spoiling acceleration from a crawl and making starting up difficult. Their expert R-R tester found that the Napier made a “terrible chatter” at 1600rpm (50mph) and the Eight flywheel caused lumpy idling.
He got about 12mpg . The pistons knocked, and at full power pulsations could be felt not good enough by R-R standards. Had Napier’s S F Edge known he would surely have had hysterics! The stiff steering was tiring after a day’s run but Platford found Lanchesters worse. Springing very fair, air on the floorboards cooler than on an R-R, exhaust very quiet, and “suction noises” about as on a R-R.
These findings caused conscientious R-R to test a Polyrhoe carburettor on the Napier, clutch plates on both cars to check ‘jingling’, and test steering pivots by running over obstacles in a ten-hour bashing on a Napier, both front shock absorbers, a brake rod and both silencer straps broke.
After the war, in 1920, Royce was not anxious to use Bosch magnetos unless from the English makers, and told Barrington “I shall be very pleased to hear what is wrong with the Watford magneto”. At the 1920 Motor Show Royce received a report on short runs in such challengers as Hispano-Suiza, Lanchester, V12 Packard and 40/50hp Napier. He found the Napier harsher and noisier than the Hispano and much more so than the 40/50hp Rolls-Royce. Idling, the Napier had a distinct knock due to the oh-camshaft drive. The gears were noisier than those of an R-R, the rear-seat ride uncomfortable, and the driver spoke of 55/60mph as the best speed he could get. They treated cars roughly, judging by a 6mph run up a 1-in-16 hill, when at the top the Napier’s engine “missed and knocked badly and the transmission clunking became apparent”. The 1920 Lanchester was judged the worst of all the four cars. All of which must have cheered up Henry Royce, Johnson, Elliott, et al!
Thus did Rolls-Royce check the opposition, to defend their claim as “the Best Car in the World”, which until the early 1920s few questioned.