Henry Royce probably did not start out to create the "Best Car in the World" when he designed the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. What he wanted was to replace his rough-running six-cylinder "Thirty" with something more reliable, something smoother and quieter.
He succeeded so completely that the new car, introduced at the Olympia Motor Show and later named Silver Ghost, became the longest-running single model next to the Model T Ford (and, much later, the VW Beetle and the British Mini) -- and certainly the most famous luxury car in history. The Silver Ghost remains to this day the most desirable model among antique (pre-1930) cars.
Rolls-Royce, founded in Manchester in 1904, was the amalgam of socialite entrepreneur Charles S. Rolls, who'd been selling Panhards and wanted something better, and the aforementioned Mr. Royce, whose previous experience had been with electric cranes.
Early production involved a variety of cars in different sizes with two, three, four, and six cylinders, about as successful as bystanders expected from this unlikely duo. But those who thought the venture would fail did not reckon on Royce's acumen, nor his single-minded determination to build a better car than anybody else.
The Silver Ghost was renowned for its smooth, quiet running, achieved with a massive, seven-main-bearing crankshaft and stiff crankcase. Its cylinders were cast in two blocks of three, inclusive of heads, which eliminated head gaskets and the chances of their blowing. The specifications included full-pressure lubrication, an electrical system that really worked, and a precision carburetor made with the quality of a Swiss watch. Its reliability, at a time when "horseless carriages" were anything but reliable, was legendary.
This was proven when a Silver Ghost emerged from a 15,000-mile trial in 1907, observed by the Royal Automobile Club, with highest marks. Four years later, on the London-Edinburgh-London run, a Ghost ran the entire distance in top gear with a fuel consumption of 24.32 miles per Imperial gallon (19 mpg U.S.), an astonishing performance for the time in such a heavy car.
Although the seven-liter side-valve engine's compression ratio was only 3,2:1, it developed 48 brake horsepower at 1,500 rpm, and would deliver 50-mph cruising speeds, which was more than an enthusiastic driver could do on almost any public road of the day.
When a Ghost owner wanted to really let it out, he'd pay a visit to Brooklands, the huge banked oval in Surrey, built just after the first Ghosts. Brooklands' motto was "the right crowd and no crowding," which was certainly appropriate here: the Silver Ghost chassis alone cost £985, close to $5,000 at the time, five or 10 times what the average professional could expect to make in a year. Truly this was a car for the classes and not the masses.
Henry Royce's success came at a key time, when the cash-poor company desperately needed a winner. So well received was it that the firm moved to more spacious quarters in Derby in 1908, simultaneously deciding to produce only this model -- and so it did for the next 17 years.
On the next page, learn about the 1909 to the 1919 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
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1909-1926 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost
The first mechanical change to the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost came in 1909, when an increase in stroke brought displacement to 7.4 liters and the original four-speed transmission was replaced by a three-speed unit. By 1911, when Rolls-Royce prepared a car for the London-Edinburgh run, compression was 3.5:1 and carburetion increases had brought horsepower to 58. The Ghost reverted to a four-speed transmission in 1913, when cantilever rear suspension was adopted.
That was the year when Rolls-Royce was able to claim an honest 80 mph for the light, open-bodied Ghosts built for the Austrian Alpine Trials, where they finished ahead of all other rivals. Incidentally, the beautiful London-Edinburgh tourer survives, and recently changed hands at a Florida auction for $1,3000,000 -- a bargain compared to two other, less distinguished examples which sold for $2,005,000 and $2,600,000.
Limited production continued during the Great War, when many new and some old Ghosts were fitted with armored bodywork for running battles against the Turks in the Middle East, under such commanders as Allenby and Lawrence of Arabia. Others were used as staff cars and ambulances. Inflation saw the chassis price rise to £2,100 ($10,165) after the war, although this now included a chain-driven self-starter and four-wheel brakes with a servo assist. Brake horsepower of the 1919 and later models rose to 70.
In 1920, Rolls-Royce of America, Incorporated, was founded at Springfield, Massachusetts, in a plant purchased from the American Wire Wheel Company. The object was to build cars for the American market while avoiding high import tariffs, and the subsidiary enjoyed good success until the Depression closed it down in 1931. Silver Ghosts were built at Springfield beginning in 1921.
Retaining their English right-hand drive, they offered the 7.4-liter engine rated at 80 bhp. In 1925, Springfield finally switched to left-hand drive, by which time the cars were developing 85 bhp at 2,300 rpm and could do 70-plus mph with the high-speed (3.25:1) rear axle ratio. Two huge wheelbases, of 144 and 150 1/2inches, were available, and bodies were supplied by the cream of American coach builders, chiefly Brewster. Of the 2,944 Springfield Rolls-Royces built over 11 years, 1,703 were Silver Ghosts.
Paul Woudenberg, in his Illustrated Rolls-Royce and Bentley Buyer's Guide (1984), writes that the American Rolls had "no glaring weaknesses and, given regular maintenance and lubrication, has nearly unlimited life. The American Ghost has been given much attention in the Flying Lady, publication of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club, especially in the years after 1952, and owners will find back issues of this magazine (still available) a valuable guide in maintenance and troubleshooting."
He adds that while the domestic version lacked the four-wheel brakes of the later British cars, it did feature valve covers, an important improvement over the exposed valves of the English models. The domestics can be recognized at a glance by their drum headlamps, tubular bumpers, and American componentry such as electrics, as well as left-hand drive after 1925.
Finally, since Brewster built the vast majority of American bodies (and was itself bought by Rolls-Royce of America in 1923), the Springfield cars carry a far more uniform line of bodywork.
The Silver Ghost was superseded in Britain by the Phantom I in 1925, after a long and distinguished career. UK production since 1906 amounted to 6,173 chassis, making 7,876 altogether.
On our final page, you will find the specifications for the 1907-1926 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
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1907-1926 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Specifications
The 1907-1926 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was hailed by some as the "Best Car in the World." Though some might dispute this title, there is no question that the Silver Ghost was a truly classic car. On this page, you will find the specifications for the 1907-1926 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
Engine: I-6, cast in 2 blocks, integral beads, side valves, 7,036 cc (4 1/2 × 4 1/2-in bore × stroke), 7 main bearings, dual ignition with magneto and trembler coil, 3.2:1 compression ratio, 48 bhp @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed, cone clutch multi-dry-plate clutch
Suspension, front: Semi-elliptic leaf springs
Suspension, rear: Semi-elliptic leaf springs with auxiliary transverse leaf spring
Brakes: External contracting on the driveshaft
Wheelbase (in.): 135-1/2 and 143-1/2
Weight (lbs): 2,050-2,200 (chassis only)
Top speed (mph): 60
Production: UK 6,173 US 1,703 (1907-26)