One Man's Alpine

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By the Hon. Alan Clarke

2,000 Continental Miles in a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

A Rolls-Royce ‘Rally’ is to me something of a contradiction in terms. The kindest (and most often used) word to describe the progress of a vintage Rolls is stately and when surrounded by them en masse I sometimes get the feeling of being hemmed in by a lot of mobile geriatric wards. However, the Edwardian Alpine Trials, in commemoration of which the 1973 RREC Rally was being staged, were rough affairs and my family and I resolved to emulate Radley’s spirit and introduce a healthy carving-up element into the event.

Actually the Silver Ghost is practically the only R-R product (exceptions being the early 3.1/2-litre Bentley and the postwar R-Type Continental)’that will stand up to really hard driving. But, of course, the majority of Silver Ghosts were so monstrously over-bodied as to make such driving physically impossible. Yet there were quite a few rakish narrow-bodied cars built for the young bloods of the Edwardian and ‘twenties period and the combination of an unbreakable chassis that could carry five tons of armoured-car in the desert and a 7 —litre engine that peaked at 2,750 r.p.m. on side valves, was virtually indestructible. Although lucky enough to own one of these (the 19,5 Lartigue car) I felt that not having 4-wheel brakes would spoil the fun in modern traffic densities. So I resolved to build a virtual replica of the Lartigue car, with certain performance extras. 29PK was a 1923 chassis which had followed the customary life-cycle over its 200,000 miles existence, declining from limousine to hire car to hearse to Chassis to total strip. With the help of Jonathan Harley and John Pelham, various secret rumours, half-remembered drawings and many hours of experimentation, an effective induction system was devised using two Ghost carburetters, and this has had the effect of raising the power output to slightly over 96 b.h.p. and peak r.p.m. to 3,100. Torque is greatly increased but has not been measured accurately. The final drive was raised by the lucky acquisition of a 17/52 axle. In addition the crankshaft was dynamically balanced and so allows the car to run well over the optimum r.p.m. point without disturbing vibration.

We were unable to leave England on the first day of the Rally, so instead of taking the car all the way to Salzburg on the train we had to drive from Munich. It rained the whole way and there was no hood fitted to the car. At speeds over 60 miles an hour the angle of the windscreen deflects the raindrops and the occupants stay dry and, of course, the height of the car helps to keep the windscreen clean as most of the time one is above the spray level. But the peculiar handling characteristics of the Silver Ghost chassis are not improved by a wet road surface. Although the light-bodied Ghosts can be made to corner extremely well and handle with a fair degree of precision while on lock and under stress Of g force, they do have a disturbing habit of developing a will of their own if some irregularity in surface or camber disturbs the geometry when the car is running in a straight line or (still more disagreeable) on a long radius corner. I don’t know the technical term for this but the sensation is rather like getting near the limit in a VW Beetle with four passengers in the back and is certainly not improved when the road surface is slippery. However, we made the journey of 264 miles in five hours and twenty minutes running time, getting to the Hotel at Vienna at 5.00 p.m. The basement garage was already full with about £500,000-worth of meticulously-cleaned machinery and 29PK was very much the ugly gosling, carrying all her travelling stains and a nasty scar on the rear wing where I had oafishly tried to squeeze through too narrow a gap in a fence the day before while taking a ‘short cut’ around Folkestone.

The following day was still pouring rain but a number of Alpine Passes had been included in the Club’s schedule (it was, in fact, the first day of serious motoring for them) and as we were still slightly moist from the previous day’s drive we thought there was nothing further to lose and set off; still abominably dirty, at the tail end of the procession.

