The Editor Experiences another Contrast, Driving in Succession a 1938 Rolls-Royce Phantom III and a 1958 Fiat 600
LAST month it so happened that on the same day I drove the latest Ford Thunderbird and a model-T Unicar, thus changing at short notice from a car of 5,769 c.c. to one of a modest 328 c.c., as recorded in last month’s issue. Not long afterwards I was to experience almost as sharp a contrast, on the day on which stepped from a very imposing 1938 40/50-h.p. Rolls-Royce Phantom III limousine into a new Fiat 600. On this occasion it was a matter of going from 7,338 c.c. to 633 c.c.
The test of the Rolls-Royce arose because I had for some time decided that I would like to gain first-hand experience of a car which many people regard as the last of the “real” Rolls-Royces. Introduced late in 1935, the Phantom III, with its beautiful 60-deg. vee-twelve engine, massive X-braced chassis, automatically-governed coil-spring i.f.s. and ½-elliptic rear suspension with hydraulic driver-control of shock-absorption, and the famous mechanical brake servo, was, and remains, a very impressive piece of automobile engineering, sought after by Rolls-Royce connoisseurs.
I am in possession of the very beautiful catalogue issued by Rolls-Royce Limited about the Phantom III but I had not driven this model. Consequently, I took the opportunity of rectifying this omission when one of these great motor cars became available to us for a few days through the co-operation of Simmons, the well-known Mayfair Rolls-Royce and Bentley copers.
This particular car- 3-CM-131 -is a 1937/8 3rd series Hooper limousine with electrically raised and lowered division between the front compartment and the elegantly-appointed “boudoir.” The latter is sumptuous in the extreme. Upholstery is in soft leather, the floor covered in thick carpets and rug. Companions, concealed behind glass and lit when in use, are let into the rear quarters of the body, the roof has two sunken interior lamps, a Ferranti radio is concealed under the off-side armrest, the folding centre armrest for the back seat contains more make-up equipment, and in the division are stowed two glass-topped tables. There is a telephone with which to speak to the chauffeur and a tiny switch on the near-side seat armrest controls the aforesaid electrically-operated glass this rising in ghostly silence at an angle, thus constituting an effective screen should the rear-seat passengers feel draught from the open front screen or sunshine roof, before assuming the vertical and meeting the roof, completely sealing off chauffeur and footman. A small clock and a cigar lighter complete these V.I.P. amenities.
Impressive as these details were, the whole car being in fine condition and bearing the initials “P. S.” on its doors, I was far more interested in how it would handle and perform. After driving it for more than 300 miles I was even more impressed !
The driving compartment has separate seats, softly upholstered and affording excellent support. Before the driver stretches the long bonnet, terminating in the classic radiator, the shoulders of which stand proud of the bonnet panels. In one’s line of vision is the Flying Lady mascot (each one stamped with the magic initials “R.R.” and the date in 1911 when this was sculptured by Charles Sykes), without which a Rolls-Royce looks bare and incomplete. The big steering wheel carries those silken minor controls for suspension over-ride, throttle and ignition, the last-named labelled “Early/ Late,” a pleasing throw-back to a sterner age, when the driving menial could hardly be expected to understand “Advance/Retard” !
The walnut facia carries an imposing yet unobtrusive range of instruments and controls. There is the 110-m.p.h. R.R. speedometer, its white needle swinging steadily round the dial, beyond the red “30” digit, as the open road is gained. There is the carburation control, with spoon-lever, for ”Start” or “Normal ”; the switch to bring in petrol pumps “A” or “B,” or both; the lockable circular electrical panel containing those splendid lamps switches, starter button and the switch whereby each ignition system (twin coils, a total of 24 plugs) can be tested separately, aircraft fashion, as the engine is run up. A battery of six matching switches on the extreme right control twin fog-lamps, facia lighting, heater and wipers. There are a really deep cubbyhole with unlockable walnut lid; cigar-lighter and slide-out ashtray; an accurate petrol gauge reading up to 32 gallons (calibrated every three gallons) and starting at three gallons; combined oil gauge and water thermometer; additional heater and facia lighting knobs; an electric plug; warning lights for low fuel content and dynamo charge; reversing lamps switch and a clock. Behind this dashboard, high in his seat, the Flying Lady Pressing onward to the whisper of power unleashed by the big vee-twelve o.h.v. engine, which one likes to think is blood-brother to the Battle-of-Britain-winning Merlin, the driver of a Phantom III feels in command of the road.
