A supercharged "Phantom I" Rolls Royce on test

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Cecil Clutton tries FitzPatrick’s famous car

When I penned my recent report of a Type 57SC Bugatti for Motor Sport I thought I had certainly carried out the last road test of the war; but almost at once came an invitation from Douglas FitzPatrick to ride out with him in his famous supercharged Rolls Royce car when next the Navy granted him a spell of leave. Whatever other restrictions may be imposed on motoring, one cannot express too strong a hope that the present system of active service leave licences and petrol, and of making a recreational allowance to R.A.F. aircrew personnel, will be continued. The amount of petrol so accounted for must be infinitesimal, but the richly deserved pleasure that it affords can hardly be expressed.

Before going on to consider this altogether remarkable motor-car it might perhaps be worth glancing back along the years and seeing the steps by which the more recent Rolls Royce designs have been arrived at.

The earliest Rolls Royce of all was first tested on April 1st, 1904. It had a two-cylinder motor of 95 x 127 mm., three-speed quadrant-change gear, cone clutch and live axle. The complete outfit weighed 14 1/2 cwt. In designing it, Frederick Royce had three principal aims in mind. Foremost was silence, but hardly less important were reliability and the avoidance of unnecessary weight. Even in this maiden effort all three were fully achieved. Reliability largely followed upon the meticulous workmanship for which the name is ever famous, but it is interesting that Royce was at particular pains to obviate the valve failures, which were then so common, by providing ample water passages round the seatings – a feature quite unusual in those times. Doubtless with this in view, he adopted the arrangement of inlet valve over exhaust, which, of course, gives unrivalled facilities for ample cooling.

Working on the basis of this model, a series of two-cylinder 10 h.p., three-cylinder 15 h.p., four-cylinder 20 h.p. and six-cylinder 30 h.p. was put into production already, in 1905, bearing the combined names of Rolls and Royce. Of this series it was the 20 h.p. which so distinguished itself in the T.T. races of 1905 and 1906. It is curious to find a man of Royce’s talent building such an inherently unbalanced engine as a three-cylinder, but doubtless, with the low crankshaft speeds then employed, this was not a serious objection. Also in 1905 came the quaint “Legalimit,” designed to compete with the electric brougham. Its 3 1/2-litre V8 engine (83 x 83 mm.) must have been a most interesting harbinger of the small multi-cylinder engine of 30 years later, but the model was not popular and was soon dropped.

In 1906 came the first of the great “40/50” series which has dominated the automobile world until the present day, and many of its features have carried on as long. It was known as the “Silver Ghost” and its six-cylinder engine was square, the cylinder dimensions being 4 1/2″ each way. It had a three-point engine mounting, side valves, dual ignition by coil and magneto, and developed 48 h.p. at 1,700 r.p.m. The radiator was flexibly mounted. The four-speed gearbox was laid out with direct drive on third gear, but in later models the overdrive was discontinued, since people would use it as top gear, and after a time it became noisy. Three gears are quite adequate for an engine of this type and size, but public prejudice later demanded a quite senseless return to four speeds.

It was this first “Silver Ghost” which carried out the famous 15,000 mile, R.A.C. observed, non-stop trial, after which it was found that the only replacements which could possibly be considered necessary cost no more than £2 2s. 7d. The same car went on in private ownership and covered over 400,000 miles; but even more remarkable, I venture to think, is the 1912 “40/50” belonging to a neighbour of my father’s, Sir Walter Carlile, which has covered 710,000 miles with only one involuntary stop, due to a cracked back axle casing when crossing an extra deep French “Cassis” at high speed. The last time this wonderful machine went to Derby the firm sent it back carrying a silver plate commemorating its proud record.

The “Silver Ghost” was such a tremendous success that all other models were discontinued from that time until 1922, when the “20” came on the scene.

The year 1911 saw an improved edition of the “Silver Ghost,” known as the “Continental Model.” The engine had a longer stroke, and the famous rear cantilever springing appeared for the first time. Ever gradually improving, the side-valve engine continued in production until 1925, when it was replaced by the overhead-valve “Phantom I,” but, in the meantime, the little “20” was produced, in 1922, which later grew into the “20-25,” “25-30” and, finally, the “Wraith.”

