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Noble Carriage : In 1907, the Silver Ghost Was Built as a Symbol of Rolls-Royce Quality and 83 Years Later, It's Still on the Road


It was built as a publicity stunt and survives as an 83-year-old monument to Edwardian excess.

In darker days, speakers of much lesser treasons against Rolls-Royce were sentenced to a short stay in the Tower of London, an oak block and the final cut.

Yet the truth stands.

In 1907, Henry Royce and Charles Rolls agreed to prepare a car that would do for their 3-year-old Rolls-Royce Ltd. what the Sphinx did for Cairo--boggle the world, cast a permanent image, and bring in major revenues.

Hank and Chuck went barmy. They also spent $2,000--in those days, that would have hired a 20-year lease on Britain's best butler--to assemble this Lancashire legend.

The car was created (nobody simply builds a Rolls-Royce) from hickory and hand-beaten aluminum. The Roi des Belges (King of Belgium) open body was coated with aluminum paint. The Tin Man would have loved it.

Leather upholstery was in Channel-crossing green. Control levers, radiator, windshield frame and the rest of the brightwork were silver plated. The whole gleamed brighter and busier than a Buckingham Palace tea service. Even its name was pure comic book: The Silver Ghost.

"Perhaps it was an idea whose time hadn't quite come," agrees Howard Mosher, president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. He still winces at the suggestion his Silver Ghost is more kitsch than noble carriage. "For we who work for the company hold Mr. Johnson in a great deal of regard."

That would be Mr. Claude Johnson?

"Royce was the car builder," Mosher continues. "Rolls was in the (product) distribution side. But it was Claude Johnson who had the idea to merchandise the product and point out its advantages over the inferior products of that day."

How inferior those cars actually were is evidenced by the fact that it isn't a 1907 White, a 1907 Harrison or a 1907 Oldsmobile currently making personal appearances for charity (the beneficiary being Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp) around California.

But the 1907 Silver Ghost is.

It also is being driven .

In the last four weeks, the Ghost has motored the streets of San Francisco, San Diego, Beverly Hills and Newport Beach. Next week it gets 10 days of R&R on a stand at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. Then it's off to Houston and from there more fund-raising up the East Coast.

And all this hard laboring while still warm from August and a 1,500-mile lope of a famed diagonal--John o' Groats in northern Scotland to Lands' End in southwestern England--that raised $100,000 for a British children's charity.

"We were a bit concerned about running her in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," Mosher said. The gender always is feminine. Nothing else fits this royal dowager and eight decades obviously exceed sexism's statute of limitations. "The New York weather was awfully warm and she'd be running for several hours at an average speed of 2 1/2 m.p.h.

"But she ran faultlessly."

Running quietly, smoothly and faultlessly were the very qualities that Johnson, then commercial managing director of Rolls-Royce, wanted set in the public mind by the Silver Ghost.

Under his guidance--and often his driving gauntlets--the car spent its freshman year as a whispering publicist and rolling record seeker. Prime examples:

* In June, 1907, the Silver Ghost entered the 747-mile Scottish Reliability Run. It won a gold medal for hill-climbing (on wondrously named Rest and Be Thankful, a 14% grade), mechanical reliability (no breakdowns beyond endless punctures) and fuel economy (17 m.p.g.).

* A month later, using four drivers, the Ghost ran nonstop for two weeks over cobbled and rutted roads to beat the world's endurance driving record of 7,089 miles.

* And it kept going. Fourteen days later, the Ghost had raised the world's distance mark to 14,371 miles. To restore the car to factory-fresh cost a piddling $55, which, these days, would barely get you out of Tuneup Masters.

Therein, Mosher believes, lives the true spirit of the Silver Ghost: Quality indestructibility.

"The car is symbolic of the continuity of our company," he explains. "Royce accepted the standard that we should accept nothing as 'good enough' . . . and today we still use the finest material we can find, we still take all the time we need."

Before breakfast, Mosher and the Silver Ghost are parked outside Newport Auto Center in Newport Beach.

The president's suit is dark, his shirt collar and French cuffs crisp and probably by Turnbull & Asser of Jermyn Street.

The Ghost's silver acetylene headlights (Lucas King of the Road Projectors), as big as yachting trophies, twinkled in the Pacific morning.

Mosher continues his praise: This was a big car for its day--a tall car, an imposing car, even haughty. It used the wood of true craftsmen and leathers selected for the match of their grain, and such materials remain industry standards for quality and elegance in automobiles.

"With all the changes about us," Mosher notes, "it is very difficult to find any original concept that has survived."

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