The windscreen opens and twin roller blinds are fitted in lieu of sun-visors. The driver’s door possesses a small adjustable armrest and a divided, plated knob on the steering-wheel centre operates loud or soft audible warning. The front-seat passenger has a grab-handle! Climbing up to drive this Hooper-bodied Phantom III the feet sink again into soft carpets. A driver of average stature finds that he can just see the front wings, or the faired sidelamp on the near-side one.
The first impression, after the silence of the 7.4-litre engine when idling, is the extreme heaviness of the steering when hauling the Rolls-Royce away from the kerb. On the move, however, the steering, which demands just over three turns, lock-to-lock, lightens out and after half an hour’s motoring the length and bulk of the car no longer bothers one. But turn it in a cul-de-sac and anyone not in the pink of condition will find himself panting from the effort needed on the wheel.
Thanks to the neat, cranked right-band brake-lever and position of the typically R.-R. right-hand gear-lever entry and egress from the driver’s seat can be made with dignity.
It isn’t long before an enthusiastic driver becomes enthralled with the performance of the Phantom III. I do not mean so much in account of a maximum speed of some 95 m.p.h. from this very square-rigged 21-ton limousine, or on account of useful maxima of over 50 and 70 m.p.h., respectively, in second and third gear, all accomplished in near-silence. What is even more impressive is the top-gear performance, both on account of the car’s ability to accelerate effortlessly in this gear from around 10 m.p.h. and because the acceleration from 20 m.p.h. onward is so vivid as to leave noisy, bouncing sports cars gasping.
So flexible is the yee-twelve power unit that I soon developed the technique of getting the wheels rolling in second gear and then going ” round the corner” into top gear. These two ratios suffice for all normal motoring. It is fun to slip into third for passing real obstructions, like those 60-foot-long transporters with which the R.A.F. playfully litters our main roads, but top-gear pick-up meets all normal situations.
The other surprising feature of the Phantom III is the manner in which it handles. With the suspension over-ride control, which operates on both front and back wheels, on “hard” the car corners fast with no perceptible roll and can be tucked into traffic gaps with all the sang froid of a small sports car. The steering transmits vibration rather than kick-back, unless the front wheels hit a pot-hole, when vintage-car shake of both chassis and steering is felt. Only extremely violent swerves cause the heavy body to affect stability, and then only to a mild degree. Because the Phantom III handles so surprisingly well very fine average speeds are possible on congested roads, in spite of the car’s bulk. Cornering is assisted by sensibly mild castor-action on the steering.
Apart from a faint exhaust hiss, a few body rattles after twenty years’ use (the near-side front door reminded one that cruising speed had reached 80 m.p.h. by a more pronounced rattle) and rather annoying wind noise round the front-door pillars, this Rolls-Royce travels more silently than a Zephyr, its gears and back axle truly inaudible.
Cruising speed becomes a habitual 80 m.p.h., the Rolls-Royce mechanical servo brakes retarding this heavy car with deceptive efficiency and very light pedal pressure when need arises.