The “Phantom II” came in 1929, incorporating a more powerful edition of the “Phantom I” engine, unit construction gearbox and semi-elliptic rear springs instead of the cantilevers. The short chassis, “Continental Phantom II” was surely one of the most handsome and aristocratic-looking cars ever forged, especially when carrying a close-coupled coupé body with a big luggage box behind. But the “Phantom II” saw the ultimate development of the large six-cylinder engine consistent with Rolls Royce standards of refinement, and in 1935 the series gave way to the V12 “Phantom III,” a car which, whatever its excellences, can certainly not compare with the “Phantom II” so far as appearances are concerned.

Turning now to FitzPatrick’s machine, in particular. It is basically a 1926 long chassis “Phantom I.” To all outward appearances it might easily be taken for a “Phantom II” of the kind I have just been extolling, for it has exactly that body, while the radiator has been chromed and deepened and the cantilever springs enclosed. This body (by Cooper) was fitted in 1933. The general chassis layout is well known; the wheelbase is 12′ 6″ and the track 57″ in front and 56″ behind. The three-point engine mounting does not seem to leave any very great amount of bracing at the front end, though experience shows that the results are satisfactory. The front springs have very short shackles at the forward end. The rear end of the chassis, leading up to the long cantilever springs, is well stiffened and the propeller shaft is enclosed. Braking is by the famous system of mechanical servo.

The cylinder dimensions are 4 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ (roughly 108 x 133 mm., giving a capacity of 7,668 c.c. and a treasury rating of 43.3 h.p.). The crankshaft is suspended among seven main bearings and the camshaft is gear driven from the front end. There are two cylinder blocks, but the detachable head is in one piece. Dual ignition is by coil and magneto, arranged on the well-known Rolls Royce principle of staggered timing at low speeds, gradually synchronising at higher r.p.m. The cam contour is very “woolly” and the followers are of roller pattern. The complete chassis weight is some 36. cwt. and the overall weight of FitzPatrick’s car is about 2 1/2 tons.

The main mechanical modifications which FitzPatrick has carried out are the substitution of hydraulic shock absorbers for the existing friction ones; the replacement of the old silencing system by a no less muting, but far less obstructive, Burgess silencer of superb dimensions; and, of course, the supercharger. This is an enormous Centric, with an outside diameter of no less than 10″. It is fixed on to the off side of the engine, being driven from a pulley, fitted on to the crankshaft damper via a doublerow belt, at 1.8 times engine speed. The mixture is drawn through two large S.U. carburetters and delivered across the top of the block to the induction manifold on the near side of the block. The pressure of the supercharger makes the middle sparking plugs rather inaccessible, but not hopelessly so. In addition, the initial compression ratio has been raised quite considerably and the head copperised.

The addition of the supercharger brought quite a host of troubles in its wake, but these were gradually dealt with, mostly by “Bentley” Mackenzie, until the car once more became completely reliable, and has been constantly motored all over Europe at high speed with no trouble whatever. It is interesting that the petrol consumption has not been affected, remaining at exactly 10 m.p.g. The story of how the bothers were overcome was the subject of a recent article in The Autocar, so there is no need to go over that ground again in detail, but most persistent was boiling and exhaust valve failure, while the pistons were not equal to the strain and had to be replaced by a set of Mackenzie specials. [The car was also described in Motor Sport of July, 1939. – Ed.]

I must confess that I anticipated my trial of the car with certain misgivings. Would the Rolls Royce refinement have been sacrificed to a point that it ceased to be a Rolls Royce, and would the roadholding be good enough to stand up to the improved performance? I need not have worried, for the entire experiment has more than justified FitzPatrick’s boldness in conceiving it and carrying it out.

The exact output of the engine is not known, but in standard form it was accredited with 120 b.h.p. at some 2,750 r.p.m. Assuming the compression ratio has been raised by 1 1/2 atmospheres, this would put the power up to some 133 h.p. The maximum boost is about 9 lb./sq. in. at 3,000 r.p.m., which would indicate a further 60% increase, bringing the total output up to some 213 b.h.p.

