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Back from the brink

When Malcolm Tucker decided to resurrect a dilapidated 1920 Silver Ghost, he began a decade-long labour of love

Throughout history, one hears of several kings of England who foolishly agreed to marry a European princess when the only knowledge they had of their bride-to-be was based on an overtly flattering oil painting and some words of praise from self-interested ambassadors and courtiers.

On a rather more prosaic level, the same thing happened to me when I agreed to buy a car from the United States. After 50 years of owning “old cars”, you would think that I’d have known better than to use the royal method. But that’s exactly what I did when I purchased a Silver Ghost from America, with only a handful of photographs and the comments of a non-engineer on the car’s condition to go by.

My only previous experience of owning a Silver Ghost was of a 1925 chassis that had been paired with an ill-fitting Sunbeam limousine body. That car was a “barn find” in Somerset, and it seemed reasonable to buy it for £12,000 in the early 1970s. I sold it within a year, as funds were needed to complete the restoration of a delightful 1935 3½ litre Bentley – a two-door fixed-head coupe by Gurney Nutting. My experience with our favoured marques has mainly been of small-horsepower or post-war models, but I have always appreciated the pleasures of Silver Ghost motoring.

By the beginning of 2007, Dalton Watson Fine Books Inc, based in Illinois, had published three of my books, and I had become good friends with the publisher, Glyn Morris. He has owned many Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars over the years and told me of an unrestored Silver Ghost that was for sale in Wisconsin that he thought I might like. I agreed to give the matter serious consideration. Photos from every conceivable angle were emailed to me, and Glyn provided me with a detailed description of the car’s chassis and bodily condition. The car, chassis number 10CW, had spent many years in an open-fronted barn before being purchased in 1977 by Arthur Knapp, a one-time member of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club (RROC). Although he had not undertaken any restoration work, he had kept the car from further deterioration.

The RROC Foundation library holds the Horton Schoellkopf record cards for pre-war Rolls-Royce cars in North America. 10CW is recorded as having belonged to a Mr Al Gross of Long Island, New York, having been sold to him by one L I Dimm in 1932. There is mention of five other owners, although the dates of their ownership seem partly to be in conflict with one another. During its time in America, 10CW was fitted with a “sedan limousine” body, erected by Brooks-Ostruk Inc. – a New York-based coachbuilder.

The condition of 10CW reflected the time that the car had spent at the mercy of the Midwest weather, with its scorching summers and icy winters. The Brooks-Ostruk body had suffered badly, with the wooden frame ahead of the windscreen resembling Madeira cake rather than ash. The aluminium panelling was heavily corroded, and the steel wings were disappearing fast. The doors and main body frame had stood up well, and the chassis and mechanical components appeared to have avoided serious corrosion and were at least 95 per cent complete.

As 10CW sped across the Atlantic, I made enquiries at the Hunt House, the RREC’s headquarters in Northamptonshire, to see what records existed for the car. It transpired that it had come off test on 21 February 1920, being invoiced in April to “J B Ferguson Coachbuilders, Chichester Street, Belfast”. The chassis card details read “C steering, Opening Touring, Pass 7, Average 5, Luggage 1 cwt”. Most satisfactorily, it also says: “Type: Speed Model. Chassis: Alpine Eagle”. The customer was a Mr J H McGugan of Belfast, however, an updated chassis card notation by McGugan’s name states “now John San(m)ford”. The guarantee book also shows two guarantees having been issued for 10CW. I have not been able to find much other history of the car before its export to America, except that its third owner was a Mr L Langford, c/o Morgan Grenfell Ltd, Broad Street, London.

There is an intriguing later entry on the chassis card. “Hoopers advise 10CW and 52EE shipped on SS Missouri from London on or about 2/8/22.” On checking the chassis card for 52EE, it states the same details except that it describes 10CW as a “Hooper 2 seater”. The records at coachbuilder Hooper have no further information on the subject.

