Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

The vintage Rolls-Royce may be a work of art, but it rattles the bones and deafens the ears, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Two years ago I celebrated the centenary of Rolls-Royce by driving a Silver Ghost, the first of the marque to go into series-production. The example exhibited at the Motor Show in November 1906 was dubbed the 40/50; by then 12 cars had been tested to destruction and the 13th, painted and plated in silver, seemed so magnificent that mere numbers would no longer do and it became the Silver Ghost.

Motoring correspondents of its day wrote of riding in the Ghost as being wafted through the air, as though the wheels were not in contact with the ground, in total silence, at speeds quite unimaginable. Autocar magazine in 1907 was responsible for the myth that "one's auditory nerves'' heard nothing louder than the dashboard clock.

Were they blind, deaf and comprehensively insensate? To drive an early Ghost now - cosseted, adored and venerated for a century - is to be deafened by the racket, and to have one's teeth so loosened by the juddering, that the sane man must prefer to travel in a horse-drawn cart.

During the many years of its manufacture, the suspension of the Ghost was revised, refined and improved, yet it obstinately remained a creature familiar to any charioteer of Julius Caesar's day; and even when the Ghost was replaced by the Phantom I in 1925, the old chassis soldiered on for four more years, carrying the new engine.

The engine may well have been the smoothest, quietest and most flexible of its day, and there can be no doubting its reliability, but in truth it looks and sounds like a barrel-organ built for the Black Dyke Mills Band. It is a big six of 7,036cc, producing 50bhp at 1,500rpm - hardly enough for sparkling performance when bodies by the great coachbuilders of the day brought the on-the-road weight to the best part of three tonnes. That weight was an essential part of keeping the wheels in contact with the road and smoothing out the bounce.

In 1909 the capacity was increased to 7,428cc and by 1911 power had risen to 58bhp. Right at the end of its lifespan, in 1925, it had been persuaded to give 85bhp. By then it had been mated to a variety of three- and four-speed gearboxes with ratios that always made it possible to drive in top gear and no other - a signal advantage to drivers who could not master the business of double-declutching for a silent change.

The British public, restrained by an early speed-limit of 20mph, were less interested in speed than in a car's ability to do everything required of it in top gear. Double declutching to match the rotating speeds of the gears was virtually impossible for most private owners who, if confronted by a hill, were inclined to stop, select the gear in which the car might climb it and stay in it rather than risk the crash of gear-grinding on the move.

Rolls-Royce offered reassurance with a very early Ghost driven from Bexhill to Glasgow in top, and in 1911 this feat was capped by a car driven from London to Edinburgh and back, followed by a speed trial at Brooklands in which the car, nicknamed The Sluggard, roared round the circuit at 78.26mph.

A 15,000-mile road trial to and forth between London and Glasgow without a forced stop further substantiated the car's claim to be reliable. Then a single-seater Ghost circled Brooklands at 101mph. When in India a Ghost, deprived of tools and with its bonnet locked so that its oil and water could not be topped up, climbed six mountain passes in a row, the car became the favoured marque of nawabs and maharajahs.

The first advertisement for the Ghost then asked the question: "Is this the best car in the world?'' The second unhesitatingly stated that it was. We have believed it ever since.

Was it ever true? Response in Britain to the Ghost was so ecstatic that R-R dropped all other models to concentrate on it and production rose to seven cars a week. I am content to believe that it was, in its first incarnation, the best-made car in the world, the most scrupulously considered in every tiny detail, that the tolerances were such that nothing could ever bend, distort or sheer.

But if the legend meant that the Ghost's engine, gearbox, brakes and suspension were so far in advance of the engineering of the day that they required nothing but a little tinkering to keep R-R ahead of all its rivals, then it was a downright lie.

Royce was a perfectionist rather than an innovator, content to make better what had already been made before. It was Rolls, killed in a flying accident in 1910, who determined that their cars should be big and powerful, that their bodies should all be built by the great coachbuilders - exclusive, inventive and expensive independent craftsmen - and it was Rolls who drove the marque into the headlines and high society.

Rolls, a cold, ambitious, wifeless man, was the driving force of the partnership, and he would not have allowed his car to stand quite so mechanically still for quite so long. When, in 1925, after 6,173 had been built, the Ghost's side-valve engine was at last replaced, the whole car was desperately behind the times, but for whatever it may have lacked in engineering innovation, its coachbuilders more than compensated.

Competing to clad the R-R chassis with a worthy body were 119 English coachbuilders - Gurney Nutting, Thrupp and Maberly, Freestone and Webb included. Not even John Betjeman could have made up names so English and improbable.

In America, where R-R had a loss-making subsidiary factory, Inskip and Brewster nourished them with splendid transatlantic notions of design. In France, Kellner, Saoutchik and Vanvooren vied with bodies ever more aerodynamic and Art Deco. And in Germany, Sweden, Holland, Spain and Italy - even Czechoslovakia, with Dodomka - coachbuilders constructed automotive fantasies on the Ghost chassis.

It is on these that the awe inspired by the car depends. Coachbuilders of 1907 applied the aesthetics and the purposes of the Athenaeum and drawing-room to the Ghost's chassis, the button-backed leather sofas of the one and the veneers of the other, but after the First World War they edged away from the horseless carriage and belatedly into 20th-century notions of design.

No other marque can muster quite so many examples of inspired beauty and design in coachwork, and the bodies built for the Ghost established the foundation on which those built for the Phantoms and the Wraiths could maintain the reputation of Rolls-Royce as the best car in the world. In engineering terms, however, this is a fiction.

I have, nevertheless, encountered decent and saintly men who have devoted their lives to old Ghosts as engineers who keep them going and archivists who record their doughty deeds.

I have even met a dealer in whom I would unquestioningly put my trust, were I in the market for a Ghost. But I am not and never shall be. I might treasure one as a work of art, but for peace of mind, silence, agility and four-wheel brakes, I'd rather have a Honda Jazz.

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