My first taste of the car was with FitzPatrick at the wheel, and he really does handle it a treat. His driving has that indefinable rhythmic quality which all first-rate drivers possess, coupled with polish, excellent judgment and very considerable elan. It is a real joy to motor with him, and I smiled to think of some little wise-acre who recently suggested in one of the motoring papers that Forrest Lycett should try his hand at a “small car which really did need handling.” It is, of course, true that a small car calls for more strenuous gear changing, but surely any fool can row away at a gear lever. But to drive a large car quickly over English roads calls for a degree of finesse and judgment which is seldom required of the small-car driver.

Presently Douglas turned the controls over to me for a considerable stretch of miles, so that I was able to form a very thorough opinion of the car. I thought this particularly generous of him, because his allowance of leave petrol was not so terrific and cast away in the Orkneys, as he is, he gets no motoring at all when on duty. At this juncture it should be explained that the magneto was away being cleaned up. It should have been back, but as so often happens nowadays there had been the inevitable delay and we therefore had to rely on the coil alone. Superlative as the slow running still was, it would undoubtedly have been better still with both sets in action, and the high speed performance probably suffered in some measure as well. Also, a car which has only had some three weeks’ use in as many years is not likely to be giving its best. The figures taken can therefore be regarded as no more than an indication of the genuine potentialities.

Driving along the narrow, twisty Norfolk lanes around FitzPatrick’s home one’s first impression was the rather obvious one that there was a lot of motor-car, and memories of the swaying and rolling “Phantom I” of tradition made one rather chary of the whole undertaking. But so superlative is the handling of this particular car, with its weight well inside the wheelbase and its overall height of only 5 6″ that one is forced to wonder whether the “Phantom I’s” reputation for rather inferior road-holding is not to be laid almost entirely at the door of the grotesque bodies it was generally asked to trundle about. No doubt, however, the additional damping is also contributory to the success of this machine.

Anyway, it was only a very few miles before I was slinging the 2 1/2 tons of metal round the corners like a Frazer-Nash, and with every bit as much confidence and pleasure. Added to the narrowness of the roads was the fact that most of them are asphalt and it was raining; the only redeeming feature lay in a general lack of hedges and consequent good visibility. When taken round a corner at skidding speeds the whole car slides absolutely in one piece, with neither over- nor understeer. Only once, by sheer brutality, did I manage – and then only for a second – to lose the front wheels. Once I breasted a little, almost donkey-backed, hill at 75 m.p.h. and the car practically “took off.” On such a wet, slippery surface I expected a nasty moment when we came down again, but nothing at all happened. All this, of course, is coupled with true Rolls Royce standards of comfort, which really is comfort and not the seasick-making parody of it which passes for comfort in many cars of American modelling.

Normally, of course, one would not want to dice a large car about in this rather objectionable manner, but Douglas and the Rolls Royce and I were all out to enjoy perhaps the last bit of pleasure motoring we were likely to get for some long time, and probably the last for the duration so far as I was concerned. Also, it is impossible to form a genuine opinion of a car until one has driven it at the edge of control.

The wide-diameter, thin-rimmed, “Phantom II” type steering wheel is a joy to finger. Two turns from lock to lock – and a wide lock at that – do not make for exceptionally light operation, but who cares for that when such superlative sensitiveness and accuracy are there instead? There is no trace of play in the movement, and while there is nothing resembling kick-back, there is sufficient reaction to keep the driver fully informed of what the road-wheels are doing.

The brakes are even, sensitive and reassuring, but not exceptionally powerful when it comes to a real emergency stop. They are, nevertheless, fully adequate for all normal requirements and are doubtless better still when in proper adjustment. Turning to the mechanical side of driving, it is customary to get away in second gear and change straight into top gear at some 20 m.p.h. The single-plate clutch is silky smooth, but there is no stop and the change is slow. On the “Phantom I” the gate retained the notches into which the lever is pressed by the centering spring, and until one is used to this it makes one clatter about in the gate a good bit, and gear-changing seems to demand rather more physical effort than is desirable. One would doubtless get used to this notch arrangement quite soon, and, anyway, it was dropped in the “Phantom II.” In moments of stress it is possible to force upward changes through as fast as the lever can be moved, but again, as John Bolster would say, “It’s not in keeping!”

