If all the automobile advertising copywriters were assigned to the hell-fire burning their falsehoods down the years have richly earned for them the blaze would be of a size to light up the planet, and the beady-eyed Martians might well take it as a signal. Speed the day! To the red-hot grates with the mocking slaveys who thought up ‘leopard-gait’ and ‘elbow action’ and ‘tank-top’ and called them new and wonderful. Lead off with the genius who boasted of the millions his employers had spent to develop the ‘new and astonishing’ hemispherical combustion chamber, just for the lucky Americans – when every high-performance engine built since grandfather’s day had had nothing else!
But when this jolly holocaust is kindled one group of hucksters will be standing safely aside to watch their brothers’ burning. These will be the quiet men who write advertising copy for the Rolls-Royce. It may well be that Rolls-Royce is the only automobile firm in the world that has never exaggerated its wares. Its slogan is a simple one, simply stated, and it has never changed. The Rolls-Royce, it tells you, is ‘The Best Car in the World’. That’s all. The best, and no discussion. And who, knowing anything at all about motor-cars, will argue?
The Rolls-Royce is not only the best car the world has ever seen, it is very probably the best piston-engined car the world ever will see. It is much to be doubted that the predictable future will produce an economy capable of sustaining the kind of workmanship and therefore the money that goes into a Rolls-Royce. One can go further: there is probably no mechanical device in the world as good as a Rolls-Royce. For in no other category of machines does one make possess such obvious and overwhelming superiority. No ship is as much superior to other ships as a Rolls-Royce is superior to other cars, no aeroplane, no house or clock or camera, printing press or child’s toy. The Rolls-Royce is first. There is no second and no third.
Rolls-Royce is so sure of its product that it issues a three year guarantee with each chassis sold. This contrasts with the dubious 90-day guarantee of the ordinary car. Let anything go wrong, great or small, in three years of driving, and it will be mended or replaced, free of charge. Such a guarantee would bankrupt the average firm long before the first three years were up. When a well-cared-for R-R turns its first 100,000 miles it can be considered just nicely broken in. There are pre-World War I Rolls-Royces with engines so vibration-free that they will still pass the classic test: with the engine running, a half-crown balanced on edge on the radiator won’t tip over.
What makes a Rolls-Royce so good? Are there thousands of bright young engineers, housed in modern laboratories of glittering glass, engaged in the testing, on fabulously expensive machines, of each and every part? No. R-R testing devices are simple and almost primitive rigs, often ‘designed’ and bolted together on the spot. Nor are they costly. An engine running on test is forced to turn a dynamo hooked up with the factory’s electrical supply, and the heat from its exhaust is used to warm wash water! Are the finished cars tried out on elaborate and beautifully landscaped testing grounds, where they can be driven through water troughs for the benefit of photographers and the edification of yokels? Again, no. They are tested by being run over astronomical mileages on the roads, where they will spend their working lives.
There is, alas, no magic. If there were, any car could be as good. The Rolls-Royce is good because everyone connected with the firm from the chairman of the board to the last foundry sweeper is determined that it shall be good. An absolute refusal to allow anything but the very best obtainable to be put into the car, from fan belt to upholsters’ tacks, characterizes everybody in the organization.
Sir Henry Royce once said: ‘It’s impossible for us to make a bad car. The doorman wouldn’t let it go out!’
An illustrative point is made by the quest for silence that Rolls-Royce has pursued down the years. The car is so quiet now that extraneous noises must be sought out by testers using doctor’s stethoscopes. An amount of gear hum that couldn’t be heard by the keenest-eared musician who ever twanged a bowstring will get a car sent back. So it comes about that when a Rolls-Royce passes on the street, the loudest sound a man on foot car hear is the rustle of the tyres. Rolls-Royce doesn’t make tyres.
Throughout the Western world the words Rolls-Royce are a common term, a word in lingua franca, meaning quality. Quality and, of course, luxury. Everyone knows that Rolls-Royce begins where every other make of car leaves off. But not many know that the R-R is a good passenger car today because it was, once upon a time, a great sports and racing car. In the decade between 1904 and 1914 Rolls-Royce cars set up murderous competitive standards over English and European road courses.
