Another ghost story

The account I wrote last October about Mr. S. R. Southall’s two-owner 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost tourer having been well received, I thought we would say a little more about these motor-cars. Particularly a this is the 70th Anniversary of the RAC-observed 15,000-mile trial of the original “Silver Ghost”, a very impressive assembly of Rolls-Royce cars will be inspected by HM The Queen at Windsor on May 7th, among them many Silver Ghosts, and it was 100 years ago that the Hon. C. S. Rolls, the person who brought the Royce car to commercial fruition, was born. What better, then, than to go for a ride in the original “Silver Ghost”, one of the best-known and beloved of Edwardian cars, which has been so carefully refurbished and kept in sound running-order by Rolls-Royce Motors?

In more recent times all the side-valve 40/50 Rolls-Royce cars have been loosely referred to as “Silver Ghosts”. Strictly, however, there is only one 40/50 entitled to use the famous name. It was given by Mr. Claude Johnson to the 13th, such R-R chassis, built to Royce’s latest six-cylinder formula at the Manchester factory in 1906. It was chassis no. 60551, thought to have been shown on the R-R stand at Olympia in November of that year. Claude Johnson, the General Managing Director of Rolls-Royce Ltd., gave a number of special names to individual R-R cars, but “The Silver Ghost” was the car he chose to really publicise the new 40/50-h.p. six cylinder model, not only by having a handsome, rather sporting, Barker Roi-de-Belges body put on the chassis, but by allowing the car to proclaim its name, for it was painted in aluminium (silver) paint and the lamps, radiator, and other metal fittings were all silver-plated. “thus came into being a Rolls-Royce with a prefix that was sobs the basis of that used for many subsequent production models, right up to today’s Silver Shadow, which is selling so strongly at a time when other motor manufacturers are in the financial, doldrums.

The 1906 Silver Ghost, which was to achieve to much fame the following year, lived up to the second part of its name by its quiet running, which was quite remarkable at a time when so many other big Edwardian cars had noisy engines, growling or whining gears, and rattling bodywork. Henry Royce had worked gradually towards near-perfection in his products, with unobtrusive functioning as one of his major aims. The 1906 40/50-h.p, model reached the highest peak he had achieved to date, and was also a notably reliable car, beautifully made, with the closest attention to impeccable detail-work.

However, even the best car needs bringing to the attention of the buying public. Claude Johnson had a great gift for bringing this about; later Rolls-Royce PR men, such as Millard Buckley and the present, popular Dennis Miller-Williams, have a great heritage to follow up. It was Dennis who responded immediately when, knowing that the Company’s Silver Ghost—THE “Silver Ghost”— had been down at Beaulieu as an important exhibit in the RREC/NMM Silver Jubilee Exhibition, had to be brought back to London. I asked if I could ride with him. It was arranged that the trailer should be left behind and that we should journey down to Hampshire one January evening and return in state the next morning in the famous Silver Ghost. Having tried recently a 1920 40/50 Rolls-Royce and now the 1906 Silver Ghost I am following the perhaps controversial point made by the authors of “A Vintage Car Casebook” (Batsford, 1976), when they remark that the end of the First World War was, for Rolls-Royce, “the insidious beginning of the down. ward path”. Note, though, that even these hyper-critical writers agree that during is life of the Hon. Charles Rolls the 40/50 Rolls-Royces were “without question the best cars available at the time” (Rolls died in an aeroplane accident in 1910).

The car I am now concerned with has had an illustrious career. Indeed, it is almost to. confusing to quote all the special performances and stunts that Johnson thought up for it, and which it completed so exceptionally well, culminating in the great RAC-observed 15,000-mile run, 14,371 of them without an involuntary stop (after which the petrol-tap shook itself shut). Had “The Silver Ghost” been in private service it would not have required any attention at all at the end of this strenuous trial, which involved covering over, 400 miles every day (it was, naturally, locked up on Sundays). But Johnson had the RAC strip the R-R’s mechanicals down. So little wear was found that the Rolls-Royce wass restored to brand-new condition for the sum of £2.2.7 (incidentally, 1907 labour charges were 2/2 an hour). All these performances, have been well-documented elsewhere, so I will just say here that, after having established a great reputation for itself and the Rolls-Royce Company in 1907, the car was sold in 1908 to Mr. Dan Hanbury, who was a gentle man who travelled about as a Rolls-Royce visiting Inspector. He apparently used the car almost daily until the war. What happened after that is obscure. But in 1947 the Silver Ghost was still in the service of Mr. Hanbury, who was then living at Malwood House, Minstead, near Lyndhurst. It was then that his son-in-law, Air-Marshal Sir Alex Coryton, asked R-R for some parts for it. Alas, Mr. Hanbury died before these could be supplied and, when Rolls-Royce realised what an heirloom this 41-year-old 40/50 represented for them, Mr. Hanbury’s heirs were persuaded to part-exchange it for a new car. By that time it was thought to have run some 500,000 miles.