The standard top gear ratio was 3.41 to 1, but this has been raised to 3.2 to 1, which, with the smaller wheels now fitted (7″ x 19″), keeps the engine speed about what it was before. The overall ratios are 3.2, 4.8, 7.16 and 11 to 1. Engine speed is limited by valve bounce to a maximum of 3,000 r.p.m., which gives maxima of 90, 60 and 40 m.p.h. on the upper three ratios. Bottom may have some purpose, but I wouldn’t know just what. On decent petrol, 90 m.p.h. can be reached quite quickly, whereas, in unblown form, the car was very sluggish above 70 m.p.h. and had an absolute maximum of 85 m.p.h. under favourable circumstances. A higher ratio still, therefore, seems desirable, probably around 2.8 to 1. If the constant mesh gearing was then raised by 20% we should arrive at the perfect ratios of 2.8, 3.4, 5.05 and 7.8 to 1, with maxima at 3,000 r.p.m. of 103, 88, 59 and 38 m.p.h. This is one of the things which FitzPatrick intends to carry out after the war. The indirect ratios are not dead quiet, but have that faint, altogether delightful and refined hum which characterises Rolls Royce gears of the pre-synchromesh era.

Most of the time, whether ticking over, cruising or during mild acceleration, the supercharger is completely inaudible. Only at full throttle openings is a faint but exhilarating whine discernible. So far as smoothness is concerned, the engine has lost no atom of its traditional refinement. The available roads prevented me from ever exceeding 75 m.p.h., but 70 m.p.h. is an entirely effortless cruising speed, which represents a piston speed of only 2,000 f.p.m., with the blower gauge registering zero. If the throttle be fully opened at 70 m.p.h., the induction pressure rises to 7 lb.

We took some performance figures, but, of course, with a full complement of ignition and real petrol there would be a different story to tell; even so, it is a sufficiently imposing record for a 2 1/2-ton motor-car, coupled with traditional Rolls Royce refinement; 0-50 m.p.h., using second and third gears only, occupied 11 1/2 secs., but as one ordinarily uses nothing but top gear, the figures on that ratio are the most interesting. The 10-30 range undoubtedly suffered most from the ignition shortage, and with practice I might have come to juggle the spark and mixture control to better advantage, but, as it was, 10-30 and 30-50 m.p.h. each occupied 8 secs., and 50-70 m.p.h. took 10 1/2 secs., making a top gear time from 10-70 m.p.h. of 26 1/2 secs. in all.

It is rather interesting to compare these figures with a “Phantom II” and “Phantom III,” as quoted in The Autocar road tests. The “Phantom II” was a short chassis “Continental,” but the overall weight was only a little less than FitzPatrick’s – namely, 49 cwt. The “Phantom III” went 51 1/2 cwt. It is, incidentally, notable that the “Phantom II” had a much better selection of ratios than the “Phantom I,” the overall being 3.41, 4.55, 6.77 and 11.9 to 1, which gave a useful maximum of 75 m.p.h. in third gear. The “Phantom III” is, of course, much lower geared, having an axle ratio of 4.25 to 1.

As with the “20” Rolls Royce, about which I recently wrote in Motor Sport, the further I drove this machine the better I liked it, and freely confess that the pair of them have turned me from a scoffer at what I looked upon as a dowager’s professional carriage into an ardent Rolls Royce enthusiast. There is probably no particular in which the Rolls Royce cannot be rivalled by some make or another, but taken in the aggregate I can now read the well-known Claude Johnson slogan of “The Best Car in the World” without any dissentient thought; while that Douglas FitzPatrick should have taken upon himself to improve a Rolls Royce – and succeeded – is an achievement of which he may well be proud. In his “Phantom I” he certainly possesses one of the outstanding and individual motor-cars of the present day.

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