It could be argued that the car should have been called the Royce-Rolls, for Royce, Frederick Henry, son of a miller, began it all by building a two-cylinder car in 1903, when he was 40 years old. He set about the job because he was certain that he could design and make an automobile superior to the cranky and uncertain vehicles that whuffed and chugged along the roads of the day. It took him six months. He worked day and night and drove his few helpers with the consistent callosity of a Roman overseer. He grudged the time it took to eat and was baffled by the lack of enthusiasm of any man who entertained scruples against working through a week-end. The standards of perfection that have characterized the R-R company ever since began with this very first car. Lightness combined with great strength was the order of the day, and a component bit which was in Royce’s view too heavy for its function would send him into a glowering rage. He was once profoundly shocked to hear a mechanic say that a certain part was ‘good enough as it is’. He upbraided the man in terms suitable for the denunciation of a traitor to the crown.
Much of the first car was made by Royce’s own hands. He was a skilled mechanic, and more: he had a great gift, amounting to a touch of mechanical genius. No theoretician, he couldn’t even use the official badge of the engineer’s office, the slide rule. But he could pick up a piece of brass stock and a hand file and make a fitting by eye measurement alone.
He made three cars in 1903 and 1904: a three-cylinder 15-horse-power and a four-cylinder 20-horse-power in addition to the original twin which produced 10 horse-power. In 1904 he met Charles Stewart Rolls, third son of the first Baron Llangattock. Rolls was an energetic young man well born in a time that suited him. He was of the essence of the pioneer. He chased new sensations as other men chased money. He was a cyclist, an automobile racer, a free balloonist. He had had his first cr – a Peugeot – in 1894. He had won the Thousand Miles Trial of 1900. In partnership with one Claude Johnson, a quiet bookish man later to be an enormously important figure in the Rolls-Royce company, he had set up an automobile agency in London, selling Belgian Minerva and French Panhard et Lavassor cars. But Royce was politely contemptuous of their wares, offered to take them for a ride and show them why. They were not long in being convinced. Rolls was particularly struck with the silence of the car, for in those days it was taken for granted that a motor-car had to be noisy. If it comes to that, even the august London Times was impressed. Reporting on the first showing of the car, at the Paris Salon in 1904, The Times said, ‘When the engine is running one can neither hear not feel it, and pedestrians never seemed to hear the car’s approach.’
The first agreement between Rolls and Royce was dated December 23, 1904, and two cars were entered for the Tourist Trophy race in the Isle of Man the following year. This race was for what we would call ‘stock’ cars. One of the two R-R’s broke down, the other finished second to a field of 42. They came back the next year to win: the car driven by C. S. Rolls finished the 208-mile course almost half an hour ahead of the field. Rolls set a road record that year, too, from Monte Carlo to London. He took the winning Tourist Trophy car to New York and set a new mark for 25-horse-power machines on the old Empire City track. The same car won the 20-mile championship at the Daytona Beach speed trials in 1907.
But it was the “Silver Ghost” Rolls-Royce of 1906 that really jolted the motoring world. This was a big car, rated at 48.7 horse-power (Royal Automobile Club) and it was wheeled out at the London Motor Show. The body was grey, the engine was silver-plated. After the Show it was run from London to Scotland and back, locked in third gear, which gave it a range of from 3 to 53 miles an hour. It was then promptly put on the road again and run day and night (Sundays excepted) until it had covered 15,000 miles. At the end of this performance impartial examiners could find no way in which to spend more than a trifle over ten dollars to restore it to as-new condition.
The Royal Automobile Club ran a Touring Car Trial in 1908 which required competing cars to travel to Scotland and back and then race for 200 miles on the Brooklands track near London. Rolls-Royce offered to bet £1000 against any car that would undertake to do all this and then go on to run an additional 15,000 miles. There were no talkers, so the Rolls proceeded to win its class in the Trial anyway.
Except for the two Tourist Trophy races Rolls-Royce competed as a company in no actual races, preferring instead to enter the long-distance touring type of event which could do most for the continuing development of the car. In private hands, however, the Rolls was successfully used in races on a good many occasions both before and after World War I.
