Discover the Silver Ghost, Rolls-Royce’s Legendary Luxury Car

2024 marks the 120th anniversary of the introductory meeting between Henry Royce and The Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls in 1904. The second instalment of the Models of the Marque series celebrates the Rolls-Royce 40/50 H.P. – the Silver Ghost. Launched in 1906, its legendary performances in the great motor trials of the early 20th Century cemented Rolls-Royce’s reputation as creators of ‘the best car in the world’.

“Of all the famous nameplates borne by Rolls-Royce motor cars since 1904, few are as celebrated, significant, evocative and enduring as the ‘Silver Ghost’. Formally launched in 1906 as the 40/50 H.P., it was the first model to be awarded the soubriquet of ‘the best car in the world’ that Rolls-Royce retains to this day, setting unmatchable standards for performance and reliability, proven in the era’s toughest road trials. It was also a stupendous commercial success, with almost 8,000 examples built in the UK and US over an 18-year period – an unimaginable product lifespan in the modern age. That so many Silver Ghosts still survive in full working order – and, indeed, regularly perform the same feats they achieved more than a century ago – is a lasting monument to Henry Royce’s engineering genius.”

Andrew Ball, Head of Corporate Relations and Heritage, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars
Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost re-enacts triumphant London-Edinburgh Run 110 years on

By 1906, just three years after its foundation, Rolls-Royce was already a victim of its success. Demand for its motor cars was such that its line-up had quickly expanded from the original twin-cylinder 10 H.P. to include three-cylinder 15 H.P., four-cylinder 20 H.P. and six-cylinder 30 H.P. models. Henry Royce had even produced the first ever V8 passenger motor car, known as the ‘Legalimit’ since the 3.5-litre engine was governed to keep it below the 20mph speed limit then in force in Britain – only three of these were ever made, and it remains the only Rolls-Royce model of which no examples survive. This proliferation of models reflected a trend across the luxury automotive sector, as competing manufacturers chased an ever more finely segmented client base.

However, for Rolls-Royce, it caused major manufacturing headaches, since many parts were not interchangeable between models. The problem was compounded by Henry Royce’s entirely laudable policy of continuous improvement; his constant adjustments and refinements went down to the smallest components. This created variations between – and even within – production series, to the extent that often only a handful of individual motor cars would be entirely identical.

As with almost any manufacturing process, more complexity and variability meant increased costs. This was anathema to the highly astute, commercially driven Managing Director, Claude Johnson. Having decided radical change was needed, he proposed the marque should focus all its energies on producing just one model. Charles Rolls enthusiastically agreed, but insisted it should be positioned at the top end of the market, where Rolls-Royce was already gaining a reputation as the very best motor car available.

Though a ruthless perfectionist and tireless innovator, Royce was also a pragmatist. He saw the logic of his colleagues’ single-model approach and duly produced a completely new motor car, the 40/50 H.P.

In 1911, impelled by his own pursuit of perfection and Johnson’s insatiable appetite for publicity, Royce unveiled a new version of the Silver Ghost. Known as the ‘London to Edinburgh’ type, it was designed for the RAC’s flagship reliability trial, a return run of almost 800 miles between the two capitals. In an age long before motorways, the route consisted almost entirely of poorly surfaced A- and B-roads; to add to the challenge, cars were locked in top gear from start to finish.

These faultless performances, together with the quietness and smoothness of operation implicit in its name, secured the Silver Ghost’s reputation as ‘the best car in the world’. It proved an enormous commercial success for Rolls-Royce, with 6,173 examples built in Britain, and a further 1,703 at the marque’s American factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, between 1907 and 1925.

Thanks to these relatively large volumes over a long production run, the Silver Ghost has one of the largest surviving populations of early Rolls-Royce models. This longevity is a testament to Royce’s engineering and the marque’s build quality. Even more impressive, however, is that some are still capable of the performances they achieve when new. In 2013, 47 Silver Ghosts, including one of the original team, retraced the 1,800-mile route of the 1913 Alpenfahrt, while in 2021, chassis 1701 repeated its record-breaking London-Edinburgh run; locked in top gear, just as it had been 110 years earlier.