1926 “Springfield” Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Rolls-Royce is as English as Yorkshire pudding, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, although this has been tempered with Rolls-Royce passing into German hands in the late 1990s. It might come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the car so strongly associated with Britain was also built in the United States for about 10 years.
Founded by Henry Royce, a Manchester manufacturer of electrical equipment, and Charles Rolls, a pioneering London automobile dealer, Rolls-Royce began making cars in 1904. The company was incorporated in 1906, and Royce’s superb engineering, and Rolls’s outstanding promotional abilities were so effective that the Rolls-Royce soon established a reputation as “The Best Car in the World.”
The model that earned this esteem was the Silver Ghost, built from 1907 to 1925, with a hiatus during the First World War. To continue in production for so long, even with refinements and improvements, demonstrates the soundness of the original design.
But Rolls-Royce management knew that even the venerable Silver Ghost had to eventually retire, and in 1922 it phased in the 20 Horsepower (taxable, not brake horsepower) model. It was smaller and lighter than the Ghost, more suited to the gradual move away from chauffeur-driven to owner-driven Rollses.
The United States was an important Rolls-Royce market, but heavy American import duties were a deterrent to sales. To counter this, in 1920 Rolls-Royce of America was established in an ex-American Wire Wheel Company plant in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Rolls-Royce had already established a technical beachhead in America by sending a number of technicians over to train Americans in building First World War Rolls-Royce aero engines. The war ended before it got into production.
The Silver Ghost went into production in Springfield in 1921, although the conversion to left-hand drive would not be accomplished for a couple of years.
The Silver Ghost’s replacement, the New Phantom, later called Phantom I, was introduced in Britain 1925. It was to be built in Springfield too, although the conversion to left-hand drive required extensive modifications, including moving the intake and exhaust manifolds from the left side of the engine to the right.
American-built Phantoms, therefore, didn’t begin appearing until 1926. In addition to the left-hand drive, there were other differences. American Phantoms had six-volt electrical systems instead of the British 12-volt. And early American Phantoms had only two-wheel brakes, although four-wheel brakes would be retrofitted.
American Phantoms also got a disposable oil filter, thermostatically-controlled radiator shutters for better engine temperature control, and a one-shot chassis lubrication system.
The practice when buying a Rolls-Royce was to order the chassis from the factory, and then commission a coachbuilder to fit it with a custom body. This procedure was carried over to America, and Springfield Rollses were bodied by some of the finest American coachbuilders such as Brewster, Hibbard, Merrimac and Willoughby.
Many Rolls owners even had two bodies for their cars, a closed one for winter and an open one for summer. They were painted in their particular family colours, sometimes the same as their horse racing silks. Coachbuilders exchanged the bodies, and stored and maintained them in the off season.
It gradually became evident, however, that Americans preferred to buy a complete car, as was the usual practice when buying American luxury cars, rather than going through the two-step process. To accommodate this, Rolls-Royce of America purchased Brewster and Company of New York, in 1925, and could thereby offer one-stop shopping.
Brewster’s plant was on Long Island, and it gradually supplied more and more Rolls bodies. The practice was to road test the car, while at the same time transporting it by having a Rolls-Royce chauffeur drive the bare chassis from Springfield to Long Island where the body was fitted. Most Rolls-Royces were sold out of their Fifth Avenue showroom in Manhattan, so the driver took the train back to Springfield. It is estimated that some 800 of the approximately 1,200 Springfield Phantoms produced had Brewster bodies.
The Phantom I was replaced by the Phantom II in 1929, but with the advent of the 1930s Depression, Rolls-Royce of America could not afford to make the changeover. It imported some Phantom II chassis and fitted them with bodies, but by 1931 it had stopped production. The plant closed in 1935.
Thus, the noble experiment of building British Rolls-Royces in America ended after 10 years. Although Rollses continued to be imported, most Americans seeking luxury cars opted for such home-grown and much more reasonably priced makes as Duesenbergs, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Packards.