In the 1930’s, Rolls-Royce-powered cars in the hands of Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston were to push the world’s land speed record to better than 350 miles per hour.
One of the immortal R-R models, the ‘London-Edinburgh’, was named as a result of a challenge by the Napier firm. In 1911 a Napier Six was run from London to Edinburgh and back in high gear, averaging 19.35 miles to the gallon of petrol. A touring-car model 45/50-horse-power Silver Ghost was promptly despatched over the same course and showed a petrol consumption figure of 24.32 miles to the gallon. Immediately after finishing the return leg of the trip the car was taken to the Brooklands track and did a lap at over 78 miles per hour in the same gear. The low, slim ‘London-Edinburgh’ car was one of the best-looking touring automobiles ever built and put up a standard of performance that would be good today. Given a light body and high gearing, one of these cars exceeded 100 miles per hour at Brooklands.
The ‘Alpine’ Rolls-Royce was a Silver ghost slightly modified for the 1913 Austrian Alpine Trial, a long and wicked up-mountain-and-down affair covering 1645 miles. These cars had bigger-than-standard radiators, heavy cantilever springs replacing the regular semi-elliptic type at the rear and a four-speed gearbox. The compression ratio was a little higher, a bigger carburettor was used and the brakes were more powerful than those of the ‘London-Edinburgh’.
The firm entered four cars for the 1913 Alpine and won the event with absurd ease. No one of the four required so much as a drop of water during the entire 1645 miles, a fantastic performance for cars of 1913 – or 1954 for that matter. Only the fact that a non-competing driver ploughed into one of the R-R entries prevented them from finishing one-two-three-four. A privately entered Rolls-Royce won the 1914 event after which World War I put a stop to competitive motoring in Europe. In 1921, when the firm resumed passenger-car manufacture, the ‘Alpine’ engine and gearbox went into all cars. Incidentally the Rolls-Royce company did not name the car the ‘Alpine’. The firm called the model the ‘Continental’, and continued to do so for some time after the general public had christened it ‘Alpine’. In 1932 R-R put out another ‘Continental’. That time they made it stick. It had a high compression ratio, a spring-spoked steering-wheel, a floor cut-out. Rolls-Royce executives have ever been stubborn lot, slow to change a good thing when there’s no need to. Most of us think that the Model T Ford was in continuous production longer than any other car ever built, but it isn’t true. The Silver Ghost Rolls was made for nineteen consecutive years, the Ford for eighteen.
Although the car could never have come into existence without Charles Stewart Rolls, and although Sir Henry Royce’s personality is stamped into its every part, the amount of time spent by the partners at the plant was negligible. Rolls was killed flying his own Wright aeroplane in 1910. In the same year Royce collapsed from the effects of prolonged overwork. He went to the Continent to convalesce, and although he returned briefly to England after a few months, he never again visited the factory. He built a house near the village of Le Canadel, in France, and until his death in 1933 he lived there and directed the company by mail. A permanent staff of three designers, two secretaries, a nurse, a housekeeper and a chauffeur stayed with him. So tremendous was the driving force in this man that he dominated everything that was done at Derby, and he functioned so perfectly through the great Claude Johnson and other executives that he was present almost in fact at their council tables. One is reminded of Joseph Pulitzer, blind, running the New York World from Europe during its golden period. When at last Sir Henry Royce died one of the few really radical changes ever made on the car was authorized, after sober debate, by the directors: the word Rolls-Royce and the two big R’s on the name plate were changed from red enamel to mourning black.
