A hundred years ago, four Rolls-Royce Ghosts left England bound for the Alps. Three were factory prepared cars, one was owned by a private entrant called James Radley, among whose claims to fame included in 1910 getting into his Bleriot monoplane and setting a British air speed record two months to the day after becoming only the 12th person in Britain to be issued with a flying licence. It is thought he was also first on the scene of the accident that killed Charles Rolls.
Radley was one of those characters who instead of dedicating his life to making millions, instead concentrated entirely on spending the millions into which he was born. His purpose and that of the Rolls factory was to win the Alpine Trial. Engine bays and radiators were sealed to prevent tinkering and if you failed to complete even one of the special stages, you were out of the event entirely. This is precisely what had happened the previous year when Radley’s Ghost’s three speed gearbox proved unable to tackle the steepest mountain pass.
Stung by comments enquiring how a Rolls could be called the best car in the world when it couldn’t even make it up the side of a mountain, the team plus Radley returned the following year with four speed transmissions and a point to prove. By the time the event was over the cars had finished in the top four positions on all but one of the stages. At a time when British cars were achieving very little in the sporting arena it was a timely reminder of what Rolls-Royce could achieve just as memories of the original Silver Ghost’s extraordinary 15,000 mile reliability trial were starting to fade. Any cracks that had started to appear in the Rolls-Royce reputation were instantly repaired.
A century later Radley’s car is back in Vienna, having once more been driven from Browns Hotel in London by its current owner and Radley obsessive John Kennedy. Following Radley’s exact original route, he’s already driven his Ghost 1800 miles just to get here and will do at least as much again before he has retraced every inch of the original Alpine Trial along with 46 other Ghosts that have turned up from all over the world to join him in a tour of a further 1800 miles that will take in Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia.
There is nothing to prepare you for the sight of 47 Rolls-Royce Ghosts all lined up together, so what the sight will be like when they are joined by a further 38 as the tour reaches Lake Garda is quite unimaginable. Kennedy is sure it will be the largest collection of Ghosts that’s ever been found in one place in the 106 years since the original Silver Ghost was built.
For now though, I am able to ride alongside Kennedy and, briefly, drive what must be one of the more important of fewer than 1000 Ghosts still in existence, sadly none of which is believed to include any of the original works cars.
And of course it’s beautifully made and a privilege even to sit in let alone drive, but what will live on in my mind is the comfort, refinement and mechanical sophistication of this 100 year old machine. I think most people’s conception of a car a century old would be something capable of barely more than walking pace and then only for very brief periods of time before the next thing went wrong. Radley’s (or, I should say, Kennedy’s) car begs to differ. It will cruise very happily at 60-70mph and possesses so much torque it’ll climb a mountainside in third gear without complaint. Only on the way down the other side does it show its age. For this you select a low gear and let the compression take the strain otherwise ‘you arrive at the bottom with your brakes on fire’ advises Kennedy.
Best of all it shows how well the modern BMW-owned Rolls-Royce has understood the essence of the marque. To me a Rolls isn’t or at least shouldn’t be a corpulent, ostentatious, overblown wealth statement. It should be to ride and refinement what Ferrari is to performance and handling: a car led entirely by engineering to absolute summit of what is possible in its time. It was then and as several hundred miles in a modern Ghost have just shown, it is now.