At first this by now rather badly deteriorated Silver Ghost was dealt with cosmetically. But later it was restored to running order, with the idea that it would enhance Rolls-Royce prestige still further if it could be used on appropriate occasions, the vintage and veteran movement being by now in full swing, especially if it were maintained in everyday usable condition, like any modern Rolls, rather than put away as a pampered museum pet. The story of what was done, when, and to what extent, is another involved story, of which R-R Motors have a full record. Stanley Sears was asked to advise on the restoration and H. E. Griffin of Haywards Heath did the first coachwork resuscitation. The renowned R-R London Service Department at Hythe Road tackled the mechanical side, and subsequently Hooper, Jack Barclay/ Park Ward, Dunlop, and Great Western Radiators have been among those who have contributed to restoring, and maintaining the health of, this original Ghost.

It must be remembered that the total mileage is coming up to an estimated 600,000 and that this 71-year-old Rolls-Royce is used just as you might employ any Cloud or Shadow, if you didn’t object to rather less performance and open bodywork. That the original engine is still in the car, which carries the correct AX 201 registration, and that until recently the leather upholstery was original (the seats have since been retrimmed in green hide), is pretty remarkable; it is not always appreciated that the bright parts are still silverplated. The specification embraces the early size twin-block 114 X 114 mm. (7,046 c.c.) six-cylinder engine, with a c.r. of 3.2 to 1. The crankshaft has seven main bearings. This early 40/50 has the short-lived platform-type rear springing, which meant that the petrol tank, which holds 12 gallons, had to go under the floor of the back compartment. It also has the 4-speed gearbox with direct-drive on 3rd, which Royce soon scrapped because the indirect top gear was noisy. The ratios are 7.67, 4.51, 2.708 and 2.174 to 1. Reverse is 9.93 to 1. The chassis has a wheelbase of 11 ft. 3 1/2 in. and weighs about 22 cwt., which the body and fittings bring to a 33 cwt. kerb-weight. When new you could buy these magnificent chassis for £985.

That was the motor-car which presented itself to as one wet January morning, as the doors of the National Motor Museum were opened. It was a shining sight, even in the dull light. Miller-Williams immediately set about the task of starting-up. The Ghost had been standing for many weeks, but was soon running, started on the handle this time, although 50% or more of the time this can be done “on the switch”. Trying to forget the relentless rain sailboat, I took stock of the motor-carriage that was to to convey at to London. The highset headlamps, beautiful in real silver remember, are Lucas “King-of-the Road” Projectors, fed from a big, plated gasgenerator on the o/s running board. At one time these lamps were converted to unobtrusive electrics, but this has since been deleted. However, it is not the practice to use AX 201 at night—a Ghost in the dark seems too alarming. The sidelamps bear an inscription “The Bedford Patent. C. S. Rolls & Co.”, and have bevelled glasses. An oil lamp suffices at the rear. The car now runs on 895 x 135 Dunlop Cords, the present set in use since 1961. These tyres are now on detachable rims; originally they had to be forcibly removed from fixed wheels. The big plated hubs carry the inscription: “Rolls + Royce”. A plate on the n/s of the scuttle says: “Rolls-Royce Ltd., London & Manchester” and gives the car no. as 551. To this has been proudly appended the statement:: “Property of Rolls-Royce Motors”. There is a r.h. accelerator. The driver has a snake-like, bulb-horn and the front passenger is provided, with a Desmo bulb-hooter—but Dennis’ driving is such that I never made recourse to it. A big AA badge adorns the radiator-cap, and 20-Ghost and RREC badges are displayed —a nice recognition by the present-day R-R Co. of the value to it of good relations wit such one-make organisations.

The big engine of the Ghost does not idle in: silence, is indeed rather noisier, I think, than that of a good vintage Ghost. But quietness is relevant and where this car is to outstanding is in comparison with others of like age. There is no mechanical rattle or whine, and on the move the engine does become as near as no matter silent, where other Edwardians might groan and vibrate and emit tappet-chatter. The gears are almost inaudible, apart from the o/d top, and even that is quiet against the shrill scream of many vintage indirects. Obviously a post-WW2 Rolls should be quieter, for there is scope for sound-damping and more coachwork to absorb noises. But ride for only a mile in this 1906 40/50 and you appreciate why it was king of the road in its day and age.