By standards prevailing in lesser manufactories, Rolls has offered few models since 1925, when the last Silver Ghost was made. There were the small Rolls-Royces – the delightful miniature 20/25 horse-power models (that’s rated, not developed, horse-power) and the Phantoms I, II, III, IV, and the Silver Wraith, the Silver Dawn. Most Rolls-Royce owners, it is safe to say, have not been much concerned with the model designation of their cars. Indeed, there have been Rolls owners who thought that their cars had eight-cylinder engines, although nearly all of them in existence today are sixes. (The comparatively rare P.III is a twelve-cylinder car, and the P. IV, not yet in production, is an eight.) But the man, or woman, who buys a new Rolls-Royce is not as a rule much concerned with things mechanical. (It is the second-hand buyer, the third-, fourth-, fifth-hand buyer who esteems the car as the embodiment of mechanical perfection.) The first purchaser buys two other things: the name, and utter luxury. There is a cachet in the ownership of a new Rolls-Royce conferred by the possession of nothing else. An ocean-going yacht does not mean more, may not mean as much. For new Rolls-Royce owners are a select lot indeed. Millionaires, film stars, royalty ranging from kings both active and at liberty to fabled Indian maharajahs have formed the glittering core of R-R clientele. But the men of Crewe, England, who make and sell the cars have not erected their present reputation by being out of touch with the times, and the cost of a Rolls-Royce has gone down of late, not up. Inflation may have raised the cost of other luxury items, but you can buy a brand-new Rolls-Royce off the peg today for a hair under $10,000 instead of the $15,000-$20,000 it used to cost. That is the price tag on the Silver Dawn model, and it represents a break with R-R tradition: the “Dawn” is the first Rolls-Royce ever offered at the factory complete with body. Until the introduction of this model, in 1950, Rolls-Royce made chassis only, the bodies being designed and built to customers’ specifications by one of the great English coach-building firms. The Silver Wraith model, somewhat bigger, is still offered, of course, and sold in the old way: chassis only.
When the last polisher has given the last lick to a Rolls-Royce leaving the Hooper or H. J. Mulliner or Park Ward body works it is as nearly a finished product as anything wrought by man can be, and I am speaking now of the ordinary – if the word may be used – body of typical Rolls-Royce conservatism. Its upholstery, whether of cloth or leather, will be of the best. The walnut dashboard, rails, window fillets will be of prime stock, polished to a blinding gloss or conservatively matted, as the owner wishes. There will be clocks, radios, speaking-tubes, cabinets, tables, folding seats, perhaps a small bar – all the normal, ordinary appurtenances of a luxury automobile. But for many a buyer it isn’t enough. For some, such an interior doesn’t represent even a beginning. It must be made more luxurious. This is a phenomenon that seems to appear most often in relation to the Rolls-Royce. Some owners appear to view the reputation of the Rolls-Royce as the most luxurious motor-carriage in the world as a challenge and a threat. They must improve upon the flawless. This aberration has produced some truly fabulous interiors.
The ordinary or garden variety of custom installation is built into a Rolls-Royce at the instruction of a grande dame of society, an international cartelist, or an heir to ancient millions. An American woman specified a make-up case that cost $3000, a clock that cost over $1000. A duplicate instrument panel for the rear seat is commonplace and so are odd and unusual seating arrangements; oversize single seats, built-in wheel chairs and ramps, etc. (The Englishwoman who specified a built-in chamber pot was, however, considered to be eccentric. It was done, nonetheless.) Rolls-Royce limousines have been built with unusually high roofs, to clear a tall man in a top hat, and with extra leg room for those who like to ride on the backs of their necks. A British connoisseur had all the operational switches on his car labelled in Old English.
But this kind of thing, expressing the whims of ordinary mortals, executed at comparatively trifling cost, is insignificant beside the passionate devotion to individuality of some of the Indian princes who are good and faithful Rolls-Royce customers. A man of taste like the Maharajah of Patiala, who bought 35 Rolls-Royces in a bundle, so to speak, a couple of years after the end of World War II, can afford to indulge himself. The Maharajah of Patiala runs to gold-plated dashboards, fur floor-coverings and medicine chests that are inbuilt.
The Nizam of Hyderabad, whose claim to the title of richest man in the world has not been recently disputed – he could, if need be, lay hands on $2,500,000,000 – has about 50 Rolls-Royce cars of various body types. His favourite is a Silver Ghost of 1911.It had done under 500 miles the last time anyone looked at the odometer. The Nizam has another Silver Ghost of some luxury too, This is a ‘London-Edinburgh’ with a body hammered out of solid silver. Its cost, which is unreported, must have made even the Nizam blink a bit, and one would expect the weight of metal to affect adversely the car’s otherwise sprightly performance. This latter is probably not of primary concern to the Nizam, however, since his motoring trips are infrequent, slow and short.
