THE road north was little more than a bumpy track more typically used by horse-drawn carriages than sleek new-fangled sporty motor vehicles.
From the bustling hub of London, the striking silver car meandered gracefully through English counties, cruising through market towns and past rolling countryside heading towards its Edinburgh destination.
It was September 1911, when motoring was still in its infancy and few were familiar with the name Rolls-Royce.
But as a result of staggering drivers’ skill combined with stunning engineering, this extraordinary car was about to make motoring history – and make its manufacturer one of the most famous marques on the planet.
These days, of course, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is legendary, its reputation associated with high society and early 20th century glamour; gents with twirled moustaches and driving goggles, genteel, corseted ladies. The few remaining versions of the classic car, with its 50hp Rolls-Royce engine lurking beneath custom-built bodywork, are precious examples of a golden age when driving was strictly for the select few.
But back in 1911 Edinburgh, the arrival of a Silver Ghost as it raced against a rival car on a 700 miles round trip – without shifting gear – not only brought out the crowds, it gained the car Royal Automobile Club (RAC) approval and sealed Rolls-Royce’s reputation for producing “the best car in the world”.
And what of rival car firm Napier, which laid down the challenge to put one of its vehicles up against the Silver Ghost for this gruelling test of endurance, speed and reliability? Well coming second was never going to be enough . . . and by 1924 it was out of the business of making cars and concentrated on aeroplanes instead.
Now to mark the centenary of the 1911 Top Gear trial, 17 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts will set off from London’s Pall Mall on Sunday, bound for the Scottish capital, following almost the same route as the original. Among them will be the very car that took part, known by its chassis number, 1701.
They are due to arrive at Arthur’s Seat the following afternoon, and with each valued well in excess of £100,000 it is likely to be one of the most exclusive car rallies the city has seen.
According to organiser Nick Naismith, the 1911 trial helped introduce a wary public to the benefits of motoring, setting the wheels in motion for the birth of today’s motor industry.
“The general feeling at that time was that cars were not very reliable, they weren’t terribly powerful,” says Nick, a member of the exclusive 20-Ghost club made up of owners of pre-1940 Rolls-Royce cars. “This Top Gear trial was intended to demonstrate that they were powerful, they could climb hills in a high gear and they could reach high speeds.
“Earlier that year the Prince Henry Tour involved around 60 cars travelling to Edinburgh and back south and had helped prove reliability. That was met by celebrations in every town. Cars had really just been invented, they were modern contraptions and seeing one was a big event indeed.”
The success of the September trial was reported in The Scotsman newspaper at the time, which provided readers with intricate detail of the car’s 7.5-litre engine, the key to its superiority over the Napier. Readers were informed that while the average speed was a mere 19.59 mph and the Silver Ghost had achieved 24 miles to the gallon, a speed test had seen it hit an impressive 78.2 mph.
These days Silver Ghosts are sought as much for the beauty of their copper and brass fitted engines as for their unique bodywork and the fascinating history attached to previous owners – typically well-heeled members of high society traced through meticulous vehicle records.
Certainly 1924 Silver Ghost owner Major Lennox Jamieson, 75, from Stockbridge found a surprising twist to his car’s history when, having bought it in the south of England, he began to trace its ownership.
“It turned out to be originally registered in Edinburgh and owned by a family called Fleming who lived in Magdala Crescent in the Haymarket area,” he recalls. “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find out much about them other than they had it for about three years.
“Company records then show it went to a Lady Badminton who had it until the mid-1930s. The next owner’s name is scored out and marked ‘deceased’ and the trail runs cold . . . however I was told the car had been filmed in Spain for the movie, Lawrence of Arabia. It appears in a sequence when the bonnet is opened to show off the engine.”
Lawrence of Arabia used a squadron of Silver Ghosts modified into armoured vehicles against Turkish forces during WW1, prompting him to declare that “a Rolls in the desert is above rubies”.
Maj Jamieson – who bought the car in the mid-1960s – brought it to Edinburgh where his search for its original registration plate had mixed results: “I went to the council licensing office in Princes Street at the time and asked if they could find me the original registration number but it had been destroyed.
“I asked if there was anything else suitable and they came back with S46. I said ‘That will be fine’,” he grins. Today the car’s number plate alone is reckoned to be worth the price of a modern family saloon.
Maj Jamieson has used his Silver Ghost every day for more than 40 years. Even now he can be spotted behind the wheel with the car’s soft top open in all weathers. “I’ve done well over 100,000 miles in it,” he nods. “I do attract a lot of attention in it. I think a few people think I’m a curious old eccentric.”
He believes the Silver Ghost deserves its place at the forefront of motoring history. “There was a time when there were many Rolls-Royces in Edinburgh. They’d be used as hearses, break-down trucks . . . practically every taxi was a Rolls-Royce, they’d be lined up the length of Princes Street. But they were basic, almost Victorian engineering,” he adds, “eventually they were replaced by the Phantom”.
The Silver Ghost finally went out of production in 1926, but its place in motoring history was sealed thanks to events in 1911.
“It was a very important year for Rolls-Royce,” adds Nick Naismith. “The Prince Henry Tour and the London to Edinburgh trial helped create the Silver Ghost’s reputation as the best car in the world.”