The car I tried had been supplied with a new clutch by Rolls-Royce Limited. This had not bedded in and was somewhat fierce. It is also heavy to hold out in traffic. This brings me to observe that, for all its silent, effortless speed, the Phantom III is essentially a man’s motor car. The gear-change, like passing a bodkin through cream cheese if unhurried, can jar the hand if rapid changes are required. Double-de-clutching is called for, up and down, but there is synchromesh to assist the downward changes. Few women below the calibre of Channel-swimmers could park the monster, and, for all its ease of control otherwise, one is conscious of great weight behind the momentum. There is slight front-end shake on bad roads, but no scuttle float to disturb the driver’s equanimity.
In traffic water temperature shot up towards 100 deg. C., but soon fell to a normal 75 deg., oil pressure varying between 8 and 28 lb./ sq. in. I did not cheek petrol consumption accurately, but it is certainly at least 10 ½ m.p.g., possibly improving to about 12 m.p.g. on long runs.
The ride control definitely works, but the engine seemed quite insensitive to ignition advance and retard. The tyres howl quite a lot on slow corners, bearing witness to the weight they carry—with about six gallons of petrol the weight came out at 2 tons 14 cwt. 2 qtr.
Driving a Phantom Ill turned out to be an even more pleasing experience than I had anticipated, for I never expected the car to handle in keeping with its performance.
Even in the garage this is obviously a possession to delight in and it seems an excellent investment at the £600-£1,000 for which these fine cars are now obtainable. The handsome appearance of the Hooper limousine under discussion was enhanced by Ace wheel-discs, the spare wheel being enclosed in a metal cover on the off-side of the car. For night driving the huge Rolls-Royce-Lucas headlamps are truly effective, and the driver has instantaneous control of the rear-window blind from a control above his head. Self-cancelling direction-indicators are operated by a facia-sill lever. Alas, the doors do not trail; front and rear compartment quarter-windows are opened by means of large knobs, and the front-door window-handles need 7½ turns, the back ones just over two turns, from fully up to fully down. Discreet, covered locks are fitted in both the off-side doors, and the petrol filler-map Irks. It is stating the obvious to remark that the doors shut quietly, with coachbuilt precision. There is a scuttle ventilator, controlled by under-fascia knob, which cools the feet; the control for automatic lubrication of the chassis is adjacent.
Opening the bonnet reveals the engine to be a truly beautiful example of engineering in the true Rolls-Royce tradition. The components are driven in-line on the near side, a dual carburetter with air silencer feeds the two banks of cylinders, and the black stove-enamel finish contrasts splendidly with the perfection of the alloy castings. Incidentally, Rolls-Royce’s own electrical components are largely used and the Phantom III has the inbuilt jacking system. Starting handle and jack clip to the bulkhead and the radiator possesses thermostatically-controlled shutters which further enhance the appearance of the car.
For this brief but exhilarating contact with a good specimen of Rolls-Royce Phantom III I am indebted to Mr. Gerald Shipman, to whom the car had been sold, but who agreed to the loan of it to MOTOR SPORT. He must be pleased with his purchase; particularly because these fine cars, made with watch-like. precision—some connoisseurs go so far as to remark that they are as delicate as a watch, and cost more to maintain than the less complex Phantom II— have scarcely depreciated in value since they left Derby. In 1935, for example, the chassis was priced at £1,850 and the complete ears in the region of £2,600.
So interested had I become in Phantom IIIs that I invited myself along to Hythe Road to discuss them with Mr. W. E. Maddocks, Service Manager to Rolls-Royce Limited. A description of “the 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce” appeared in MOTOR SPORT dated November, 1935, from which I find that, massive as the Phantom III chassis appears, it is actually 8 per cent, lighter than the Phantom II frame. The engine has alloy heads, and 14 mm. plugs are used. Power output is 12 per cent, greater than from the Phantom II. The seven-bearing crankshaft is fully balanced and the gearbox is separate from the engine, with synchromesh on all except bottom gear.
Mr. Maddocks told one that the prototype engine was based on an early version of the Merlin aero-engine; from which valuable experience was gained in respect of vee-twelve engine balance, crankcase webbing, etc. Very few modifications were found necessary during the four years the Phantom III was in production, during which time several hundreds were made.
