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Small Wonder

The Rolls-Royce 20hp shook up the luxury car world when it was launched 100 years ago. It was lighter, smaller, more modestly priced – and as spirited as its owners. By John Fasal

It was during the latter half of the First World War that Henry Royce had thoughts of designing a smaller car to suit the changing market. At the beginning of the war in August 1914, Rolls-Royce’s Derby Works employed 1,800 men and women; by November 1918, that number had risen to 8,000. The construction of aero engines had dominated the expanding factory space, with new buildings erected on the old test track. There were many unfulfilled orders for 40/50hp Silver Ghost chassis, which in 1914 cost £506 to build. However, due to four years of rapidly increasing prices, the cost of producing the chassis had escalated to more than £1,050 by the end of the war.

Claude Johnson, the Managing Director of Rolls-Royce, decided to honour the contracts with orders received and priced at the outbreak of war (although customers were approached to see if they were willing to meet the increased costs). In January 1919, the new price was fixed at £1,350, rising to £1,450 in March, £1,850 in December, £2,000 in April 1920 and finally £2,250 in June of that year. By November 1920, the cancellation rate of orders for the 40/50hp ran at 48 per cent and alarm bells were ringing in the boardroom. The board urged Royce to attend to the design of the “Goshawk”, the company’s codename for the new 20hp model, with a much more modest chassis price of around £1,000.

Royce fully appreciated the need to keep the greatly expanded Derby factory in full production and set to work with his design team at West Wittering in West Sussex and at his French Riviera retreat, Le Canadel, to meet the changing needs of the luxury car market. The first designs, for Goshawk I, comprised a twin overhead cam engine, codenamed “Kite”, with the head integrated in the cylinder block and a transverse-valve arrangement. However, this was abandoned due to excessive noise and cost. In 1921, there were even designs for a 15hp four-cylinder car, codenamed “Swallow”. This project was also discontinued in favour of the designs for the 21.6hp six-cylinder pushrod overhead valves layout, which became the basis of the smaller Rolls-Royce production for decades to come.

Senior staff from the Derby Works and test drivers took experimental cars to and from Le Canadel for Royce to appraise. Rigorous endurance tests were carried out on the Goshawks, which were thought to be capable of 10,000 miles of full-throttle driving on the straight French roads. In actual fact, the white metal bearings lasted for about 9,000 miles of this treatment.

The experimental car 4GII was taken to France by Ernest Hives, Manager of the Experimental Department, in March 1922. An instruction from Royce on testing the endurance of its cylinder head showed that for 36 miles it ran – boiling! Testing to destruction was among the trials and tribulations the 20hp had to endure in order to prove its quality and reliability. Its makers could have never imagined that, 100 years later, more than 1,000 examples are known to have survived from the 2,903 that were made between 1922 and 1929.

Coachwork on the 20hp played a vital part in its performance. The company ordered a Maythorn saloon costing £495, which was fitted to chassis 7GII and finished in grey, Royce’s favourite colour. Hives drove it down to the South of France, but Royce was not happy with the car and reported, “Every time I drove it I got into a bad temper. It has crushed every pleasure out of our chassis, and I marvelled that Mr Hives had the heart to drive it such a long journey.”

Royce fought a continual battle to ensure that light coachwork was fitted to the new car, with the spare wheel mounted at the rear to add weight to the rear braking system. In August 1922, the company ordered batches of bodies from the leading makers, including three Barker cabriolets at £600 each and ten Barker and Hooper landaulettes at £600 each. The following year, ten Windovers tourers were ordered at £385 each.

The testing of new Rolls-Royce models was always kept secret, when possible. The early 20hp cars were reputed to have the name “Cinderella” on the wheel hub centres, but some observant schoolboys outside the Tavistock post office near Dartmoor noticed the R-R monogram on the front axle forging of one motor car. A young journalist, Miles Thomas, therefore asked in the pages of The Motor in September 1921, “A Mystery Car – is it an Experimental 20hp Rolls-Royce?” It was, indeed – chassis 2GII, fitted with an HJ Mulliner tourer. As it happens, the young reporter went on to become Chairman and Managing Director of Morris Motors, before being knighted and made Chairman of BOAC.

