The "Silver Ghost": The Car That Made Rolls-Royce Famous

The "Silver Ghost" and the "Phantom" are two of the most important cars ever.
Christopher McFadden

Have you ever heard of the Rolls-Royce "Silver Ghost"? Or her younger sister, the "Phantom"?

If not, you are in for a real treat. Read on! 


What was the Rolls-Royce "Silver Ghost"?

The Rolls-Royce "Silver Ghost" is widely considered to be one of the most significant cars ever built. It was produced between 1907 and 1926, and thousands of examples of this incredible automobile still roam the road today. 

It was the first widely produced automobile by Rolls Royce. 

The actual name can be a little confusing, as it refers not only to a type of automobile built by Rolls-Royce, but is also refers to a specific model from that series of cars. 

roll royce silver ghost
Source: Malcolma/Wikimedia Commons

The car that would become the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was introduced in December 1906 at the Olympia Show, as the 40/50. This was just two years after the partnership between “mechanic” Henry Royce and “promoter” Charles Steward Rolls began. Deliveries of chassis for custom bodywork, which was the norm for Rolls-Royce cars until after WWII, began about nine months later.

In 1907, Claude Johnson, the Commercial and Managing Director of Rolls-Royce, ordered a car to be used as a demonstrator. It was the 12th 40/50 h.p to be made. The car was painted in aluminum paint and given silver-plated fittings. A plaque with the name "Silver Ghost" was attached to the bulkhead, to emphasize the cars' ghost-like quietness. The name was later attached to the entire series.

The Silver Ghost was originally called the "40/50", and the chassis was initially built-in at the Royce automobile factory in Manchester. Production was later moved to the Derby factory in 1908, and later still to Springfield, MA, between 1921 and 1926. 

Amazingly, the Derby factory is still in operation today, producing aviation engines. 

The "Silver Ghost" would, in part, cement the company's reputation for making the "Best car in the World". One that still remains very strong to this very day. 

The "Silver Ghost" had a new side-valve, six-cylinder, 7000 cc engine with the cylinders cast in two units of three each. Each one was originally fitted with a four-speed overdrive transmission. 

silver ghost 1920
A 1920s Silver Ghost. Source: Jagvar/Wikimedia Commons

In 1909, engine displacement was beefed up to 7400cc, with a three sped transmission. This was later changed to a four-speed once again in 1913. 

Each cylinder had two spark plugs, with each set fired using a trembler coil (and then later an ignition coil and distributor) and magneto. The car's engine design was refined further over time allowing power outputs to be increased from 48 brake horsepower to 80 horsepower at 2,250 RPM.

Later models replaced their older oil or acetylene lamps with electrical lamps and earlier models only came with brakes to the rear wheels. A transmission brake also acted on the drive shaft.

Later models were fitted with dual brake systems on the rear wheels and the front wheels receiving brakes in the 1920s. 

The "Silver Ghost" had a very robust chassis with rigid axles and leaf springs to the corners. 

Production of the cars was halted temporarily during the First World War, but their robust build and reliability led their chassis and engines to be adapted for use in a range of armored cars. Some of these were made famous by the exploits of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") in the deserts of the Middle East. 

silver ghost tracked
An interesting tracked modified "Silver Ghost". Source: Maarten/Wikimedia Commons

Post-war, the decision was made to make a version of the car in the United States, and Rolls-Royce set up a division in America and opened a factory in Springfield, MA. 

The "Silver Ghost" had undergone significant development and refinement by the mid-1920s, but the improved performance quality of some of Rolls-Royce's competitors seriously impacted the sales of the "Silver Ghost". This market pressure forced Rolls-Royce to replace the car with a new model, the "New Phantom" (commonly known as the "Phantom 1"). It was released in 1925 in the UK and in 1926 in the US. 

All told, 7,874 "Silver Ghosts" were produced between 1907 and 1926, including something like 1,701 built in Springfield, MA. It is believed that 1,500 of these amazing automobiles still exist to this very day. 

One pristine example of a 1909 "Silver Ghost" can be found on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England. This particular car was owned by the Montagu family and originally cost around £985 pounds for the chassis only. 

silver ghosts off production line
Source: Rolls-Royce

It has 6 cylinders, a capacity of 7,046cc, and could reach a top speed of 65 mph (104 km/h)

Where did the "Silver Ghost" get its name?

