Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

Mike Monk delves into the paranormal and relates the remarkable history of FMM’s Silver Ghost…  

Silver Ghost. One of the most well-known and respected motor vehicle model names in the world, and not without justification. It is a name synonymous with Rolls-Royce and, more significantly, a car that in 1907 was claimed to be ‘The best car in the world’ by the authoritative UK magazine The Autocar. Such was its superiority that it stayed in production until 1926 before being replaced by the Phantom I, by which time 7 874 Ghosts had haunted the roads.

First, though, a little history about the name. Strictly speaking, the Silver Ghost is actually a model 40/50 that first appeared at Olympia in 1906. In 1907, Claude Goodman Johnson, the Commercial and Managing Director of Rolls-Royce, ordered a car to be used as a demonstrator by the company, and chassis 60551, the twelfth 40/50 to be made, was made available. Registered AX 201, it was fitted with a Barker open-top Roi-des-Belges aluminium body finished in aluminium paint with silver-plated fittings. The car was named Silver Ghost to emphasise its “ghost-like quietness”, and a plaque bearing this name was fitted to the bulkhead. Although applicable only to this car, the name was soon applied to all 40/50 models, although Rolls-Royce did not formally acknowledge this until 1923…

Key to the accolade was the exceptionally refined 7 036 cm3 inline, six-cylinder, side-valve engine. The block was cast in two units of three cylinders, and its secret for success lay with the crankshaft, which was secured by seven main bearings lubricated by a pressurised oiling system, while the timing drive and ignition were driven by gears rather than chains. The phosphor bronze/nickel steel timing gears were ground and polished by hand, while the crank’s bearing surfaces were ground to a near perfectly smooth finish – highly sophisticated operations for the time. Little wonder that the smoke-free engine ran silently and reliably. Dual ignition was utilised, and with a Royce twin-jet carburettor and a compression ratio of just 3,4:1, the engine developed 36 kW at 1 250 r/min. In 1910, the capacity was increased to 7 428 cm3 and power was increased to 60 kW at 2 250. Initially, a three-speed gearbox was used but this was replaced by a four-speed in 1913.

The chassis had rigid front and rear axles, both suspended on leaf springs, initially half-elliptics, then three-quarter elliptics with friction dampers from 1908, and finally cantilever in 1912. Early cars had hand-lever-operated rear brakes with a pedal-operated transmission brake acting on the prop shaft. Footbrake-operated rear drums were introduced in 1913, and four-wheel brakes in 1924.

To demonstrate the 40/50’s abilities, Charles Stewart (CS) Rolls drove one to victory in the 1906 Tourist Trophy held in the Isle of Man. But even this achievement paled when compared with a reliability run undertaken in 1907 when, running night and day, a Silver Ghost broke the world’s record for reliability and distance, covering 14 371 miles (23 128 km) without an involuntary stop, requiring only routine servicing.

Later, in 1913, a 40/50 won the Spanish Grand Prix! The Rolls-Royce reputation was being firmly established…

Then along came WWI and all available Rolls-Royce chassis were requisitioned by King George V to build armoured vehicles, and each given an ‘AC’ suffix to their chassis number. And this forms the core of the remarkable history behind the Franschhoek Motor Museum’s example, which carries the chassis plate stamped X14AC.

By comparing and combining input from a number of sources, it appears as though  Chassis 14AC (no ‘X’), recorded as a Special Modified Mk.VI, was ordered by the British Admiralty in White City, London on 13 April 1915 for use by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Originally, the chassis included a radiator and engine complete with controls, after which a number of modifications were made. Those recorded were:

17 June 1915 – retain diagonals and cut frame at 10,5 inches (267 mm) from centre of front cross member. Shorten frame in accordance with sketch from Col R Compton under cover letter 10 June 1915.

28 June 1915 – no springs or axles, front and rear.

A note on the coppersmiths’ department sheet show no bonnet, under-shields or flywheel guard were supplied, nor a petrol tank.

7-11 August 1915 – chassis on test.

Now there is a conundrum. The Chassis Order card from Conduit Street also notes the following:

Admiralty Mk.VI delivered 15.09.16 at White City, delivered less “wheels, complete with wheel brake drums, axles, springs and shock absorbers, truss rods & step brackets, steering wheel, worm & steering lever, and steering link, also lamp brackets”. From this it can be seen that a shortened chassis frame with engine and some controls was supplied to the Admiralty, which we understand to have been used as a winch for launching and retrieving barrage balloons. But was the year 1915, not 1916?