With the official announcement and launch of the 20hp in October 1922, Royce authorised the following statement: “There has been no very serious departure in this chassis, but its value is greatly due to the infinite care taken in the design and proportions of the unit.”

In fact, the new car was really a replica of the larger model on a smaller scale, and any departures from the former were more in the nature of concessions to orthodox design than innovations. The earliest radiator had a curved edge to the front of the header tank, with a built-out radiator shutter carrier containing 13 horizontal slats adjustable for temperature control from the instrument panel. Another distinctive feature was a central three-speed gearbox, the subject of some considerable correspondence in the motoring press. Those who expressed their doubts were amply overruled by the many who wrote in glowing terms of their satisfaction after having driven thousands of miles in their cars.

Rolls-Royce fixed the price of the chassis at £1,100, with four-seater touring coachwork priced at £1,590, rising to £1,900 for the enclosed drive cabriolet with four seats plus two occasional ones. A comprehensive selection of 74 tools and spares, the mascot and the owner’s handbook were also available, and the new car was issued with a three-year guarantee. The company offered a free periodical inspection of its customers’ cars at their own residences, too – in Great Britain and certain foreign countries – in order to keep in touch and ensure that perfect service was maintained. In addition, Rolls-Royce offered owners and drivers the opportunity to attend its School of Instruction, firstly in Derby, and from 1925 to 1930 at Seleng House in Ewell, Surrey. A two-week course for chauffeurs, including board and accommodation, was £12. During the period when the 20hp was in production, more than 1,130 pupils – drivers and owners – attended the course on this model.

It is interesting to note, however, that with the introduction of the new car also came the announcement: “The 40/50hp chassis will, as hitherto, be sold at £1,850 and will remain the ‘Best Car in the World’.”

Johnson, an exceptional and talented Managing Director, made few errors of judgement in the growth of Rolls-Royce, but one was the company’s ill-fated adventure in the US. He first noticed the potential for selling cars there in the wealthy market as far back as 1906, when Charles Rolls was in the US with the Light Twenty and won the five-mile Silver Trophy Race at the Empire City Track near New York City. Johnson must have also gained a strong sense of the future possibilities in the US when he visited the country in 1917, on Eagle aero engine business, and again in late June 1919, to negotiate the setting up of Rolls-Royce of America, Inc.

The US corporation was established in November of the same year, and a suitable factory site was found in Springfield, Massachusetts. The first Springfield Silver Ghosts emerged in 1921, but Johnson had overlooked the psychological prejudice of many existing owners and future buyers, who preferred to purchase their Rolls-Royce cars from the Derby factory, despite the high import tariffs. The avoidance of such import duties was one of the main reasons for setting up the plant in the US.

Regarding the introduction of the 20hp, it was estimated that to manufacture this chassis in the US would incur tooling costs of some $750,000. Since there was greater competition against the smaller Rolls-Royce in the country, as well as a preference for larger engine cars, the decision was made not to produce this model in the US.

The decision turned out to be a wise one since only some 46 chassis of the 20hp found their way to the country, and just 15 of these were fitted with US coachwork. Among the buyers was JE Aldred, the financier and President of Rolls-Royce of America, Inc, with the 1923 Park Ward drophead coupé, 58SO, and later the 1928 Brewster Brougham, GKM79; Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, meanwhile, bought the 1923 Barker drophead coupé 89K1 and the 1924 Barker landaulette GRK1, respectively.

In his report after a visit to the US factory in 1921, Hives commented on coachwork in the US, saying, “One of the surprises was the excellence of their custom-built bodies. The best American bodies were better made and better finished than the English. They were made to more practical designs and had better fittings.” In this context, it is interesting to note that even Barker & Co imported US-made window-winding mechanisms and the Soss door hinges used on their early 20hp tourers (or “phaetons”, as they term them in the US).