In point of fact the route had been most cleverly devised by the officials concerned both to subject the cars to a fairly searching test and also to evoke, in a manner which I would not have thought possible in 1973, the style, scenery and conditions that must have prevailed sixty years earlier. Much of the mileage was over secondary, and even unmade, roads; very narrow and twisting, without fences or telegraph poles, and afforded splendid (and sometimes frightening) views of the Austrian mountain scenery. The local population turned out in strength and waved and cheered at every corner rather like a Tyrolean Mille Miglia. Sad to relate, our boorish style of driving and 60 to 70 m.p.h. gait could not provoke any of our colleagues into a dice and we overtook car after car graciously proceeding at 40 and sometimes as low as so with their occupants sitting bolt upright and staring reproachfully into the middle distance. We did, however, have a keen battle with the Range Rover containing the film crew whom we took by surprise and then stayed ahead of for about 9 miles before they got past managing, I am glad to say, to record for posterity a good part of this epic chase. The Ghost was able to overhaul a Jot of modern machinery in the hills, and particularly on really rough surfaces where the limit was not suspension strength but the sudden and exciting on-set of total uncontrollability resulting front bump steering, front axle tramp and (vertical) loss of adhesion. Heavy over-revving by me had broken our fan belt for the umpteenth time. these leather link belts are, it seems, incapable or doing more than about 2,500 r.p.m. without letting go. So we faced the timed climb of the Niederalp after lunch with some trepidation . To avoid congestion the ears were sent off at one minute intervals. Howerer, we managed to overtake six before we reached the summit, breasting it in a veritable gout of steam and spray and with our hair heavily flecked by that curious soapy mixture of antifreeze and aluminium paste which radiators exude under stress. We overtook two more on the Way down before the timing gate. one of them being Laurie O’Neal’s 1909 car which gamely completed a course that would certainly have defeated its contemporaries in 1912 and from the lessons of which defeat, of course) the original Alpine Eagle was evolved).

By the time we got back to Vienna the car was so dirty that a session with AutosoIvol and Brasso was mandatory. Which was just as well, for the following day there was a kind of unofficial concours to visit the Regensburg Palace at Graz. Prior to this a ‘parade’ through the old town had been arranged including a rather pointless, but compulsory, detour through the gabled streets to receive lapel pins and other small trinkets from a beautiful redhead in hostess’s uniform. Actually, her smile almost made it worthwhile, but our fan belt, set loose to prevent it breaking again, was slipping so badly that the Ghost was on the ragged edge of boiling once again. I was mindful, of course, of Lawrence of Arabia’s prodigies in the desert and of those long combat hours with the armoured radiator shutters closed in shade temperatures of over too . Nonetheless, a point arrived when cold air had to be passed through the radiator core and the only way of doing this was to start ‘behaving badly’ again and overtake the queue in great surging lunges up the wrong side of the road. In this way I just managed to prevent the particular indignity of that two-foot high column of steam which a Ghost radiator will emit when it gets really angry.

Proceedings at the Regensburg were somewhat drawn out by the delivery of (multi-lingual) speeches, of which Eric Barrass’, the Secretary of the RREC, was quite masterly, conveying as it did in the nicest possible way both gratitude and superiority. Wine then bowed, alternating with beer, although the food was abruptly and mysteriously curtailed, as it were by a sudden Telex recounting the fall in the Pound on the Foreign Exchanges.

Agreeably fortified by the hospitality at the Regensburg, it was comforting to climb back into the wrap-around buttoned seats of the Ghost and feel that splendid thick steering wheel in one’s hands again. The tremendous feeling of solidity and precision which Ghost controls possess has been much written about, and on long solitary drives over undulating moonlit countryside they are a source of poetry. But let us also admit that they are a source of confidence and pleasure when, slightly tight, one is keeping station in a stream of fast flowing traffic over roughish unknown roads. in fact, ‘roughish’ was a British understatement to describe parts of the road from Graz to Worthersee. Heavy flooding (all that rain had beets going somewhere) had started landslides which reduced long stretches to single lane width, often awash with torrents of liquid mud. The huge wheels and irresistible torque of the Ghost allowed it majestically to weave through intermittent road blocks of spinning, slewing modern saloons. About half way through the afternoon we lost the coil-ignition circuit, but continued and were still the first Ghost to reach our destination that evening, although by now soaked to the skin tor the third night in succession.

