Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost – “the Best Car in the World”

blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

If the 1908 Ford Model T was made as cheaply as possible, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was made with no expense spared. The Rolls-Royce cost seven times as much as the Model T and didn’t even come with a body.

The 1907 Rolls-Royce 40/50 “Silver Ghost” was described as the “Best Car in the World”, an epithet bestowed on it by the magazine Autocar:

“The running of this car at slow speeds is the smoothest thing we have experienced while for the silence the engine beneath the bonnet might be a silent sewing machine

…at whatever speed this car is being driven on its direct third, there is no engine as far as sensation goes, nor are one’s auditory nerves troubled driving or standing by a fuller sound than emanates from an eight day clock.

There is no realisation of driving propulsion; the feeling as the passenger sits either at the front or the back of the vehicle is one of being wafted through the landscape.”

Autocar 1908

The chassis was originally called the 40/50 and the power output was a rather relaxed 48 hp from just over 7 litres of capacity (the current Rolls-Royce Phantom V12 car develops 563 hp from 6.75 litres, nearly 12 times the power).

side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

The gentle state of tune of the Rolls-Royce 40/50 made the engine delightfully flexible and the ability to drive almost everywhere in top gear was of great importance to Edwardian motorists, many of whom could not manage the “crash” gearboxes of the day and were unable to change gear on the move.

front side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

Claude Johnson, Rolls-Royce’s managing director realised that excellent though the new model was it needed to be brought to public attention if the newly floated Rolls-Royce Ltd was to succeed.

Johnson had an unerring eye for publicity. He used to balance a glass of water on the bonnet of the new 40/50 while the engine was taken up to 1,600 revolutions per minute, and not a drop would be spilled.

He would also balance a penny on the end of the chassis and the penny would remain where it was.

light blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in an exhibit

He then had an even better idea. He persuaded the factory to build a special “demonstrator.” This was chassis no. 60551, the 12th 40/50 to be made.

An open-topped Roi-des-Belges body by Barker was fitted which was specially finished in aluminium paint with silver-plated fittings.

On the dashboard was a plaque with the name that Claude Johnson had chosen: “Silver Ghost”. This actual car, registration number AX 201 features largely in the film “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines”.

It is now considered the world’s most valuable car and is insured for around $35 million US dollars.

front side view of a light blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

Silver Ghost was a name that was to resound down the years in the Rolls-Royce Hall of Fame, a name that at first referred to that particular car but eventually became applied to all 40s/50s.

front side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

Going so far up the market meant that the only individuals who could afford a 40/50 Silver Ghost were royalty, dictators, and the very wealthy.

Vladimir Lenin’s Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was purchased on 11 July 1922. It cost £1,850 which included a 15% discount due to an Eagle aero-engines deal that the new Russian Government had signed with Rolls-Royce.

rear side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

Because of Moscow’s deep winter snows the car was fitted with caterpillar tracks at the rear and skis on the front wheels so that the dictator could be driven from his Gorki mansion to the Kremlin.

His chauffeur was Adolphe Kegresse, also Tsar Nicholas II’s personal driver (the Tsar had two Silver Ghosts).

front of Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost with its symbol

Lenin showed just how much of a Bolshevik he was by owning eight more Rolls-Royce cars. At the same time as the Russian people were dying of cold, Lenin installed heated garages for the Rolls.

Lenin’s crimes were many; when famine swept his native Volga region in 1891, killing 400,000 peasants he propagandised against charitable relief efforts from America because the spectacle of death might prove a ‘progressive factor’ in weakening the Romanovs.

Stalin and Brezhnev also owned Rolls-Royces. Wherever history was being made there seemed to be a Rolls-Royce parked around the corner.

front side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

The Ford Model T and the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost shared much the same lifetime, being produced between the years 1908 to 1926, which enables some comparisons to be made. They both had four wheels and a petrol engine.

They could both carry four or five people.  But the chassis price for the 1921 Rolls-Royce American version was US $11,750 ($192,779 in today’s dollars), and the American car cost $300 or $4000 today.

AX 201, the original Silver Ghost is now valued at $35m, and a Ford T is around $10,000.