In subsequent years, several hundred 20hps gained a following in the US. But while 1928 proved to be the best year for the Springfield Works, it was followed by a rapid decline and termination in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. Johnson had made a final visit to the country in 1925 and died in April the following year without having witnessed the failure of his US experiment.

Royce had made it clear in November 1920 that he intended to design a car whose cost would be 75 per cent of that of the Silver Ghost. Many of the landed gentry and business families had lost their sons on the battlefields of France, and many of the crowned heads of Europe had toppled. Hence, the large European market for luxury cars had evaporated. However, more potential customers arrived in the shape of the owner-driver.

By the end of 1923, sales for the Silver Ghost stood at 415, bringing in £660,000, while 20hp sales reached 562, adding a further £550,000 to the turnover for the year. But the Derby Works Manager, Arthur Wormald, was critical of the sales department at Conduit Street for not showing the 20hp at the 1923 Olympia Show. He also considered the price of the new car to be too high, seeing that sales were in decline. Competition from Daimler, Lanchester and Sunbeam and the lack of front brakes added to his concerns. By November, 20hp production was down to eight chassis a week. Further reductions followed in December, with a drive to increase the output of Silver Ghosts.

The US cars were fitted with front-wheel brakes by 1923, and the 1924 Silver Ghosts finally also featured this much-called-for system. Royce was persuaded to introduce servo-assisted front-wheel brakes and the four-speed gearbox with right-hand gear change on the 1925 GPK 20hp chassis series. The New Phantom, which was introduced in 1925 and came with front-wheel brakes as standard, now replaced the aged Silver Ghost. It is interesting to note that many owners of the 40/50hp, both Silver Ghost and Phantom, also purchased the 20hp.

Export sales of the 20hp to India did not exceed 100 cars, but the ruler of Patiala State ordered ten of them, including one for his prime minister. Some 140 went out to Australia, and more post-1929. Many enjoy a high survival rate despite a tough life in the outback, being used as utilities and having been rebodied a number of times. One was even found with a caravan body. Meanwhile, policemen in Victoria clocked the owner of GRK 81, a Barker cabriolet, doing a little over 70mph – so much for the critics accusing the 20hp of being gutless.

On this subject, it is worth quoting the words of the late Commander Hugh Keller, that highly respected gentleman of the motor trade who spent a lifetime involved with Paddon Bros of Knightsbridge, dealing in over 600 Rolls-Royce cars. “Acceleration and maximum speed did not matter so much then, but it is an interesting fact that well-known motoring enthusiasts K Lee-Guinness, Jack Hutton, Tommy Sopwith, Guy Knowles, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Neville Minchin and Geoffrey Smith all owned 20hp Weymanns at various times, and none of them was noted for hanging about! I would say that of all the various models the Rolls-Royce company has turned out, the 20hp has more points in its favour than any other.”

The 20hp stood out among its competitors, too. The 21hp Lanchester sold 500 units in eight years, the more sporty cars such as the Vauxhall 30/98, which had a great following in Australia, sold fewer than 600 cars in nine years, and the three-litre Bentley sold 1,613 in total – all beneath the total of 2,903 20hp Rolls-Royce cars with their refined build quality.

Today, those who are smitten with Henry Royce’s 20hp should be praised for maintaining and driving the cars and for sharing the camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts the world over. It is hoped (fuel permitting) that future generations will find that deep satisfaction in enjoying this model of Rolls-Royce, too, which constantly reminds one of the quality of engineering excellence of more than 100 years.

John Fasal is the author of the definitive work on the 20hp, The Rolls-Royce Twenty (1979). The photography of Sir Malcolm Campbell and Neville Minchin’s motor cars appears courtesy of Bonhams, www.bonhams.com