Duties paid, customs cleared, I had an in-depth look at my purchase – and seriously wondered if I felt up to undertaking the restoration myself. Despite having restored the aforementioned 3½ litre Bentley, two Mk VIs and a 20hp twice, I came to the conclusion that a Silver Ghost would take me too long and be the scene of too many serious and expensive mistakes at my clumsy hands. Following a few good references, the car was taken to Ro-Ben Cars of South Stoke, near Goring on Thames in Oxfordshire, where the proprietor, Mike Knowles, would undertake the mechanical restoration. To keep costs down and me involved, I would work as a gofer, taking and collecting parts that needed specialist attention – nickel plating, wheel rebuilds, magneto reconditioning and the like.

I also had to address the problem of what to do with the body: rebuild or replace. Once removed from the chassis, it became evident that it was not made for a Silver Ghost – some rather nasty chops and additions had been made to make it fit. This included cutting the R-R bulkhead and screwing on bits of sheet metal to make up any differences. This was a surprise, as many good used Derby-built cars were imported to the US at the time of the depression, reconditioned and fitted with new American coachwork. These cars could then be sold at a substantially lower price than a brand-new Cadillac, Packard, Pierce Arrow or similar prestige make.

10CW was built as a “Speed Model, Alpine Eagle” and had originally been fitted with an open body, as befits such a racy beast. Would such a car be suited to heavy saloon limousine coachwork? Not really! It was an age-old argument: should I restore a period body, that had spent time on this chassis, or should I have a new body made that would be as close as possible to the car’s original coachwork, for which the chassis had been specified?

I decided in favour of a new touring body, as close to the original J B Ferguson of Belfast coachwork as possible. Exact it could not be, as there were and, to my knowledge, still are no extant drawings or images of post-Armistice Ferguson bodies. The company’s pre-war creations also included a few features that I do not find attractive, mainly to do with the scuttle, so I would deviate from an exact recreation. My good friend the late Colin Laybourn had advised me – from bitter experience – to make the body as high as was visually attractive, relative to the seats, in order to keep the occupants warm and dry. This was to be the first body that I had designed, but there was also a good deal of time to consider options until the chassis would be ready for a coachbuilder’s ministrations.

As the reduction of 10 CW into its component parts progressed, it became evident that any damage suffered was due to neglect, more than wear or lack of servicing. The car had stood in an open shed for more than 40 years, and the weather had taken its toll, especially, of course, on the “sedan limousine” body that had replaced the Ferguson tourer.

A jagged tear in the sump was perhaps the cause of the car having been abandoned to the elements. Drained of water, the engine was in sound if shabby shape, with most of the major components requiring restoration rather than replacement. Engineering work was done to achieve this, and virtually every moving part on the engine, drive train and chassis required some new parts. Every component that could come under the heading of bush, bearing, shackle, trunnion or shim was also replaced. Much “freeing off”, cleaning and reaming was done, and no accident or misuse damage was found.

Between the restoration start date and December 2011, monthly invoices were received. The costs soared and the bank account plummeted, but 10CW had a shiny and clean chassis that slowly received parts and major components. I had decided to replace the rusty beaded edge wheels with straight sided ones, and these six wheels and their tyres were eye-wateringly expensive. By January 2012 it was time for the rolling chassis, less its engine, clutch and gearbox, to go to the coachbuilder. Work on these mechanical components would continue.

As with the mechanical restoration, I asked the great and the good who they would recommend as a coachbuilder. I have my own favourite, Trevor Hirst in the New Forest, but he was fully booked for over two years, so I decided on Western Coachworks in Mickleover, near Derby. They are situated in a residential street, with an entrance that looks like a pair of suburban garage doors beside a semi-detached house. Walk through them and down the long garden, however, and at the end there is a sprawling workshop that also occupies the neighbour’s garden. Michael Sharpe and his small workforce usually have five or six cars of all makes in hand at any one time.

I had put together a portfolio off photographs and drawings to show the design features I wanted. I also gave them the reprinted Rolls-Royce booklet for coachbuilders that advised on such aspects as wheel to wing clearances and maximum weights. A rough frame was erected on the chassis using softwood. When we achieved the line that I wanted, we covered it in brown paper to give a better shape. Final adjustments were then made, and this frame was used as a template for the bodyframe proper.