The fate of 14AC for the next five years is unclear but at some point it was returned to Rolls-Royce and dismantled for spares. And so we now move to the creation of X14AC…

In July 1920, back in England after completing the first trans-Africa flight from England to South Africa (see sidebar), the RAF’s Lt Col Sir Pierre van Ryneveld wrote to British engineering conglomerate Vickers asking them to fit a Rolls-Royce engine that he had procured to a chassis. However, in reply, Vickers told him that this was not viable and suggested he contact Rolls-Royce to obtain a chassis. There is missing correspondence until 8 November 1920 when Sir Pierre wrote to Rolls-Royce to say that the half-chassis has been dispatched to their works. Another conundrum – what half-chassis and from where? The missing correspondence most likely will have held the answer… On 19 November 1920, Rolls-Royce wrote to say that it hoped to have the chassis ready in 2-3 months as this was a special job with the chassis being built from start to finish in the Repair Shop.

On 20 December 1920, Sir Pierre wrote to Percy Maxwell Muller of Vickers mentioning the coachbuilder’s drawing (the Rolls-Royce drawing from which a coachbuilder can design the body?) and stating that he would like a “Consenta (spl)” five-seat sporting body and asking Vickers to design and build the body. Vickers, by the way, was a British engineering conglomerate that was founded in 1829. One of its acquisitions was the car building activities of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company to establish the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company. The company was a pioneer of the motor industry, and had Herbert Austin amongst its employees before he left to establish his own motor company in 1905.

On 4 January 1921 a letter was sent from Rolls-Royce to Sir Pierre referencing his letter of 31 December 1920 in which he stated he wished to settle the account. An invoice for £1 482-12s was enclosed. R-R also mentioned that, when ready, the chassis will be delivered to Vickers, who will arrange the fitting of the body.

On 13 January 1921 we see the first mention of Chassis X14AC, when R-R advised Sir Pierre that testing of his car was almost complete and requesting that he provide a date when he could personally test it. When this was done is unknown, but on 29 June 1921 Vickers sent a letter to a Miss Collard (for Sir Pierre), referencing a letter of the previous day, that they had arranged for R-R to test the car and that they will then have it packed and shipped. Finally, on 21 July 1921, Vickers wrote to Sir Pierre telling him that R-R had tested the car, that it was at last finished and they were packaging it for dispatch, and that they were sorry it had taken so long to build. On 7 September 1921 the car was presented to Sir Pierre by Vickers Ltd at the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly, London.

Based on the foregoing, in summary it is reasonable to assume that sometime after WW1, Sir Pierre acquired a Rolls-Royce engine and frame, possibly from one of the auctions of military items held at that time. He then requested that Vickers fit the engine to the frame and build him a car, but this was turned down and, instead, he was redirected to Rolls-Royce about supplying him with a rolling chassis, which he did and one was built up in the Repair Shop. From the chassis records of X14AC, noted as a “Special 40/50 for Ryneveld”, we see that the engine 14AC was received by Rolls-Royce complete with bed as a winch, which they were instructed to dismantle and erect in a new frame as a production chassis. From this it would appear that 14AC and bed are what was acquired by Sir Pierre and sent to Rolls-Royce.

The chassis records also state that around this time Rolls-Royce had bought an engine of the same type but of no known number from Slough, possibly from a military auction. The records then go on to say that as Rolls-Royce required the bed from 14AC for testing purposes, they would use the engine as well, and use the engine from Slough for the customer. This entry is undated but is sometime before 23 November 1920 as noted on a subsequent entry. This would explain the use of the suffixed 14AC but not the use of the engine from that chassis, X14AC being fitted with Engine 44N from Chassis 24AC, not Engine 77V from 14AC. It would also explain the note in the chassis records of 14AC that the engine and bed were dismantled for spares (date unknown). Sadly, there is no number stamped on the engine in the car today…

Sir Pierre shipped the car to South Africa where it became family transport for many years at his home at Spitzkop in the Bronkhorstspruit district of the Transvaal, and was often used on hunting trips. Then in 1939 a pick-up body was fitted as it was used around the farm until finally abandoned.  Sir Pierre passed away in 1972 at the age of 81, still the owner of the Silver Ghost, and the venerable machine was purchased in 1973 from the deceased estate by the Van der Wat family, namely ‘Oom Sakkie’ Johan, his son Jacobus (often referred to as JJ Koos) and his son Johan. The Rolls was in a generally good condition and still had the original mudguards, lamps, running boards, radiator and firewall.

So, Kurt Rettig, at the time the senior mechanic of R-R SA, was appointed to restore the car, which was then fitted with a 1914-15 London-Edinburgh Sports Tourer style body made by Tony Robinson & Co in England. The Rolls – with its appropriate registration number TJ1915 – was then used regularly by the Van der Wat family on vintage tours around the country, including the Wholly Ghost Tour of Southern Africa in 1999, driven by Johan and navigated by his wife Bini. Tragically, after a short battle with pancreatic cancer, Johan passed away on 27 June 2018 aged 69, the day of his father’s funeral. Both men had pursued a career in infertility and endoscopic surgery, and were highly respected.

