Veteran to classic

Rolls-Royces in old age

In his recently-published book on Rolls Royce, George Oliver has a chapter entitled "See how they last", covering some of the older models still in use. The author tells us he has consulted not only almost every motor journal but also all manner of newspapers and magazines, such as The Illustrated London News and The Tatler, so what follows is unlikely to be new to him.

However, it may interest others to see how motoring writers looked at the old Rolls-Royces long before the VCC or VSCC were formed.

In 1920, for instance, apart from noting that 1920 Ghosts were being re-bodied (two by Gills, one by Cunard) it was announced that SJ Gammell was giving to the Royce Ltd collection the 10hp Royce four-seater (registration SU13), he had bought in 1906 and used ever since. It was thought to be the 1903 Paris Salon car. Another motorist was using a two-cylinder Royce at this time, a two seater (registration CX 446) — and what happened to them in,later times?

Late in 1926 someone, I think Sammy Davis of The Autocar, discovered in the basement of the Rolls-Royce showroom in Conduit Street, London W1, what said to be the car which had finished in the 1905 Isle of Man TT, driven by Percy Northey. The racer now had a ungainly all-weather body, but revealed primitive features such as valve-rockers, a big governor, a fronted distributor and a magneto hiding coyly beneath the floorboards.

They got the old car going and its condition was found to be not at all bad; indirect gears audibly gave away their age, but direct-drive was quiet. Trade plates had been strapped on and off they went to (where else?) Brooklands Track, the indirect gear being engaged once out of London. Setting the oiling drip-feeds correctly took time, but this TT Rolls-Royce was good for 45 mph, even 50 mph, before the steering became a touch problematical.

At the Track people requested a trip round the Grand Prix course and someone, over-inquisitive, left the ignition on and welded the trembler-contacts together. This made running on the magneto imperative and five famous racing men toiled for twenty minutes on the handle before the four-cylinder 20hp engine fired. Alvis driver CM Harvey worked the hardest, quite without results ...

After which it was back to Conduit Street. This car, which had seen service on the western front in World War One, was now used as a tourer by its owner, Stewart Burt. Sammy (it must have been SCHD!) thought what fun it would be to tell some snobbish person the Rolls would be brought round, and then turn up in this ancient model!

Around this time, incidentally, pre-war 40/50s were still being given new coachwork, such as the 1914 car rebodied by Cole & Sons of Hammersmith as a four-door saloon. It was in 1929 that a 20-year-old example was found and some performance figures obtained for it.

Originally a landaulette, it had been laid up during the First World War and somewhat modernised by a pioneer motorist, Captain Crandall, in 1922. He raised the radiator by about 3in, and put on a new bonnet and scuttle and a four-seater sports body. In 1925 a Cookham neighbour, Captain Seeker, acquired the old Royce and did a few more mods, replacing the air-pressure petrol-feed with a vacuum-tank, the numerous grease-caps with nipples, and putting in a later-type transmission brake.

No less a person than AG Douglas Clease, then The Autocar's technical editor, took the car for a long run. Looking quite modern in 1929, it nevertheless still had three-quarter-elliptic back springs, fixed wooden wheels with demountable rims and the old direct third gear. There was no starter, but the coil ignition responded quickly to hand-cranking, after which the engine could be commenced "on the switch".

The clutch was found to be smooth, and it was normal to change directly from first into direct-third, unless better pick-up was required. From third to top was an easy change, but it needed a long straight road for the indirect gear to be effective and at speeds below 60 mph this emitted a slight hum. The change back into third was quick and easy, and in this gear the aged Rolls-Royce happily climbed twisty 1-in-10 gradients; second was sufficient on a 1-in-6 hill, speed never falling below 15 mph.

Those performance figures? 37 mph in second gear was quiet, fussless cruising. From a steady 10 mph (which is how acceleration tests should be conducted), 30 mph in direct-third took 12 seconds, reduced to 11 seconds by keeping the second speed in. What, I wonder, became of these long-lived Rolls-Royces? WB