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BEHIND THE WHEEL

In Tune With the Spirit of the Silver Ghost

December 30, 1990|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Safety commandments haunt the 83-year-old Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

Thou shalt not exceed 40 m.p.h.

Thou shalt not drive on public roads without a blocking car up front and a buffer car behind, both by Rolls-Royce.

Thou shalt not allow the Silver Ghost to be driven by anyone outside its elite cadre of Rolls-Royce handlers and feeders.

On the other hand, if the early morning is peaceful and if one driver's vintage car credentials just happen to meet the approval of Rolls-Royce Western Zone Manager Christopher Brown, and if the guardian spirits of Rolls, Royce and Johnson are slumbering far from Southern California. . . .

"But you'd better let me start her," says Brown. "This can get a little tricky."

True. If elopement or convenience market robberies be your thing, do not rely on the Silver Ghost for getaway. Starting is far from turnkey: It is more of a mid-term exercise at MIT after translation from the Queen's mechanical English.

First, the clutch pedal is unchocked. The mahogany block keeps the pedal and cone clutch disengaged when the car is at rest. Otherwise, the clutch will stick to the flywheel.

The petrol tank is then pressurized to 1 1/2 psi by a hand pump (silver plated, of course) in the cockpit. Next, open the bonnet and prime the carburetor bowl by hand.

Fuel-air mixture control, set. Magneto switch, on. Trembler coil switch, on. Governor control lever, set. Ignition advance and retard lever, set.

Then, if your riding mechanic has not left for lunch, it is his (do not expect many female volunteers for this job) honor to lean into a crank and push against the compression of six fat cylinders until the engine fires.

When it does, it purrs. But not exactly a whisper. More like the snore of a Bengal tiger. Regular. Purposeful. Also not to be disturbed until one knows exactly what to do when the owner comes awake.

Undivided attention, of course, is the first dictate of driving the Silver Ghost.

It has four forward gears and one reverse gear, and that seems about as normal as anything from Chevrolet. But the shift pattern is more of a U than an H.

In addition, the gearing was assembled decades before the luxury of synchromesh. That means digging into misty personal lore to recall the hand-foot coordination of double clutching a crash gearbox.

Even with that antediluvian instinct exhumed, smooth shifting remains more a matter of matching the noise of the gears with the breeze on your cheek.

The Ghost has a hand brake and a foot brake, and there should be nothing complicated about either--except the foot brake works against the drive shaft. It's good only for speeds barely above walking pace. Any serious stopping must be done by hauling on the hand brake.

The steering wheel is round, wooden and routine--but the steering itself is leaden and as direct as a wheelbarrow.

The Silver Ghost has three horns--two bulb hooters and an "oogah" under the bonnet--and no known reason for this rude trio.

Abundance ends there. Apparently, $80 million doesn't even buy a heater, turn signals, radio, seat belts, canvas top or a driver's side door. And the hood emblem is an Automobile Assn. badge because Flying Ladies didn't come in until the '20s.

Yet somewhere between Coast Highway and the paths lacing Newport Dunes--somewhere in that time warp between 1907 and now--the magnificence of the Silver Ghost resurfaces.

The engine--six huge cylinders in tandem--may only be developing 48 horsepower. But it is chuffing along, turning slowly and never missing a beat. You just know that if the Atlantic weren't in our way, this car would carry us to Brighton.

The brakes do require some planning ahead, each gear shift is a matter for deep thought, and the steering does get a little wobbly around 40 m.p.h. But every shortcoming is constant and absolutely predictable--and, after all, the car is doing a genuine 40 m.p.h. With a lot left.

Brown, resplendent in linen cap, goggles and duster, doesn't flinch at being asked for corporate approval to attempt an acceleration run. Piece of cake, old boy.

So the old girl winds up and whines like a London double decker bus. There are mild lurches and a slight clunks going through the gears to fourth. But the car tops 30 m.p.h. in 17.3 seconds. We chortle. The Silver Ghost remains quite unruffled.

But that must be it. There is no reason, only a distinct lack of respect, in further testing the past of the Silver Ghost. After all, she is 83 years old and a long way from the comforts of home.

Also, she always gets a little creaky and rheumatic in Southern California's winter clime.

It's her wheels. They're spoked and wooden, and accustomed to the humidity of England. In California, the joints start to dry out and separate.

Says Brown: "If we were here much longer, she'd have to stand with her feet in bowls of warm water."

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