Sadly coincidental, some months earlier the Franschhoek Motor Museum had arranged to purchase the car and took delivery early in June 2018, just days before the double passing.

It is a majestic machine with a ‘Wow’ factor that is easy to understand. The car’s cream paintwork is complemented by the bare aluminium bonnet, red upholstery and brass fittings, especially the radiator topped with R-R’s trademark Spirit of Ecstasy. Wire-spoke wheels match the bodywork with spares (each forming the mounting for a rear-view mirror) cradled on the running boards both sides. A fuel can and wooden tool boxes are also carried on the running boards as well as small carpet pads beneath each of the three doors. The gear lever is on the inside and the handbrake on the outside of the body where the driver’s door would otherwise be. The front and rear suspension are clearly visible, the lower leaf springs sheathed in leather, as is the starting handle. This model has a black folding hood, but this is a vehicle that almost demands to be driven al fresco in order to fully savour the sights, sounds and sensations of motoring from a bygone era. Sounds? Well, except for the engine note, of course…

In the car’s file there are one-and-a-half pages of printed notes on how best to start the car depending on conditions, but thankfully FMM’s crew had it already warmed up and ready for my drive. I still get a thrill of getting behind the wheel – with my long-legged frame, not always straightforward in vintage and veteran cars – of cars of character such as the Ghost. The clutch is nicely weighted and the gear lever has a well-defined gate; the trick is to get into top gear as soon as possible and let the engine’s prolific torque (don’t ask…) do the talking. Its flexibility is astonishing and gives the Ghost, with a kerb weight of around 1 250 kg, an admirable turn of speed. Depending on the gear and axle ratios, a Ghost could achieve a top speed in the region of 120 km/h. The worm-and-nut steering is not overly heavy despite the relatively small diameter but thick-rimmed ‘multi-function’ steering wheel.

By modern standards, the 40/50’s levels of engineering could be described as being decidedly OTT, but think of it in period and one cannot be totally impressed with just how well every single component has been made. ‘Industrial elegance’ springs to mind when admiring the Ghost’s build quality throughout. Everything works – well – and has an indestructible feel in both presence and operation.

For a model more than a century old, the Silver Ghost is still one of the most recognisable cars ever made. As for its reputation, Henry Royce said, “The quality will remain when the price is forgotten”, and time has proven that his claim was no idle boast. This 1915 40/50 Silver Ghost is a jewel in FMM’s collection with a history of ownership that adds honour and prestige to its provenance.


Sir Pierre van Ryneveld

In 1920, South Africa’s Prime Minister Jan Smuts wanted a South African to be the first to undertake the England to South Africa trans-Africa flight, so he authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of £4 500. On February 4, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld (full name Hesperus Andreas van Ryneveld) and Flight Lieutenant Quintin Brand took off from Brooklands Aerodrome in Surrey in a Vimy named Silver Queen. Born in Senekal in the then Orange Free State on 2 May 1891, Van Ryneveld was a member of the RAF during WW1 and in four years became Lt Col and OC of the 11th Army Wing as well as being awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross.

Van Ryneveld and Brand encountered bad weather over the Mediterranean and the crossing took approximately 11 hours. But a leaking radiator led them to make a forced landing at night at Wadi Halfa in present-day Sudan (then southern Egypt). Although they were unhurt, the plane was unusable. A second Vimy was loaned from the Royal Air Force based in Egypt. Eleven days later, on February 22, the South African duo took off from Cairo in their newly christened Silver Queen II, and continued on their journey. On February 27 the aircraft crashed at Tabora in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), without injury. On March 6, in hot conditions and struggling with an overloaded plane at high altitude, Van Ryneveld and Brand crashed the Silver Queen II while attempting to take off at Bulawayo…

Again, the South African Government intervened and another aircraft, this time a De Havilland DH9, was flown to Bulawayo and handed over to the two pilots. It was named Voortrekker. Their journey resumed on March 17 and the aviators landed three days later at Youngsfield in Wynberg, Cape Town. Their flight took a total of 45 days with a flight time of 109 hours 30 minutes, and both men received £2 500 from the South African Government for their efforts. Back in the UK, King George V announced that they were to be knighted for their achievement, which then took place on 14 May 1920, but actually by whom is unknown.

Once back home, General Smuts commissioned Sir Pierre to establish the South African Air Force. In 1927 he became the first person to fly from Pretoria to Cape Town non-stop, and later the first person in SA to do a parachute jump. Sir Pierre directed the SAAF until 1933 when he was promoted to Chief of the General Staff (CGS), in command of the Union Defence Forces. In 1937 he was appointed Chief of the South African Defence Force and led the country’s war effort during WW2. He served as CGS for 16 years before retiring in 1949.


The 1915 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is on view in Hall B.

My thanks to (in particular) Wayne Kennerley along with Stuart Halsall, Brian Noik and Derek Stuart-Findlay for their contributions to this article.