By the end of July 2012, as promised, the body “tub” was finished, and the car was now ready to go back to Ro-Ben Cars for the engine to be fitted. Work continued slowly due to Ro-Ben’s Mike Knowles suffering ill health. A mutual decision was made for the mechanical work on 10CW to be taken over by vintage car restorer Allan Glew, who started in September 2013. During the following September and November, the car was with Trevor Hirst in Christchurch, Dorset for the wings to be made. I took great care to achieve exactly the look I wanted. There are three major considerations here: the size of the wing in relation to the wheels, the bonnet and the body height; the curvatures from front to back;and the style of “valance” on the wings’ edge. The centre of the wheel radius is important, as is the “break away” from that radius to give the flare of the wings.

Much thought was given to the side valances, as by 1920 there was a definite trend towards the continuance of the wing top being rolled over to its side. This was gaining favour from the established pre-war look of the wing top curving slightly to its edge with a short valance at right angles and set in slightly. After viewing various mock-ups, I felt the traditional valance suited the car better.

Trevor Hirst also made new bonnet sides. The bonnet was the original, with air vents that could be slid open when extra cooling was needed. I opted for the sportier louvers that were often fitted – 10CW is designated on the chassis cards as an “Alpine Eagle Speed Model” and as such this style seemed completely suitable.

With virtually all of the bodywork complete, it was back to Allan Glew for the completion of mechanical work, with a couple of breaks for painting and upholstery. Following the final addition of the nickel-plated items, 10CW was now looking like an attractive car. By July 2015, my Silver Ghost was ready for an application to the DVLA to be registered and passed as fit for road use. It required a photo of the finished car, so an earlier application was not possible, but what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turned out. Just a few weeks earlier, the DVLA had decided to enforce certain rules concerning the originality of a “classic” car. My car had been exported to the US in October 1922, which is where it lost its original Ferguson of Belfast coachwork. The RREC file shows that the car was serviced at Cricklewood until its export, and the chassis-build cards give evidence of its construction. Most importantly, and unfortunately for me, all paperwork referring to the car is by chassis number and not registration number.

The DVLA was quite happy to agree that a Silver Ghost chassis number 10CW was built in 1920 but was not prepared to agree that my car was that car. Chassis plates are not accepted as proof as “anyone can rivet one of those to anything”. So, the search was on to find 10CW stamped on the chassis itself. Finally, Allan Glew found two such markings, one on the clutch pedal arm and, more importantly, one on the diagonal chassis member that supports the sphere. The engine number is correct, and although the gearbox is from 21FW, that car’s chassis card shows it as having the gearbox from 10CW.

The DVLA has two sets of rules, one for cars that have a logbook or can prove that they had an original UK registration, and one for cars that cannot prove original UK registration. In the first case, points are awarded to the major components of the vehicle – chassis, engine, gearbox and bodywork. It is possible under this arrangement to accrue enough points that a car with reconstructed bodywork can still be classed as original and thus be given an age-related registration number.

In the second case, that of no proof of original registration in the UK, the points system does not apply. For these vehicles they are dated from the age of the latest major component; in my case that of the bodywork. I have, in the eyes of the DVLA, a 2014 kit car, and as such I had to apply to VOSA (the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency) for the car to be examined to confirm that it conforms with modern construction and use, and safety requirements. Without its certificate of compliance, the DVLA would not issue a registration number, albeit a “Q” plate. VOSA takes a different view. In its eyes the car was obviously a 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and as such was unacceptable for it to test (cars over 10 years old are not eligible).

After a seemingly endless succession of bureaucratic obstacles had been overcome – and with the help of Tim Forrest at the 20-Ghost Club, my local MP, the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs and the RREC – the car was eventually recognised by the DVLA, receiving the registration plate “RR 7492” in March 2016.

Photographs kindly provided courtesy of Bonhams (www.bonhams.com) and the author