One could go on for a long time. ‘What a pity,’ an English authority once remarked, ‘that there were no Rolls-Royce cars in the days of Nero – or Louis Quatorze!’
It is the versatility of the car, not its luxury, that bemuses the onlooker. The Silver Ghost chassis that transports an Indian rajah in silence and princely splendour is identical twin to the armoured, tanklike Silver Ghosts with which Lawrence of Arabia hounded the Turks in World War I. These were the cars that first demonstrated to the world the standard to which Sit Henry Royce adhered. For they were after all built for ordinary passenger use under ordinary load. They were never meant to carry armour, to run week after week in sand and through it, to go indefinitely with haphazard maintenance or none. Still, so tremendous was their overstrength that they did, and Lawrence credited them with much of his success. Indeed, after the war T. E. Lawrence once remarked that if he could have anything in the world that money could buy, he would have a Rolls-Royce with petrol, and tryes to last it for his life.
Although Lawrence’s first armoured cars were improvised Rolls-Royce did, of course, produce vastly for military usage during both World Wars. R-R aeroplane engines powered many Allied bombers and fighters in the 1914-1918 conflict. The first plane ever to cross the Atlantic non-stop (Alcock and Brown, 1919) was engined by Rolls-Royce. The great Schneider Trophy victories in the ‘20s were won with Rolls-Royce engines, and the Battle of Britain, that engagement which was the hinge of civilization, was won by Spitfires and Hurricanes carrying the Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engine. And of course tank engines were produced in thousands. Today the Crewe factory is turning out superlative jet power plants and a range of four-, six- and eight-cylinder military engines designed for an extraordinarily high interchangeability of parts is in work. Obviously most of Rolls-Royce’s output is now and for years has been destined for military and other heavy-duty work – but even though production of cars may not run more than 20 units a week, those 20 are still nearest the hearts of most of the company’s people.
Fewer than 25,000 Rolls-Royce cars have been built. Of these, a few hundred were made in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1921 to 1931. Those built at Springfield from 1924 on have left-hand drive and the gear level is a long one, sprouting from the centre of the floor, but they are otherwise identical with contemporary models turned out by the English factory, then at Derby. The venture did not survive the depression of the ‘30s, however, and since then the cars have been built in England only. You can find a good Rolls-Royce service station almost anywhere in the civilized world, although it may take a bit of looking for. There are perhaps three in the United States in the hands of whose mechanics a Rolls can be maintained in the tight mechanical pitch in which it left the factory.
It is not true, incidentally, that a Rolls-Royce engine is sealed at the factory and that it may not be opened by anyone other than a factory-trained mechanic without invalidation of the guarantee. This legend has died hard. It is true, however, that a Rolls-Royce owner of chauffeur can enrol for a driving and maintenance course in England designed to teach him how a fine car should be treated. The course lasts for 12 days – four of them devoted to gear-changing! – and at the end the proud graduate is given a silver pin testifying to his superior knowledge.
What does a Rolls-Royce feel like to the driver? Like nothing else in the world.
You have here – consider the Silver Wraith – a car of 10 feel 7 inches of wheelbase, running perhaps 17 feet over-all. You have a six-cylinder engine, overhead intake, side exhaust valves, the so-called ‘F-head’ type, of 4256-cubic centimetres (260 inches) capacity, developing 122 horse-power. It will propel the car 23 miles per hour in top gear for every 1000 revolutions per minute it turns. It gives about 18 miles to the gallon. The car has four speeds forward, a steering-wheel that turns three and one-half times from lock to lock. It will do 90 miles per hour effortlessly and in total silence.
