Drophead smoothie

By Jacqui Madelin

Jacqui Madelin tries some seat time in a spectacular Rolls

The 55-year-old Roller drives as smoothly on tarseal as a hovercraft does over water. Photo / Jacqui Madelin
The 55-year-old Roller drives as smoothly on tarseal as a hovercraft does over water. Photo / Jacqui Madelin

The sun glints off the flying lady as we point this 1957 Rolls-Royce drophead's bonnet down a tunnel of trees. The speedo needle hovers around 96km/h as we glide towards the first sharp bend of our convoluted tour of the byways around Rolls-Royce's factory, near the historic Goodwood, UK, race track.

A subtly cleared throat from the Rolls staffer beside me heralds a polite comment that these classic cross-ply tyres tend to push the car wide into corners. I see what he means - my hands are busy with the steering wheel's vast metal hoop to haul the car round while trying to look as if I haven't almost sledged a million-dollar car into the trees.

Perhaps I got away with it. He seems relaxed, tipping his fedora at a jaunty angle and leaning back in the dove-grey leather as we waft down country lanes with the effortless ease of a hovercraft, passing the factory gates for a second lap.

My drive comes courtesy of a visit to the Goodwood factory.

The car is owned by BMW Classic and is one of around 10 in Rolls-Royce's slowly expanding collection that shares its time between Rolls' only factory and BMW's spectacular Munich Museum. It's been tooling round Goodwood for the Revival, as Rolls is a key sponsor, but now its official duties are over and my blatant admiration has translated into a drive.

The order for this Silver Cloud 1 drop-top car was signed off on December 31, 1956, with four-speed auto and optional power steering.

In Wedgwood blue with a dark blue canvas roof, it's been lightly restored.

The only change since the factory took ownership is removal of a tacho fitted for a brief career in classic rallying.

Chassis number SDD 194 was delivered to the coachbuilder, HJ Mulliner, on January 28, 1957, the builder acknowledged on an engraved sill plate, to be fitted with an all-aluminium body that measures the same 5.38m length and 1.9m width as the coupe, and tips the scales at a "similar weight" to the 2-tonne roofed car.

The order notes that stop and tail-lamps and rear indicators were "not required", though these are now fitted. Perhaps the buyer changed his mind? Either way, it did get the standard 4.9-litre six-cylinder engine of the time, which delivered 116kW at 4000rpm. It uses the twin SU carbs officially added in late 1957, though this car was actually tested on May 29 and delivered by Weybridge Automobiles to its new owner, RC Sherriff, Esquire, on June 18, 1957. Just in time for a few midsummer drives.

Rolls has the original invoice, which shows the price on January 11, 1957 as £2555 for the car, £110 for the power-assisted steering I was glad of, plus £666, 18 shillings and sixpence purchase tax and a nine quid delivery fee to Mulliner, less £462, 15 shillings and sixpence "credit", for reasons not legible.

That meant this car cost well over the UK's average new house price in 1957, £2399 according to one lender, which is more affordable than today's drophead Phantom, at twice the average UK house price.

This car has appreciated considerably since, and no wonder. It's effortlessly elegant, and far easier to drive than expected. No doubt it was cutting-edge motoring back then, the hydraulic drum brakes with their Mintex linings mechanical servo assist the best money could buy, the independent coil-sprung front and semi-elliptic rear suspension as focused on handling stability and comfort as the underpinnings of today's equivalent.

Enveloped in the peerless interior of this classic Roller it seemed all the more astonishing that its originator had just a year's schooling.

The son of a flour miller, Frederick Henry Royce was apprenticed to the Great Northern Railway, then the Electric Light and Power Company before using his $40 savings to start a business making domestic electric fittings with a friend.

He was 37 when he bought his first car, 40 when he built one in 1904 before his introduction to car salesman Charles Rolls.

This Silver Ghost was launched long after both men had died but, by then, the marque was already recognised for some of the world's most elegant automobiles.

- NZ Herald

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