Originally hydraulic tappets were used, in the form of plungers bearing on arms, which ensured zero-clearance at the eccentrically mounted valve rockers. It proved difficult to ensure complete silence, however, so, in 1938, solid tappets were substituted. Four piston-type, single-jet Rolls-Royce carburetters of the kind used on the late-model 20/25 h.p. cars were used for the 1935 prototype car only, Rolls-Royce going over to downdraught carburation soon afterwards, so that production Phantom IIIs had a single choke Stromberg carburetter. Later versions had the four-point head, with improved inlet manifold, and the last few made, while retaining an 8/34 axle-ratio, had an overdrive top gear, the gear ratios being : 1st : 11.5 to 1; 2nd : 6.15 to 1; 3rd 4.25 to 1 (direct) and top : 3.53 to 1 (overdrive.).
Rolls-Royce never divulge horse-power figures, but those given in the data table are thought to be approximately correct; the earlier gear ratios: are also given. It seems possible that with a free exhaust, were noise no objection, over 200 b.h.p, would he available. Mr. Maddock, recalled the excellence of the i.f.s. system, the coil springs enclosed within oil-dampers. A gearbox-driven oil pump provides automatic adjustment of front and back damping in accordance with road-speed, with additional driver control of front and back dampers, while an anti-roll bar is fitted at the back.
After the Phantom III I immediately took over a little Fiat 600 and drove it more than 400 miles in three days. There is no need to describe this bonny little vehicle in detail, because a full road-test report was published in MOTOR SPORT in January 1956.
But I wish, to congratulate Dr. Dante Giacosa on his very commendable achievements. In designing the Fiat 600 he has contrived to obtain a very level and comfortable ride, a thing difficult to do in a light car but a major technical victory in a vehicle as small as the little Fiat. Apart from riding comfort, this talented Italian engineer has produced a really roomy baby car by placing the cooling element beside the tiny four-cylinder engine, and similar clever expedients; to comfortable suspension he has allied real excellence of control, so that less oversteer is experienced in this rear-engined car than in many front-engined vehicles.
A companion who accompanied me on a long Sunday’s motering in the Fiat 600 remarked that there is more space within it than in certain well-known 1,172-c.c. saloon and that the ride is better. He further remarked that driven hard, the car in question does only 28 m.p.g. Making no attempt to conserve petrol, the Fiat 600 gave 47 m.p.g., including a number of stops and starts.
I noted that the Fiat’s speedometer indicates a third-gear maximum corresponding to the speed which our dim politicians deem the safe limit on many of Britain’s arterial motor roads. In fact, the very smooth little engine will run happily to beyond 40 m.p.h. in third gear, and this, coupled with lively acceleration, a cruising speed of around 60 m.p.h, and very handy overall dimensions, make the Fiat 600 an admirable proposition for our congested roads.
If the Rolls-Royce had a temporarily fierce clutch, that on the Fiat possessed the same shortcoming; I think due to faulty adjustment. Otherwise, no complaints, and the “quick ” steering is a joy to use, rendering the Fiat safe when the actions of a traffic clot call for sudden evasive action. The driving position lives up to Fiat’s reputation in this respect but the left-hand stalks controlling lamps and direction-flashers could be slightly better placed. These controls are new, likewise wind-up windows in the doors, with anti-draught shields, these shields more effective for rear-seat than front-seat occupants. Five-and-a-quarter turns of the window-handles are needed, from closed to fully open.
The Fiat 600 fulfils a very definite demand in modern motoring. It is probably of only academic interest to the majority of readers that it should be possible, after a diligent search, to buy a used Rolls-Royce Phantom III for the Fiat’s purchase price in this country of £649 7s, inclusive of purchase tax – such is the difference between a petrol thirst of 11 and 47 m.p.g.! – W.B.
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