Brian Palmer samples a unique 1907 Rolls-Royce
Just where do you start with this car? Put simply, it is an icon. Probably priceless today. And so much has been written about this car that my own poor words scarcely register in the annals of its history; yet I have to give you some impression of what it was like.
Some of you may feel that driving a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is unusual but no big deal. Until I tell you that this is THE Rolls-Royce-Silver Ghost and that it is as much part of British history and mystique as the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels.
Oh and the fact that HM The Queen and her consort had ridden in the back of this car in 1987 was fairly sobering thought, too. I swear I felt her periwinkle-blue eyes burning holes in my neck as I got behind the wheel. Some driving test.
AX201 is probably the most photographed Rolls-Royce 40/50hp model but, oddly, it was not the first. In fact it was the 12th chassis to be laid down of the series and it was built especially with publicity in mind. Goodness – it has performed that task to perfection, don’t you think?
Believe it or not, it is described as a short chassis model (135in) and was dispatched to Barker & Co to make its semi-Roi des Belges bodywork. The chassis, sent from the Rolls-Royce Cook Street factory, cost £950 while Barker’s unique body painted silver with special silver-plated lamps and fittings and leather upholstery added just £110.
Managing Director Claude Johnson was so delighted with the result that he had a special repousse plaque made for the car bearing the legend ‘ The Silver Ghost’. He chose this name after its spectral appearance and its ‘extraordinary stealthiness.’
The car had to earn its keep, however, and drove from Bexhill in Sussex to Scotland in top gear – consuming fuel at a miserly 20.86mpg. A month later, with Johnson at the wheel again, it took part in the Scottish Reliability Trial, drove back to London and then repeated to whole epic journey all over again. Driving day and night for five weeks, apart from Sundays, this amazing car completed more than 15,000 observed miles without fault.
No mean achievement today but in 1907 this was almost equivalent to a space mission. Cars were generally only reliable for tens of miles at a time when roads were often little more than dirt tracks. Fuel and oil had to be laid on specially for the journey and replacement tyres alone cost £187 out of the total £281 expended on running costs.
Reliability displays clearly worked – demand for the car was so strong that a new factory was acquired in Derby. AX201 ferried VIP’s to the official opening, naturally. It was then sold to Daniel Hanbury – cousin of Arthur Hanbury who worked for Rolls-Royce – where its workaday duties included carrying his luggage and spare parts for his similar 40/50hp Limousine on extensive continental tours.
When Hanbury died in 1948 his son-in-law Air Marshal Sir Alec Coryton part-exchanged it for a 1939 Bentley Mk V held by the company. So after a 40 year absence the car returned to its maker. After overhaul it was back gaining column inches for the firm.
In 1961, The Silver Ghost re-enacted the famous London to Edinburgh top gear run, in 1964 appeared in the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, ended the decade with a 1200 mile promotional tour of America following the maiden voyage of QE2, and then did a Glasgow to London top-gear run just for fun.
P&A Wood carried out an extensive chassis overhaul of AX201 – and when I visited their premises a few years ago I was lucky to see the car alongside period playmates The Silver Dawn and The Whisperer.
So much for the back story but you really do have to pinch yourself that this is not some rather grand vintage car of the 1920s. Not convinced – well just compare this car with the crude horseless carriages built up to 1905 that chug down to Brighton every first Sunday in November.
This car is not just a visual tour de force but a technical masterpiece. The six-cylinder engine of 7046cc has a block cast in two blocks of three cylinders rather than singly. The crankshaft ran in seven bearings and had pressure-fed lubrication. Valve guides, springs and tappets were easily adjustable, while the crankcase sat on flexible mountings rather than being bolted directly to the chassis as was normal practice.
I’d be delighted to say that I took to this motoring legend like a duck to water, but my first attempts at changing speed through the gears were faltering to say the least. I improved gradually as I relaxed – how is it possible not to be somewhat overawed? After all, I’d driven later 40/50hp cars with three-speed gearboxes with little trouble.
The lever lies outside of the bulging sides of the bodywork which does not help. First is just for moving-off, then slowly does it into second, double de-clutching of course along the way. Third lies where fourth would be today requiring an awkward u-shaped movement around the gate, while top is really an overdrive. Reverse is beyond the first-gear detent which warrants close attention.
Pedals are at least conventionally placed. Although the brake pedal operates a transmission brake best left for dire emergencies. A handsomely sturdy plated lever is the main form of retardation, operating on the rear wheels only. All of which aids anticipation immeasurably.
An extra set of arms would be an enormous bonus because it is hard to signal your intention to turn or stop to other road users while actually trying to do so. Eventually you master a rhythm to cope with these unusual tasks. Fortunately the august driving position allows you to survey the traffic conditions ahead – and much of the surrounding countryside as well.
For a passenger that does not understand the terrors of the driving task, progress is remarkably serene and you are cosseted on large upholstered sofas from vibration and broken surfaces and you swish along. It’s the difference between flying in an early turbo-prop aircraft and Concorde.
A transverse helper leaf spring at the back linking the main leaf springs either side is a slight anomaly that makes the chassis and steering writhe slightly. Other reminders of an age long gone are hand cranking – although the engine will often commence using the ignition controls – and hand-pumping for fuel pressure.
A lever on the steering wheel boss called a Governer means you can set the speed like a modern day cruise control. Ingenious when you consider this is all achieved mechanically – it is really weird to feel the accelerator pedal moving of its own volition.
Today this amazing and unique car is in its 113th year which is pretty astonishing. I have no doubt that it will continue to do its duty in exactly the way its makers intended and for many more years to come.
In its day it was no exaggeration to proclaim the Rolls-Royce 40/50hp model as the Best Car in the World. Today The Silver Ghost is easily the most Famous Car in the World.