According to sites like the National Motor Museum in the New Forest England: 

"The 13th car to be built had its body painted silver, with silver-plated lamps and fittings, and became known as ‘The Silver Ghost'"

This particular car was used extensively for trials and accumulated somewhere in the region of 15,000 miles in just a few weeks. The Silver Ghost name was eventually officially adopted for the 40/50 model.

Public sales of the 40/50 commenced in September 1907, with production continuing until 1925, catapulting the car into the history books. 

Who owns Rolls-Royce today?

Rolls-Royce has had quite a colorful history. Originally simply Royce after its founder Henry Royce, the company's products were marketed by Charles Stewart Rolls. 

rolls royce phantom 7
A Rolls-Royce "Phantom 7". Source: More Cars/Flickr

In 1906 the company changed its name to Rolls-Royce Limited and the now-famous "Silver Ghost" was launched at the Olympia Motor Show that same December. 

The company would first begin production of aero-engines during the First World War, a step that would further cement them as one of the most trusted manufacturers of civilian and military engines of all kinds. 

The company would hit rock-bottom in the 1960s after hopeless mismanagement, and in 1971 the company officially liquidated. Nationalization followed with the creation of Rolls-Royce Limited in 1971.

The car division was later transferred again to the Rolls-Royce Motors Holdings Limited and was eventually sold to Vickers in the 1980s.

In the late-1980s, the nationalized portions of Rolls-Royce were floated to the public as Rolls-Royce PLC. 

In 1998, Vickers sold Rolls-Royce to Volkswagen, but BMW holds the rights to the name and marque for use on Rolls-Royce cars, having acquired the rights from Rolls-Royce PLC for £40 million in 1998.

Rolls-Royce Engines
Rolls-Royce makes more than just cars. An exposed Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in a Spitfire. Source: AvgeekJoe/Flickr

After 2003, BMW created Rolls Royce Motor Cars Limited to eliminate any licensing issues, and now Rolls Royce Cars Limited exclusively manufacture Rolls Royce cars.

What was the original price of the 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom?

Another famous early Rolls-Royce was the "Phantom". As previously mentioned, this iconic car was introduced to replace the "Silver Ghost" after its sales began to slip.

Introduced as the "New Phantom" in 1925, it has a larger engine and used pushrod-operated overhead valves instead of the "Silver Ghosts" side valves. It was built in the Derby Rolls-Royce plant, as well as at the Springfield plant in Massachusetts. 

The "Phantom" was replaced by the Phantom II in 1929. Somewhere in the order of 3,512 units of the "New Phantom" were built between 1925 and 1931. The "New Phantom" is famous in its own right, and is a series of Rolls-Royce car that has constantly been reimagined over the intervening decades. 

One particularly interesting example of the "Phantom" is the so-called 1925 "Round Door Aero Phantom Coupe." 

rolls royce phantom aero
Source: Peterson Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Currently residing at the Petersen Museum, it has changed hands quite a few times in its life. The last recorded sale of the vehicle as for around $1.5 million in 1991 (around $2.6 million today). 

This car was initially commissioned by a woman in Detroit but for reasons unknown, it never made it to her. The car was sold to the Raja of Nanpara instead, and later changed hands several more times before being sent to Jonckheere body company near Roeselare, Belgium to receive its unique look. 

But that is about as much of the car's history as we can glean from its early days. A fire broke out in the 1930s at the Jonckheere’s offices, destroying most of their records.  

When the car was originally built, there was nothing quite like it in the world. It had a 6-cylinder engine and a 4-speed manual transmission could propel it to 100 mph (160 km/h) with ease. 

Rolls Royce Phantom Aero
Source: Peterson Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Its exterior style is very much of the 1920s, yet would have been striking even in the hey-day of the art-deco movement. At a time when most vehicles, including the "Phantom" in its original state, basically resembled boxes on wheels, this particular "Phantom's" design truly is a work of art. 

And that is a wrap.

The Rolls-Royce "Silver Ghost" and her successor the "New Phantom" are two of the world's most important and influential cars of all time. Thankfully for us today, many surviving examples still exist if you are lucky enough, catch a glimpse of one cruising around a road near you!