The magic of a (type) name

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The Editor enthuses over Kenneth Neve’s 1911 40-50hp London-Edinburgh Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce

“The ‘London-Edinburgh Type’…. is the most coveted of all early Silver Ghosts”—Anthony Bird, in Profile No. 91

The London-Edinburgh Rolls-Royce, sporting version of the Silver Ghost, combines the latter’s well-known qualities, the irresistible magic, with the added attraction that such cars are now seldom encountered. This was what took me up to Cheshire to see the 1911 example which Kenneth Neve, past-President of VSCC, has spent six years rebuilding meticulously in his home garage.

The origins of this splendid fast tourer were discussed in the correspondence pages of Motor Sport last year. To recap briefly its history goes like this: Neve’s Rolls-Royce carries chassis number 1701 and he is convinced that it was the Derby Company’s own competition car, which was endowed with a slender four-seater open body, in which guise, in 1911, this up-rated Silver Ghost made the famous top-gear run between London and Edinburgh in answer to a Napier challenge, bettering the 65-h.p. Napier’s fuel consumption under these circumstances by 4.97 m.p.g. and the Acton car’s subsequent speed when officially timed on Brooklands Track by 1.84 m.p.h., which is to say that this Rolls-Royce returned 24.32 m.p.g. and 78.26 m.p.h.

The driver was E. W. (later Lord) Hives, subsequently to become Managing Director of Rolls-Royce Ltd. (in 1946), who, in November 1911, had a streamlined single-seater body fitted to 1701, which in this form covered the Brooklands f.s. 1/2-mile at 101.08 m.p.h. The car was sold eventually to a wealthy Cambridge undergraduate, E. H. Lees, but had been fitted with a lower axle-ratio, so that the owner was much frustrated when it failed to reach 100 m.p.h. on the road; it would apparently exceed 75 but never quite attain 80 m.p.h.

Mr. Neve bases this reconstruction on the fact that his chassis has rather untidy brackets for the fulcrums of the cantilever back springs, which can be clearly seen in contemporary photographs of the car when it was in Rolls-Royce’s possession as the single-seater and four-seater, whereas production-model London-Edinburgh cars had neater Y-shaped brackets. Also, on the Neve chassis the back springs are underslung, which does not seem to apply to any other Silver Ghosts, L-E or otherwise in Britain although two are said to exist in Australia.

1701 was registered R-1075. However, when Neve applied to the Derbyshire County Council for a licence for his rebuilt car he was issued with one, then told on the telephone that he must not use it, as the car had never been registered previously. This was sorted out by contacting Rolls-Royce Ltd. and it seems that when the taxation system was revised in 1921 the old records were destroyed because 1701 was never re-taxed as R-1075. Why this was no one knows, but the Great War, which was responsible for so many calamities, could well have been the cause. In fact, R-1075 just vanished in the vintage years.

Mr. Neve had been looking for a big Edwardian to restore for nearly a year, without success, when David Scott-Moncrieff told him that an L-E chassis was in the possession of Wade-Palmer. It proved far from complete, scarcely even a rolling chassis, as the cylinder blocks, gearbox, instruments, spare wheel and other vital parts were missing. Scott-Moncrieff had no wish to restore it, so Neve was able to acquire it. To his eternal commendation he set about not only making as new the mechanical parts but constructing a replica of the original lightweight sports-touring coachwork. That he accomplished this in his home garage, working mostly in the evenings, is quite remarkable, for the result bears the closest possible examination and, indeed, is superior to several professional rebuilds I could name. A Director of Turner & Newall Ltd., Mr Neve did take a full engineering apprenticeship with Vickers in the nineteen-thirties, so he knew what his self-appointed labour of love would entail!

The story of 1701’s resuscitation is romantic to an unexpected degree, because many of the parts required, such as another engine, a 1920 chassis frame, lamps, instruments and so on, were discovered in an Indian bazaar and crated for shipment to England. The mechanical restoration involved having new cast-iron pistons made, the engine completely stripped down and overhauled generally, and a new crown-wheel and pinion cut for the back axle, to restore the final-drive ratio to 2.7 to 1, instead of the dismally under-geared one which had so frustrated the Edwardian undergraduate. Serck made a new core for the handsome radiator and refurbished and silver-plated the shell and the “flying-lady” mascot. In London, George Grou of Goswell Road restored and silver-plated the enormous CAV bell-head electric headlamps, which are matched by CAV scuttle-mounted side lamps. The chassis-mounted oil reservoir, although covered in Verdigris, cleaned up satisfactorily. The back axle, transmission and most of the engine parts, including the carburetter, were in fine fettle, but new brake drums were made (they are unexpectedly small in diameter) and the shoes relined with Ferodo. The road springs were encased in those excelled Wefco gaiters, Richfield’s fitted the old brake cable-ends into new cables, a 1920 dynamo was utilised, wired to a normal cut-out, and a hidden footflick-switch contrived for dimming the headlamps through a rheostat.

