The Roll-Royce Twenty

When I reviewed that astonishingly comprehensively new book about the Rolls-Royce Twenty by John Fasal, in the July issue, I commented that I might have more to say on the subject at a later date. Having re-read this remarkable coverage of the smaller Rolls-Royce of the vintage years, there are some points that bear enlarging on, although it would obviously be unfair to this painstaking – that’s the word! – author and enthusiast for the Twenty-Royce to quote verbatim from his 560 pages of Rolls-Royce profundity. It is however, interesting that after a series of letters had appeared in the motoring Press criticising the specification of the then-new small Rolls-Royce, which letters are published in full in Fasal’s book, the Company issued a defence of the car early in 1923 to its senior personnel. This countered the suggestion that Americanisms in the form of a three-speed unit gearbox with central gear and brake levers, push-rod o.h. valves, etc., were detrimental to the R-R image. Amusingly, though, the Twenty was later given a r.h. brake lever and then a separate 4-speed, r.h.-control gearbox (and servo brake gear driven therefrom),as on the 40/50 h.p. chassis, although the open propeller shaft was retained. Apart from R-R’s own defence of the original Twenty design, there is an amusing test report which Edgar N. Duffield (disguised as “A.B.C”) wrote for The Auto in January 1923, in which he stated that he was convinced of the absolute correctness of the Twenty’s design and performance – all the more interesting to me because I met recently E. N. Duffield’s son.

Also as a counter to the correspondents’ harsh words, testimonials from owners of the 20 h.p. Rolls-Royce are given in the book – it is amusing that one owner referred to the petrol consumption on a night journey from Glasgow to Bradford as “23.1 m.p.g. or thereabouts”, which rendered the decimal point a trifle suspect! On the matter of the design of the first Twenty, the author is quite open in admitting that “Pa” Royce admired the Buick, that a drawing of that car’s battery-box had been made by Elliot in July 1919, that Royce no doubt noticed the horizontal radiator-shutters of the Hudson Super-Six, and that he had a four-cylinder Essex down at West Wittering, where he worked, in 1921, which was said to have influenced the Goshawk II (20 h.p.) engine design and its bonnet and spare-wheel mounting. Conversely, S. F. Edge, Ettore Bugatti and Signor Lancia are referred to elsewhere in the book as all mad on the 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce . . .

So detailed is Fasal’s book that we learn of the type of (non-electric) lighting used in the West Wittering drawing-office up to 1933, and of an even smaller R-R car than the Twenty that was contemplated, based on the 15.9 h.p. Humber. Incidentally, I am surprised to see that in one of the famous memos issued by Royce, in this case to the R-R Sales Department, the great engineer specified Castrol “R” for the engine of the Goshawk – presumably the rather staid 3-speed Twenties used to proceed in an aura of exciting racing-car scents! Here I may say that some of Royce’s memos, written when he felt his instructions were being ignored, have a very terse ring to them, even to the extent of a comment that he would not continue to take an interest in the Company’ productions if his information and recommendations were ruthlessly wasted . . . Royce made it clear that he would rather lose orders than the Company’s good name – this in connection with overloading the Twenty and fitting it with side-mounted spare wheels. Later he made it quite plain he detested bumpers on a car and that disc wheels should not be used on a Rolls-Royce because they acted as an amplifier of unwanted noises, which might, observed Royce, go unheeded on lesser cars.

It is rather astonishing, but all part of engineering I suppose, that some seemingly simple defects arose on the Twenty which one might have thought development of the 40/50 would have obviated, and which proved difficult to cure – like oil leaks from engine and universal-joints, surface-seizure of axle gears, ignition failures, cracked cylinder heads, etc. Some of these, one supposes, were attributable to the different design of the 20 h.p. car from that of the 40/50 – o.h. instead of side valves, Hotchkiss-drive instead of a torque-tube, etc., and, by the way, the “Depot Sheets” reproduced in Fasal’s book should be invaluable to those rebuilding or maintaining vintage Twenties. There are even details of the special tool devised by R-R for removing the distributor rotor-arm if this couldn’t be easily removed by hand.

Rolls-Royce are described as the first English car manufacturers to set up a depot in Paris – and so detailed is the book that there are photographs of this and other overseas R-R depots, with notes about who worked there (in the case of the Conduit Street R-R premises we are told what went on on each floor, under which executives!). Some 64 Twenties went to France, 33 of which were of the 3-speed, 2-wheel-brake variety; they were given mostly Kellner and later Binder coachwork. It was for this model that R-R began to fit bodies at their own works as a normal activity, these being ordered at first in batches of ten, mostly from Barker, who were the prime R-R suppliers anyway, and from Hooper. Rolls-Royce issued lengthy instructions on the care of bodywork, not overlooking the detrimental effect close proximity to a stables would have on paintwork and upholstery, due to ammonia fumes from manure. (A Twenty owner in India kept a snake in the car to destroy rats!) Those interested in coachbuilding, apart from having a wealth of photographs to feast their eyes on, will find 21 different types of body described by Fasal, while there is a breakdown even of how many Twenties had Weymann fabric bodies and who made these.

In the context of such thoroughness, the facts about that assembly of cars at Brooklands in 1930 at the behest of HH The Maharaj Rana of Jhalawar are included, even though no Rolls-Royce sales were achieved. Another worthwhile item in Fasal’s book is a consideration of how Rolls-Royces depreciate less than other makes, based on prices of used cars advertised in 1929, when £495 was being asked for the least-expensive Twenty tourer, compared to £260 for a Lanchester 21, down to £60 for a 23/60 Vauxhall landaulette. By 1935, when you could get a Daimler TB 6/21 landaulette for £15, a one-owner 1924 Twenty Royce limousine was advertised at £95 . . . When such cars were new Geoffrey Francis, Heraldic Artist to HM The Queen, painted coats-of-arms on such cars but he refused to do psychedelic patterns on a Rolls-Royce belonging to one of the Beatles, regarding this as sacrilege.

There is the speech in full which Henry Royce made in London at a luncheon given to celebrate his Baronetcy, of which some words ring true today: "The future throughout the country and the whole world looks depressing, but being an optimist I refuse to think that with the increased ability to produce the necessities of life things can long be bad. It is not famine or excess ill-health, how therefore can it indicate bankruptcy or death, but I do warn our dear Old England that she is spending more than she is earning, and will have to mend her ways or become a second-rate nation." Sir Henry Royce, Bt. said that in July 1930 . . .

This book I have been quoting from should keep Rolls-Royce enthusiasts happy for the rest of their lives and will cause one to look in future at the smaller Rolls-Royce cars in a fresh light; apart from which it is a very handsome addition to any library. - W.B.