The following morning Millard Newman, President of the American Rolls-Royce Club, showed that his qualifications are more than luminary by intelligently locating the source of our Ignition trouble. the clips holding the main fuse in position were so loose that it was not making proper contact. Removal of the beautiful hand-fitted cast-aluminium lid of the Luse box and tightening of the clips restored the battery circuit. As the skies were still heavily overcast, giving that well known Irish climate of ‘rain, with showers in between’ we decided to strike south across the Alps and take a couple of days in Venice. We were very fortunate with the Frontier which carried a tour-mile block of stationary cars coining from the opposite side, but seemed almost deserted on the mute over from Austria. We did, however, have to overtake nearly too Rumanian trailer lorries laden with timber, sonic of whom were monstrously overloaded, which reduced their speed to less than five miles an hour up hills, although they would press resolutely on into the sixties on the downward slopes with their loads snaking and leaning in the most alarming manner.

Once over the Alps and past Udine, we reached the Venice Autostrada. There is something immensely satisfying about having crossed Europe’s highest mountain barrier in a 50-year-old vintage car and I shall long remember the sensation of achievement and delight as we motored at a leisurely sixty miles an hour towards Venice in the evening light with all the scents and sounds of the Mediterranean in June that contrasted so happily with the cold and rigours of the Austrian Alps.

Big vintage machinery is very rare in Italy and the inhabitants can’t decide whether to laugh or cry when they conic across it. A large number of drivers would come up alongside us on the Autostrada and stay, running parallel, while they looked us over, sometimes for minutes at a time. floweVer, as we were cruising at a good point in the Ghost’s torque-band I could kick the cut-out open and accelerate at the same moment that they did so fOr a iew more seconds we could keep station to the sound of the leisurely but un-muffied explosions of the Ghost engine. Playing games like this, Venice soon tame up in our sights and we left the Ghost in the appreciative hands of the staff at the Station Garage while we enjoyed a short break in a totally car-free environment.

In tact, it was nearly three weeks before I moved the car from Venice and, as I had idiotically left the dynamo charging switch on the dashboard at ‘In’, the battery had slowly trickled Into a totally dormant condition and, owing to the siesta period, it was a couple of hours before I could get some jump leads attached. During this time I took an oil gun over as many of the lubrication points as I could see or remember, reflecting that if the service instructions were really scrupulously followed from new, a Silver Ghost chassis probably never would wear out and would become the nearest thing to perpetual motion yet devised. Unfortunately, the owner/driver has to compromise at about once every fortnight or 500 Miles — still probably one of the most effective service routines On any vehicle, although it makes your hands exceedingly oily.

With all these delays I did not pass through the Venice Autostrada gates until twenty minutes past two, and calculated that I would arrive at Milan at about five-thirty (thus conforming to Clark’s Law, which decrees that on any continental journey, regardless Of the preordained schedule, circumstances will so arrange themselves that major urban centres are traversed at rush hour). I was going as fast as I could, i.e. backing off at intervals when road irregularities set up wheel patter or snaking, but not sparing the engine, Which continued to give of its best in spite of a shade temperature in the high eighties. As the kilometre stones came up I realised that I was running well ahead of schedule, but traffic densities mode it difficult to keep a close eye on them, and I was amazed to find that when I got to the Laghi intersection where one turns north for the lakes and the Simplon l’ass with Milan on one’s left, it was not yet half-past four. After all Stanley Sedgwick’s amazing performances it would be importunate to work out precise average speeds, but this journey must have been in or near the seventies. Now followed a particularly favourite journey of mine, which is best taken in the late afternoon when the climb from the heat and dust of the Stresa-Verbania lake road into the cool air of the Simplon Pass is accentuated by the drop in temperature as evening approaches. I would dearly have loved to have taken the Ghost over the summit but doubts over the legality of the lighting system caused me to board the train at Belle and I finally arrived at Brig, where I spent the night, at seven-thirty.