Only photographs of the body were available but, this notwithstanding, the result is indistinguishable from the original and extremely pleasing to look upon long, low, narrow, rakish and undeniably sporting. It was panelled in aluminium, which was used also for the shapely mudguards. Mr Neve undertook all the construction, as he had the mechanical assembly, in his home garage, helped, however, by some of his works’ craftsmen in their spare time. Thus Billy Nevitt assisted with the body framework, Norman Butterworth made the torpedo tail, to a curvature Frazer Nash exponents referred to at a later date as the “fallen woman” shape, using mallet and dolly, and Ted Burman undertook to make the button upholstery, for which four of Connolly’s best hides were needed, and to fashion the hood, hood-bag and tonneau cover.

These painstaking home-workers even applied the paint, to a plan discovered in a 1914 coachbuilder’s manual. This made provision for a total of a dozen coats but in the event 18 were applied and laboriously rubbed-down, all painting being done by brush, with final coats of varnish. The paint was supplied by T. & R. Williamson of Rippon and, in case our colour printers do odd things, I would remark that the colour chosen was Mercedes grey. Another expert from Mr. Neve’s Company helped materially with this paint job. The bonnet, which was also made by the Neve equipe, is of polished aluminium, anxiety being experienced every time a hole was drilled for a total of 238 rivets, because had the drill slipped the bonnet panels would have been irretrievably ruined.

Difficulty in finding “period” lever-type door handles was solved by the Walsall Lock & Cart Gear Co., the running-board edging is of plated steel, more durable and smarter than alloy channelling, which was supplied by Bassetts Findlay Shop Fitters of Walworth, and the coconut floor matting was made accurately from templates by Henshaws Blind School in Manchester. The Beatonson screen, adopted to the scuttle, has a single glass pane, wiped by a vintage Lucas electric wiper which parks its modern blade almost out of sight.

Climbing into this exciting-looking sporting L-E Rolls-Royce the narrowness of its body was even more apparent, because the owner and the writer are, shall we say, well built, so that the driver’s elbow-room on left-hand corners was somewhat restricted! The driving position is impressive, the tall steering column, to the sporting rake, being topped by a steering wheel endowed with the traditional Silver Ghost throttle, ignition and mixture control pedastal—and, of course, The Governor, which on Neve’s car permits one to maintain constant uphill and downhill progression without using the foot accelerator.

The 7.4-litre engine can be run on magneto, battery, or both together, it invariably commences “on the switch”, and initial fuel pressure is pumped up with an air pump located mainly on the passenger side of the bulkhead, this being a L-E distinguishing feature, as the pump is otherwise on the dash. Another way of telling the sporting L-E from more staid Ghosts is the square instead of circular flange connecting the R.-R. carburetter to the inlet manifolding. Unseen aids to better performance, which enabled Rolls-Royce to enter a team of cars in the 1913 Austrian Alpine Trial with outstanding success, consist of a somewhat larger carburetter, a slightly raised compression ratio, a 4-speed gearbox and lower axle ratio.

Coming to driving impressions of 1701, after noting the foot-level CAV electrical box and the similarly-placed clock, oil gauge (reading 10 lb./sq. in. at idling revs, 15 to 16 lb./sq. in. at cruising pace) and fuel gauge, these little dials being, by the way, brand new, from the stock of the late Carlos de Salamanca, Spanish R.-R. agent, you engage first gear, the clutch gives a slight squeal, and you are away.