So much for the bare recital of the essentials. But that cannot cover the case. Consider the brakes, for example. They cannot be, of course, full hydraulic brakes, because hydraulic brakes fail on occasion, rarely, it is true, but still they fail, usually due to loss of fluid, and to subject a Rolls-Royce owner to such indignity and danger would be unthinkable. On the other hand, they cannot be full mechanical brakes, because mechanicals require high pedal pressures and are apt to get out of adjustment easily. Therefore Rolls-Royce uses a braking system of its own. The front brakes are hydraulic. The rear are mechanical. And they are applied, not with the force of the driver’s foot alone, but with the force of the car’s forward motion. When the pedal is depressed, a clutch moves to engage a constantly-running disc powered from the gearbox, and the braking force is thus in direct proportion to the speed of the car. You can really stop a Rolls-Royce is you need to.
The gear lever is short and stiff and it lies just beside the right-hand corner of the front seat, where the hand falls naturally upon it in a right-hand drive car. The Silver Dawn gear lever is on the steering column, an innovation that caused many a pang to tradition-minded Royce lovers. There is a hand throttle, of course, a light to warn of low fuel level, a shock-absorber control level, and a pedal which, when pushed, meters a correct amount of special oil to all chassis parts. A Rolls-Royce is never given a ‘grease-job’. Thermostatically operated radiator shutters open or close as the engine warms or cools, maintaining a proper temperature. A flip of a key will cut off the entire electrical system in the vent of a short circuit, a stuck horn or any such unlikely contingency.
The most advanced Rolls-Royce now in existence is the Phantom IV limousine owned by Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom and her husband. His is a regal automobile, nearly 19 feet long, over six feet high, dark green in colour and equipped in a quietly luxurious fashion. It has, of course, the square radiator that has never changed its shape – nor ever will. Its straight-eight engine probably produces about 190 horse-power. The body is done in the style – never used on a modern U.S. car – known in Britain as ‘razor-edge’. In this style all surfaces which would ordinarily be finished in rolling curves, surfaces such as the line of the roof or the sweep-down of the back, are brought up into sharp knife-edge lines. One of the advantages of this design is that it allows for an exceptionally shallow roof with consequent large window area, as advantage in a car intended, as this one is, for state occasions. Part of the rear window areas can be blanked off, however, whenever the Queen or her husband prefer privacy. The rear doors are over three feel wide (at the bottom they flare out to seal the wide running-boards against dust), but the seat is narrow by U.S. standards, since it is designed to provide for no more than two persons. Those two, however, will be very comfortable indeed. There are enough interior lights in the car to provide any degree of illumination from pin-point to full brilliance. There are three heaters, and thermostatic arrangements on the engine provide that the heaters are fed the very firs hot water available so that they can produce warm air instantly the engine is started. The windscreen is warmed by a separate unit drawing hot air from the radiator. A glass panel in the roof can be covered by a motor-driven blind, and the curtain over the rear window is, of course, motor-driven as well. The window-winders, however, are manual.
The interior of this royal carriage is considered to be ‘very simple’ by Rolls-Royce standards. The cabinet-work, while executed by master craftsmen in fine figured walnut, is not elaborate. Only the standard appurtenances are provided: clock, radio with two speakers and remote controls, two folding tables and chairs, ashtrays, cigarette-lighters, glove box, and hand mirrors. A bit out of the ordinary is a small three-compartment locked filing cabinet.
All in all, a barouche that would have pleased Sir Henry Royce had he seen it slide away for delivery to its royal owners. He would have been particularly happy with one detail: the radiator ornament of this car is not the ‘Silver Lady’ so beloved by Rolls-Royce owners that most of them, on parking the car for any extended period, always remove it and replace it with the thoughtfully provided plain cap. The royal Phantom carries instead a silver statue depicting St. George in the act of slaying the dragon. When the builders of the car first saw the piece they found it quite acceptable as art but wanting in engineering. They wondered if the mass of horse and rider, highly placed as it was, might not eventually detach itself from the dragon, writhing below. A suitable testing machine was devised and the statue was bumped and banged in a way that a year of riding over railway tracks could not duplicate. As a result the statue as redesigned with a view to better apportioning of the stresses. The dragon’s head was moved to support the horse from the side, and the dragon’s tongue was imperceptibly lengthened in order to furnish support for the horse’s belly, while St. George’s lance was firmly embedded in the evil beast, the better to support the rider. As art, the statue is still good; as engineering, it now meets Rolls-Royce standards and thus can never, never be jounced the least bit out of line!