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost history and description

At least two of Lenin’s Silver Ghosts were converted to half-track drives by Kegresse. They both survive. Kegresse later worked for Citroën for whom he designed halftrack vehicles for use in the desert.

rear side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

What was the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost like to drive? As you climb aboard you notice a large, cranked windscreen with a view over the bonnet which makes it look surprisingly short.

The Grecian radiator constantly reminds you that you are driving a Rolls-Royce. On top of the unsupported upright steering column is a big, 4-spoke wheel with a polished wooden rim.

On that is a control cluster with two levers, labelled Fast/Slow and Early/ Late, and the Governor.

The plain-speaking Henry Royce thought that “early/late”, referring to the spark timing, was more understandable than the more usual “advance/retard”.  A plate on the scuttle reads: “Rolls-Royce Ltd., London & Manchester” and gives the car number as 551.

The driver has a snake-like bulb-horn and the front passenger is also provided with a Desmo bulb-hooter, mounted outside below the left elbow.

Outboard of the driver’s door, and between it and the spare tyre are the silver-plated gear and brake levers.

The gear gate is unusual, as 1st is forward and left but 2nd and 3rd positions are both down and back, then with a short movement forward into the overdrive top; the reverse is between bottom and top.

The hand brake operates the cable-applied rear-wheel brakes, which are fairly quiet. The foot brake is little used; it works on the transmission and is likely to bind in hot weather and lock the back wheels in a skid.

The accelerator pedal is to the right of the brake, unusually for those days- it was often between the clutch and brake pedals.

Beside the spare wheel, there is a Cowley speedometer reading from 10 to 80 m.p.h., with a little clock next to it. The engine is idling silently.

interior design of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

When you drive off the Ghost will perhaps feel rather lorry-like, with a heavy clutch and the odd crunch of gears, but the flexible engine soon gets you up to 30 mph which is a comfortable cruising speed even on main roads.

The ride is surprisingly good. The passenger sits high in a comfortable leather armchair and they have to maintain 1 lb. fuel pressure with a vertical floor-mounted bicycle-like plated air pump, watching the gauge that reads to 4 lb/sq. in.

This needs constant attention or else the engine will stop. Otherwise, you glide along in silence. This is the best of Edwardian motoring.                                                         

For a while, the “Silver Ghost” really was the most famous car in the world. Not everyone was an admirer, though.

Laurence Pomeroy of Vauxhall described the Rolls-Royce as a triumph of workmanship over design, by which he suggested they placed too much reliance on correcting errors other manufacturers would have avoided in the first place.

History of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was a luxury car produced by Rolls-Royce Limited from 1906 to 1926. Over its 20-year production run, it established Rolls-Royce as the ‘Best car in the world’, setting new standards in luxury, refinement, and reliability.

Name of Vehicle

The Silver Ghost name refers to the silver paintwork as well as the car’s smooth, quiet running.

Early models were officially called the 40/50 h.p. but the Silver Ghost name stuck after one particular car completed a non-stop endurance run, leading Claude Johnson to refer to it as ‘the silver ghost’.

How Many Were Made

Approximately 7874 Silver Ghost cars were produced between 1906 and 1926. Over 6173 of these were built in the Rolls-Royce Derby factory in England. The remainder were produced in Springfield, Massachusetts in the United States.

What Makes It Special

The Silver Ghost established Rolls-Royce as the undisputed manufacturer of the finest motor cars in the world. Key factors that made it stand out include:

  • Refinement – The engine ran so smoothly and quietly that at speeds below 20mph it was difficult to tell if it was running at all. This led to the ‘silver ghost’ nickname.
  • Reliability – The car set new standards in reliability and endurance thanks to detailed engineering and extensive testing. In 1907, a prototype Ghost completed a 15,000-mile non-stop run, cementing its reputation.
  • Quality – The craftsmanship and materials were unrivalled. The coachbuilding was done by external coachbuilders who created beautifully crafted luxurious bodies for the chassis.
  • Performance – It was capable of speeds up to 65-70 mph, very fast for the time. The ample 40/50 horsepower engine provided great flexibility and torque at low speeds despite its silence.
  • Luxury – The well-appointed interior housed the latest innovations like electric lighting. The ride quality from the sophisticated suspension system was unmatched. It appealed to royalty, aristocrats, and the super wealthy.

