1923 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost
1923 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The British Rolls-Royce built by Rolls-Royce Motors of Crewe, Cheshire, had a long established reputation as the best car in the world. And the model that did more than any other to establish that stature was the Silver Ghost, introduced in 1907.

Royce Ltd., a manufacturer of electric motors and generators, started making gasoline-engined motor cars in Manchester in 1904. Henry Royce was a meticulous, self-taught engineer, but he felt more at home designing and improving his cars than he did trying to sell them. He needed an extroverted salesman to get out and convince buyers of the soundness and engineering excellence he had built into his cars.

Charles Stewart Rolls was that kind of man. Born to the aristocracy, the third son of Lord Llangattock, he loved the adventurous life. He flew in balloons and was one of the first to welcome the Wright brothers’ airplane to Europe. (He died in a plane accident in 1910 at age 32.) Cars were another of his passions and he became prominent racing them throughout Europe.

He was selling French Panhards in London, and at the urging of a friend, travelled to Manchester in 1904 to see what Royce had built. Rolls was so impressed with the car that he immediately suggested that they join forces. A deal was made; Royce would build them and Rolls would sell them.

Up to 1906 Rolls-Royce had built several different models with four-and six-cylinder engines, and even a V-8. For 1907 they decided on a one-model policy for the company. This would permit them to concentrate all efforts on developing it, rather than spreading their resources over several models.

The Silver Ghost was that car, and it debuted at the Olympia Motor Show in November, 1906, designated as a 1907 model. It was a large vehicle, riding on a 3,442 mm (135 in.) wheelbase and tipping the scales at 1672 kg (3,685 lb.). Power came from a 7-litre inline, side-valve six-cylinder engine that developed 48 horsepower at a leisurely 1,200 rpm. Its ultra-high fourth gear, combined with the large wheels, permitted the big six to leaf along at a mere 1000 rpm at 76 km/h (47 mph).

The “silver” in its name came from the fact that the metal trim parts of the car were silver plated and the body was painted aluminum. The “ghost” implied its quiet operation. Technically, there is only one Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, that original car, but in practical terms, production Rolls-Royces were also known as Silver Ghosts.

To demonstrate the new model’s engineering quality, it was taken on a 3220 km (2,000 mile) reliability run, which included driving from the south coast of England all the way up to Scotland in top gear. This test was conducted under the strict scrutiny of the Royal Automobile Club (R.A.C.).

The car completed the run successfully, but in order to further demonstrate the Ghost’s durability, the company immediately sent it out on a 24,100 km (15,000 mile) test, with Charles Rolls as one of the drivers. This, too, was completed without involuntary stops except for tire changes, and it broke the world’s record for reliability and long distance.

The Ghost was then stripped down by R.A.C. engineers to determine how much deterioration it had suffered. Amazingly, there was no wear in the engine, transmission, brakes or steering gear that could be measured with a micrometer.

These exploits established Rolls-Royce’s reputation almost overnight, and the Silver Ghost model began selling well. The Ghost was built from 1907 to 1925, including some assembled in an American plant in Springfield, Mass., beginning in 1921 (that plant closed in 1931.)

While it was built for so many years, it is generally conceded that Rolls-Royce’s reputation as the maker of the best car in the world was established by the Silver Ghost model between 1907 and the beginning of World War I in 1914.

Incredible as it may seem the original Silver Ghost test car is still running today. The car was kept around the company during 1907 and part of 1908 where it was used by various officials. In 1908 it was sold to one of Rolls-Royce’s travelling inspectors, an A.M. Hanbury, who proceeded to accumulate something in excess of 804,650 km (500,000 miles) on it.

He eventually retired and in 1947 Rolls-Royce received a message from his son-in-law that some spare parts were needed for the Ghost. Hanbury died before the transaction was completed, but Rolls-Royce, now aware of the location of the car, was able to acquire it from the heirs.

Much repair and restoration was required, of course, but Rolls-Royce got it back on the road. It has been serving as a kind of mobile goodwill ambassador for the company ever since, a “working car” as they call it.

Rolls-Royce is fortunate to have its first car, and is to be commended for keeping it on the road, not sitting in a museum somewhere as a static exhibit. I’m sure that Henry Royce and Charles Rolls would have expected no less from the car that launched the legend of “The best car in the world.”

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