In Brig I was joined by Jonathan Harley and the plan was that we would journey together as far as Bid, where we were going to pick up an XK120 roadster, and then bring the two cars back in Convoy to Calais. “[his entailed another Pass, the Lotschberg, that morning, which we tackled in “the most exuberant style, passing and generally bullying numbers of small, loaded saloons, our highest score being a 220 Mercedes. “[he following day we picked up the XK and set off along the great arterial Autobahn that strikes north from Bask. However, it soon became apparent that if the XK tried to keep up with the Ghost it began to overheat and, accordingly, we turned left at Strasbourg,. deciding to use secondary French roads where the Jaguar’s superior acceleration should have compensated for its inability to maintain the same high maximum speed as the Rolls. Ambient temperatures were still in the eighties and the Jaguar’s leaking radiator and the Ghost’s broken fanbelt made the traversing of city centres a pretty ragged affair. Bet once past Nancy the roads became more open and the temperature gauges reverted to normal, with both cars running in the 70 m.p.h. range. I am a great fan of the XK 120 roadster, both for its own qualities, in stamina, elegance and charm, and because I regard it as One of the best ‘growth’ stocks at present in the classic-car field. The car we were bringing back had done a minute mileage and, with the exception of its leaking radiator, was a well-nigh perfect example. And yet I must admit that I never changed back from the Jaguar into the Ghost driving seat without a feeling of pleasurable anticipation of this is the real one’.

I shall not soon forget the last section of that day’s journey from Bar-le-Due to SeptSaulx. For about thirty miles a D-road ran almost dead straight, but undulating, across yellow cornfields and pasture: It was narrow, and the surface was so bad that even the French Authorities had felt compelled to put up warning notices. It was soon apparent that at any speed above about 15 m.p.h. the vintage chassis became extremely uncomfortable. But further experimentation established that this discomfort did not increase arithmetically with the rise in speed. Clearly at 1.5 m.p.h. it would have been dark before we reached our destination, and it seemed just as interesting to explore the ultimate limits of a 1923 chassis over Nids-de-poule. Between 55 and 60 m.p.h. the great car was bucking and creaking like a lifeboat in a Force 8 sea. A loose hand on the steering wheel was useless it would simply have shot off on one side or other of the road. She had to be fought every minute of the journey. Very good boy racer stuff, but instead of being Stewart or Fangio, one was Jenatzy or De Palma. It was a real destruction test, and I was glad of those two hours spent with the oil gun in the Venice garage.

The following morning we learnt at 7.00 a.m. that there was going to be -a ferry strike starting at Noon. I ‘bagged’ the XK. from Jonathan on the somewhat tenuous grounds that my need to be back in the United Kingdom that weekend was a matter of National importance, and set off as fast as I Could, calculating that even deducting the time for sa.y.) four pitstops to top up the radiator, would still have a minimum of 25 per cent margin over the Silver Ghost. He caught me once in Rheims, but I excused this by the fact that I was dutifully waiting at a traffic light and the Ghost came thundering up a lane of its own, taking about forty French cars in the process. Repassing was quite a business, but after that I never saw the Ghost again until, having got to Calais I hicks and bought my…ticket, i.e. being stationary for approximately six minutes, I came out of the Shipping Office and saw the Rolls parked next to the XK 120 with the driver wandering about haying, or so he chinned, been there for ‘at least five minutes’. Even allowing for a slightly different choice of route (I had come Some of the way on the Autoroute and the Ghost had kept to the ordinary roads) this was an incredible performance and an appropriate climax to a sensational tour.

In a long catalogue of different vehicles with which I have enjoyed (or loathed) Continental journeys, the Ghost comes very high on the list. It is the only car that I have ever taken on a Motorway, and this includes such variety as Corniche and Ferrari, in which the oil and temperature gauges read exactly the same at the end of the journey as they did at the outset. In addition, the dominating driving position and the strength and directness of the controls, allow one to adopt techniques and to see round and over Obstacles, which greatly helps to maintain high average speeds. The whole tour was accomplished without an involuntary -stop or a puncture. As for fuel and oil consumption, the car had a will of its own. Sometimes it would do 14 m.p.g., sometimes 12, sometimes 8; on some tourneys it would do 300 miles without the sump level altering, at other times it would need two gallons to replenish for the same distance. I could find no clear explanation for these wide variations, although, of course, a lot of oil is ‘lost’ during the lubrication process even if it is not burnt.

In conclusion I can only say, had anyone told me five years ago that I could do 2,000 miles on the Continent in the holiday season in a vintage car, much less enjoy doing it, I should have thought diem mad. Now I can’t wait until the neat time.

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