The Ghosts of Rolls-Royce Past Reveal Their Driving Spirit
I love going to single-marque car club events, especially national meets that bring owners and their cars together from around the country. There is simply no better way to get immersed into a community that shares a passion for one car make—or even model—than by spending a day wandering the grass at a club car show. Chatting up owners can reveal more about the nature of the beasts—and people who love them—than any general concours, cars-and-coffee, blog, magazine or frenzied auction can ever tell.
The remarkable thing about car clubs is that, like animals at the zoo, each one has its own distinct personality. Some clubs, like those for BMW and Porsche enthusiasts, are enormous, with national meets whose attendance rivals that of a major auto show. Each club has its customs and peculiarities—the Morgan +4 Club dinner parades a haggis to the accompaniment of bagpipes and plentiful adult beverages. Corvette, Ferrari, Mustang and Jaguar gatherings all evoke varying degrees of formality, collegiality and, when the judging begins, OCD behavior unique to each marque.
So, it was with great anticipation that I motored from Los Angeles down to San Diego to spend a couple of days with the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club (RROC) for its 70th Annual Meet at the Dana Hotel on Mission Bay. And Rolls-Royce Motor Cars North America brought a trio of new Ghosts for the enjoyment of club members and to highlight the connection between the automaker’s past and present.
Rolls-Royce has 118 years of motoring history behind it, and while a 1906 Silver Ghost and a 2022 Ghost might seem as dissimilar as chalk and cheese, the reality is that—in addition to the name—both automobiles share a nearly continuous thread of DNA. In fact, Ghost is the oldest model name in the world, though technically, the Rolls-Royce Phantom, with its unbroken lineage from 1925 to present, is the longest running because there were years when the Ghost was not made.
The San Diego meet offered a plentiful array of Rolls-Royce and Bentley pre- and post-war models (remember, the two marques were bedfellows until 1998, and Bentley still owns the rights to historic car parts). The owners of these old-timers are some of the most enthusiastic, affable car people I’ve ever met. And they really drive their cars.
I’ve put thousands of miles on Goodwood Rolls-Royces, the ones made since 2004 at the new UK factory constructed after parent BMW acquired the marque, and they remain the quietest, smoothest and most luxurious four-wheeled conveyances in the automotive kingdom. But while I’ve seen hundreds of classics wearing the Spirit of Ecstasy atop a Pantheon grille, I’ve never experienced one under power. The club meet afforded such an opportunity with two ancient Silver Ghosts, perfect bookends to the brand-new 2022 iterations on hand. Made from 1906 to 1926, a total of 7,874 Silver Ghosts (originally called 40/50) were built.
One of these was a 1921 Springfield Silver Ghost currently owned by Doug Gates of Poway, Calif. The Mayfair body is enclosed in the rear but open in the front, as were cars whose owners were chauffeur-driven. Remarkably, rear passengers enjoy seats as comfortable as grandma’s sofa and have at least two feet more legroom than in any automobile made today. Expansive panes of flat glass gave a panoramic view as we motored on the roads circling Mission Bay.
The other example was a 1923 Springfield Silver Ghost, an open-top tourer owned by Doug and Mary White of Raleigh, N.C., who put more than 10,000 miles on its odometer in 2021 alone. Perched in the rear seat, one enjoys a stadium view, raised above the front occupants, just as in today’s Phantom. I accompanied its owner in the left front seat, studying the panoply of gauges and controls as he deftly double-clutched, shifted gears and cranked the enormous steering wheel with its hard-rubber rim. The whole enterprise recalled E. Power Biggs at the bench of his giant pipe organ, employing every extremity to operate the imposing instrument. Like keyboard-virtuoso Biggs, White made it look like no work at all.
Both Silver Ghosts are American Springfield cars, of which 1,701 were made. That is, they were made at the Rolls-Royce factory in Springfield, Mass., back when the company built cars in the UK and the United States. If ever a car was built to endure, it’s a Rolls-Royce. It’s claimed that about 70 percent of all Rolls-Royces ever built are still extant. Which may not be surprising, considering that a Silver Ghost rolling chassis—not including the body—cost $11,750 in 1921. These have always been exclusive cars in both pampering and price.
Conjuring an image of a “brick outhouse” is not terribly elegant, but it’s easy to imagine that in a face-off between that sturdy edifice and a Silver Ghost, the Rolls-Royce would surely prevail. One trait common to every contemporary Rolls-Royce—wafting in silence—struck me instantly when riding in both of the vintage Silver Ghosts. They were as smooth as they were quiet, the gargantuan engine lazily ticking along without a shake or shudder. It’s inconceivable that a car so old and primitive could be so comfortable, and yet, it’s not far-fetched to imagine driving across the country in one. Or perhaps 12,000 miles from North Carolina to Alaska, which the Whites did in 2010.
Part of that smoothness is due to the engine, a 7.4-liter inline-six mill making about 80 hp at only 2,250 rpm. And it allows for seemingly infinite rebuilds. The Silver Ghost, fitted with only rear brakes and narrow tires, requires its driver to anticipate lengthy stopping distances, so while it might achieve a top speed of 80 mph, a 60 mph cruising speed is prudent, based on the laws of physics and reason. Original owners of these Springfield Rolls-Royces would have had drivers whose job was not just to steer and stop and shift all four gears, but to fettle the mechanicals, grease the Alamite fittings, change the belts and polish, polish, polish. It was a full-time job.
Gates, the car’s fourth caretaker, routinely puts on his coveralls, slides under the mile-high chassis and lubricates to his heart’s content, attending to the needs of a Rolls- Royce that has provided trustworthy transportation for more than a century. And the rewards of custodianship are great. Gates is careful to emphasize that term, and not ownership, recognizing that possession of any wonderful thing is transitory.
Hoping that these treasured cars will be enjoyed 100 years from now, Gates says, “We’re just the temporary owners. Some people buy them just to look at. Some of us take a more active role. Every hour I drive is preceded and followed by many hours of work and upkeep. For the chauffeur hired by this car’s original owner, it was a 40-hour a week, full-time job to properly maintain one of these.” In the present, there is plenty to enjoy, and thanks to generous club members, those of us who would otherwise never experience these mechanical marvels have an opportunity to appreciate them firsthand.
Source: Robb Report