Who Designed It?

The main people involved in designing and engineering the Silver Ghost were:

  • Henry Royce – Co-founder of Rolls-Royce. He was the engineering brains behind the car, involved in the meticulous design and testing of the chassis, engine, and other mechanical parts.
  • Charles Rolls – Co-founder who contributed design ideas, marketing skills and had the vision to realise Royce’s engineering excellence could be turned into the ‘best car in the world’.
  • Claude Johnson – Businessman and promoter who led Rolls-Royce in its early years. He was the key driver behind the Silver Ghost model and convinced Royce to go ahead with production.

The Specification

The Silver Ghost had the following key specifications:

  • Engine – In-line 6 cylinder, 7668cc displacement, overhead inlet, and side exhaust valves. The rated output was 48 bhp at 1,250 rpm.
  • Transmission – 4-speed manual gearbox, with direct drive 3rd, overdrive 4th. Rear wheel drive via the open driveshaft.
  • Suspension – Front, half-elliptic leaf springs. Rear, 3/4 platform cantilever springs.
  • Brakes – Rear wheel drum brakes only, operated by hand or foot lever.
  • Chassis – Long tapered chassis made from pressed steel and wood supports. The wheelbase was 142 inches.
  • Body – Made by external coachbuilders. Typically 5-7 seats. Limousine and Tourer bodies are common.
  • Dimensions – Length 14 to 15 feet. Width 5 to 6 feet. Height around 6 feet. Weight between 3600 lbs and 2 tons.

The Engine

The Silver Ghost was powered by a six-cylinder, 7668cc engine designed from scratch by Henry Royce. Key aspects:

  • Inlet-over-Exhaust – The inlet valves were positioned above the combustion chamber, the exhaust valves on the sides.
  • Aluminium Cylinder Head – Gave excellent cooling.
  • Detachable Head – The head could be unbolted for easy maintenance and repairs, unusual for the time.
  • Pressurised Lubrication – Oil was pumped to critical components for reliable lubrication.
  • Extensive Testing – The engine design benefited from rigorous testing and refinement. The patented crankshaft vibration damper ensured the reliability of a component that regularly snapped on rival six-cylindered cars.
  • Flexible Power – Abundant torque, especially at low rpm, gave effortless acceleration.

The Interior

The Silver Ghost interior represented the pinnacle of luxury in the early 1900s. Key features included:

  • Luxurious Upholstery – The finest leather and wood veneers adorned the interior. Coachbuilders lavished great attention on their creations.
  • Comfortable Seating – Deep buttoned seats with generous padding and springs provide unrivalled comfort, even on long journeys.
  • Electric Lights – Electric lighting was still a novelty at the time. The Silver Ghost made great use of it to provide illumination at night.
  • Comprehensive Instruments – An array of gauges and dials monitored all aspects of the car’s operation. Reliability was paramount.
  • Intricate Detailing – From engine-turned aluminium dash panels to embroidered upholstery, no detail was overlooked. Customers could specify their own options.
  • Amenities – Later cars had wind-down windows, map pockets, mirrors, heaters, and other amenities to pamper occupants.
  • Custom Coachwork – Custom coachbuilders created limousines, coupes, tourers, and more. The Silver Ghost chassis was the perfect canvas for their imagination and skills.

How Many Are Left?

As a car produced over 100 years ago, the number of Silver Ghosts remaining is diminishing as time takes its toll. However, over 200 examples are believed to still exist. Of these:

  • Around 180 are in the hands of private owners and collectors. They are highly sought after at auction.
  • 20 or more are still road registered and driven on occasion. Well-maintained examples can still be used.
  • A number are in museums like the Louwman Museum in The Netherlands which has an excellent collection.
  • Some are undergoing or awaiting restoration by specialists. The challenging task keeps craft skills alive.

Parts availability and the dedication of owners have kept more Silver Ghosts on the road than might be expected. Many will remain pristine museum exhibits and investments, reminding us of the pioneering early days of Rolls-Royce.

rear side view of a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost