In 1907 Autocar magazine was only 12 years old and the car industry in the UK hardly any older. In July of that year the magazine was a first-hand witness to an event that helped to shape Rolls-Royce’s early reputation for engineering excellence.
Rolls-Royce entered the Scottish Reliability Trials to prove, over four inclement days, that the level of detail that went into its cars made them superior to rivals’ designs, by providing quiet and reliable motoring even in the most challenging of conditions. The event took place on some of Scotland’s most demanding roads.
Today, 108 years on, we’ve come back to drive surviving parts of the route, albeit on far better roads and in an unimaginably more advanced car in the shape of the latest Rolls-Royce Ghost.
The motoring scene back then was in its infancy, but progress was rapid. Even so, much of the industry had grown out of motorcycle and bicycle manufacturing, and the crude and unreliable cars aged quickly.
Which is where Henry Royce came in. Perhaps it was his background in the precision of electrical engineering – and not in the blacksmithery of early cars – that pushed him towards building cars of a much higher standard. He became known later for his obsessive – and health-damaging – perfectionism.
Royce built his first car in 1904, and his meeting with businessman Charles Rolls in the same year is well known. Rolls was selling cars from his showroom in west London and agreed to buy what Royce made. It was a common way for a fledgling car maker to break into the market.
By 1906 Royce had already completed his 40/50hp six-cylinder running gear at his Manchester facility, and the 12th chassis produced was given an open bodyby an outside coachbuilder.
Claude Johnson, Rolls-Royce’s managing director, took what he had dubbed ‘the Silver Ghost’ down to London for publicity purposes. Autocar’s edition of 20 April 1907 praised the car’s silence and smoothness: “The running of this car at slow speeds is the smoothest thing we have ever experienced.”
As car makers fought for recognition and proof of the abilities of their vehicles, reliability trials and hillclimbs – both serious tests of early cars – became important. So Johnson and Rolls entered the Silver Ghost in the Scottish Reliability Trials, a 750-mile, four-day competition. Starting and finishing in Glasgow, the route stretched as far as Aberdeen, Inverness and Pitlochry.
In June the Silver Ghost, registration AX201, headed to Scotland from London with Charles Rolls at the wheel, accompanied by Autocar’s Harry Swindley, who would report from four different vehicles during the event.
The second day of the trial ran from Perth to Aberdeen, and Autocar’s correspondent took a seat in a 14-16hp Argyll in fierce conditions that turned the road into “a sea of mud”. The Argyll had to wait its turn at climbing the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ hillclimb section of what’s now known as the Old Military Road (A93) through the Cairngorms and Glenshee. “All through the long wait that preceded our turn, the rain poured down upon us, getting worse and worse until the road literally swam with water,” wrote Swindley.
It was here that Autocar’s own cameraman photographed an Argyll taking part in the event cresting one of the most challenging sections. Standing close to the point at which that picture was taken 108 years later, having driven there in the 2015 Ghost, it is possible still to make out what must have been stretches of the old track taken by cars on the trials.
Today’s road is fast and sweeping, and covering the ground in a modern Ghost is effortless. It is probably more stressful trying to stay within the speed limit, while the long stretches of uphill road are barely noticeable.
Intriguingly, it seems Royce’s perfectionism extended beyond mechanical excellence. When Autocar’s reporter jumped into the Silver Ghost on the fourth day of the trials, from Inverness to Pitlochry, he immediately commented on the attention to passenger detail.
“On Thursday we started on a south-westerly course with Johnson at the wheel, comfortably ensconced in that luxurious back seat, snugly protected by an ingenious apron, which in the case of bad weather prevented the wet dripping on one’s lower extremities – a fault which is common to all rugs and aprons.”
Under the rules of the event, the highest possible number of marks was 1000, with a maximum of 750 for reliability. Marks were deducted for every minute or part-minute “involuntarily at rest except for tyre troubles”. Deductions were made for “taking too long for a stage, every passenger shed or any vehicle assisted, adding fuel and water after morning start, inefficiency of brakes or failure to stop and restart car as required at special surprise tests”.
At the end of the 750-mile event, 14 of the 104 cars in the trials had retired and the results table read: “40-50hp Rolls-Royce, entered by Rolls-Royce Ltd, 14-15 Conduit Street, driven by Mr Claude Johnson, 976 marks.”
The Silver Ghost had one ‘fault’ over the whole of the strenuous run: a petrol tap was seemingly shaken loose. It closed and cut the fuel off.
Although Royce’s car won the gold medal in its class (for chassis and tyres costing over £800), the overall points total was beaten by an Ariel Simplex, which scored 995.4 marks in the £500-£600 class.
Johnson didn’t stop there. He decided to attempt the record for non-stop motoring, which stood at 7098 miles. With an observer from the Royal Automobile Club, the Ghost was run continuously for two weeks, reaching 15,000 miles on 8 August.
Royce gave the car’s mechanicals to the RAC for inspection. Seven items “in judgement of expert members [were] all that is required to render it equal to new”. The RAC announced that the result was “more than extraordinary” and congratulated Royce on his “triumph of engineering construction”.
Royce had proved his point. His drive to build the highest-quality motor car had been validated by the RAC and his company was building a reputation that still underpins its products today.
While we were on the Old Military Road in the modern Ghost, we were reminded in spectacular fashion that Royce’s engineering genius had, just seven years later, been directed to building aero engines. We were overflown in quick succession by both a Tornado and a Typhoon – both powered by Rolls-Royce-originated jet engines – in a reminder of how the company had established itself on these roads 107 years before.
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