The gear and brake levers are outside the body, the three-speed and reverse gear-gate conventional, but the lever having the R.-R. locking and self-centring action. The driving stance is comfortable and commanding—even the front wheels and stub axles can be seen. Now again I will be honest. I found the manipulation of the gears difficult, some changes being entirely silent, others “clonky”. It is a gear-change which needs both practice and firmness, the art consisting of not to be caught out by the lever’s desire to remain in the previously-selected notch and to double declutch quickly, up and down. Neve has nearly mastered it already…

For retardation you use the smoothly-functioning hand-brake, which lies beyond the gear-lever, and works on the back wheels, the transmission foot-brake having much less effect. The steering is half-way between light and heavy and the L-E tucks itself enthusiastically into corners. As the engine wasn’t by any means run-in and because on the busy A49 and down adjacent very narrow and winding country lanes with the owner sitting close beside me I felt as if I were temporarily wearing a priceless royal crown, I didn’t exactly extend the car; I don’t suppose either of us exceeded 1,000 r.p.m. Yet the eagerness of the L-E to go, the impression that tail slides round open bends wouldn’t come amiss, suggests that Neve is in for some great fun, some grand touring, in the very near future…

Quite the most impressive item on the afternoon’s agenda was 1701’s ability to pick-up willingly from not far off zero m.p.h. in top gear. It did this, ignition naturally at “late”, without even a trace of being incensed, a considerable relief to one not yet accustomed to leaning out and persuading the somewhat stubborn gear-lever into a low cog. This astonishing smooth-running ability from 5 m.p.h. onwards in spite of the high gearing and big wheels, and the quietness of the big car, were a reminder that there is no substitute for litres, in terms of other factors other than sheer acceleration and speed. This London-Edinburgh is not entirely silent, no car ever was, but there is an almost complete absence of mechanical sounds, not a hint of an “explosion motor” in action, and I can see that, ensconced in a closed body on such a chassis one would be travelling almost silently, disturbed, maybe, only by the ticking of one’s watch. This ghostly form of progression and performance potential must have been a truly enviable combination by the standards of 60 years ago.

I see no reason why this fine motor car shouldn’t, when its engine is free, exceed the legal-limit (and I don’t mean the Legal-limit of R.-R. history) and cruise all day at an easy 60 to 65 m.p.h. Speed, by the way, is recorded on a Twin-Elliott speedometer facing you on the scuttle edge, an instrument having an elaborate trip recorder below its bigger 80 m.p.h. dial; it is belt-and cable-driven off the Cardan shaft. The wooden rim of the steering wheel possesses deep finger grips on its under-surface, tools are stowed in a box which forms a foot-board for the passengers in the tonneau, there are electric and bulb horns, and 1701 runs on 895 x 150 limousine rear tyres, with 895 x 135 Pirelli Milanos on the front wheels. The wire wheels have early-type R.-R. centre-lock made by Rudge-Whitworth, ratchet-retained hubs, which had to be remade. The spare wheel is shod by Dunlop. The suspension and balance of the car are far advanced, compared to most big Edwardian chassis.

Under the long bonnet a typical Silver Ghost engine fits comfortably between radiator and dashboard. The magneto on the near-side is a Simms, but an impressive and more period Bosch D6 will soon replace it; on the opposite or carburetter side a cast spacer keeps the h.t. leads from the R.-R. distributor tidy. Also on the o/s is the beautifully made R.-R. coil box. Twelve Champion sparking plugs form a line along the cylinder heads and, with its modest 3.8-to-1 c.r., cheap petrol is perfectly permissible. Valvene oil is used.

A nice gesture is the fact that the door plates of this L-E Rolls-Royce are inscribed with the names of the aforelisted craftsmen who helped with its rebirth. Incidentally Neve says he is perfectly content with the finish and fettling of castings as specified by Sir Henry Royce and has not resorted to special polishing, gold plating or stove enamelling. Nor has the engine required special balancig to eliminate vibration periods, although the six pistons, which, remember, are of cast-iron as in the original engine, were naturally carefully matched. The chassis frame did not call for any special truing-up, beyond the normal checks.

Although he has only drill, grinder, shears and the usual hand-tools in the home workshop, Mr. Neve has rebuilt 1701 into one of the nicest specimens of Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce I have encountered, with the added spice of this being an L-E, and once a works car, at that. In addition to this magnificent motor car Neve has the short-chassis 1933 Rolls-Royce Continental Phantom II with Barker-Martin body (can anyone enlarge on “Martin”) which disdainfully tows his 1914 TT Humber to race meetings. This Rolls-Royce was brought 20 years ago and has covered over 160,000 completely reliable miles since then, a total mileage of more than 220,000, with very occasional attention from Don McKenzie. Having completed his L-E rebuild, this indefatigable enthusiast is about to do the same for an SS100 solo Brough Superior, which reminds him of his Brooklands debut, and eventually for the ex-Pat Melville 30/98 Vauxhall.

His modern car? Kenneth Neve likes big motors and for business use has a manual-gearbox 4.2-litre Daimler Sovereign.—W. B.