Following Dennis Miller-Williams over the n/s door, I looked at the instruments and controls. Above the unsupported upright steering column is the big, 4-spoke wheel, with its polished wooden rim. Above that is the famous control cluster—with two levers. clearly labelled FAST/SLOW and EARLY/ LATE, and the GOVERNOR. The last named is eschewed by Miller-Williams, as it can either let the car get away with you or else the revs drop solos’ that you can stall in today’s traffic frenzy—there was more leisure in which to pick them up, in 1906. Outboard of the driver’s door, and between it and the spare tyre, are the plated gear and brake levers. The gear gate is unusual, as 1st is forward left but 2nd and 3rd positions are both down and back, “round the corner” from one to the other, with a short movement forward into o/d top; reverse is between bottom and o/d top. The hand brake operates the cable-applied rear-wheel brakes, which function more or less in silence. The foot brake is little used. It works on the transmission and is apt to bind in hot weather. Beside the spare wheel there is a Cowley speedometer reading from 10 to 80 m.p.h., with a little clock above it.

You sit high in a most comfortable arm chair, as a passenger in this Ghost, your task being to maintain 1 lb. pressure with a vertical floor mounted bicycle-like plated air-pump, on the gauge that reads to 4 lb/sq. in. This need, constant attention and I am not surprised that during the 15,000-mile test, presumably after that petrol tap had rattled shut, a new automatic feed, apparently since scrapped, was installed. Next along the footboard is the wooden case for the two trembler coils, each in a hidden box of its own. Then some two horizontal levers controlling extra oil to the sump anti mixture strength, then the two switch-boxes for the magneto and coil ignition —there are two plugs per cylinder. Dennis normally runs on the magneto only. Above the ignition switch-boxes is the oil-gauge, reading from 5 to 20 lb./sq. in.—on this cold day it stayed at 15 lb. but otherwise it sinks to 13 lb. The cone clutch is propped out whenever the car is stationary for any length of time. Engaged, it lifts the car off under the adequate low-speed torque. Plenty of protection is provided by the big cranked screen (it was a one time a vertical screen), belt. which, from this lofty perch, the bonnet looks quite short, its multiple rivets, and the graceful outline of the classic R-R radiator, reminding you that you are aboard a truly classic example of the Best Car in the World. Another outstanding feature is the excellent ride, achieved by Royce’s properly-applied spring rates, without need of shock-absorbers.

In deference no its age and its wooden wheels Dennis tends to keep the cruising pace, even on a Motorway, down to 30 m.p.h.— under 800 r.p.m. The Silver Ghost forges steadily along, however, no uncanny hush, and normal hills never bring it off the direct third-speed, or seem to hamper it. In its day it was timed at some 53 m.p.h. (also at 3 1/2 m.p.h. in top) and it used to return anything from approximately 19 to 23 1/2 m.p.g. In 1970s traffic the Ghost consumes 2-star at the rate of about 13m.p.g. It thrives no Castrol XXL or similar oil. We were treated mostly to torrential rain on our run back to Hythe Road and I wished for even a small “beaker of the warm sunny South”, which is a better, more appropriate place, anyway, for open Rolls-Royce, than England in mid-winter. One consolation was to see Concorde, flying above the M23—the best of Rolls-Royce power, 70 years apart! But it was a good, completely uneventful journey. And getting down stiffly, and very damp, at Hythe Road, there were respectful cries of “The Silver Ghost is back….”

It is to the greatest credit of Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd., who are doing so very well with sales of the modern versions of the Best Car in the World, that they keep and maintain in good order this and other historic R-R cars. The 1906 Ghost has done all manner of runs, in America, to Scotland to re-enact all-on-top-speed demonstrations, into Europe at Common-Market-entry time, to Le Touquet, to the Paris Salon, to Club functions, for the purposes of TV and the film producers, etc. It is well-equipped for long-distance work, with tool-boxes and tool-cases in the conveniently-heighted running boards, an oil tank on the n/s, and that long-legged ghostly gait always willingly available from the 7-litre power unit, unless, very occasionally, fuel vaporisation calls a halt. Admittedly, there is no hood—Mr. Hanbury seems to have put one on, but it would be out-of-keeping with the correct 1900/7 appearance. It was a privilege to ride in this historic Rolls-Royce. More, I commend fully a man like Dennis Miller-Williams, who nonchalantly drives this £100,000 R-R heirloom through London in the rain, as easily as if it had the brakes and the handleability of the latest Silver Shadow. Rolls-Royce, Johnson and Hanbury would be proud of their Silver Ghost and the manner in which it is still used.—W.B.