Perhaps sensing a little pushback to its development of a de rigeur sport-utility vehicle with an eye-watering price tag, Rolls-Royce officially chooses to refer to its project as a “high-sided, all-terrain motor car”. The cageyness seems misplaced, though, as the Rolls bloodline is studded with toughness.
The rally Roller
In 1970, a Rolls-Royce ran the world's toughest race, and survived.
It would be gross understatement to describe the 1970 Daily Mirror London to Mexico World Cup Rally as "gruelling". Kicking off at Wembley Stadium on 19 April, the race covered some 16,000 miles through Europe, South America and Central America before concluding in Mexico City on 27 May. Among the more than 100 cars to start (a list that included the now-legendary Ford Escort Mk1), there was one genuine surprise: A modified Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow (pictured above). British Rally Champion Bill Bengry race-prepped the car by adding driving lights and a roof-mounted spare, and routing the exhaust pipes through the hood and up along the A-pillars. To Rolls-Royce, of course, the car was nothing les than a monstrosity; the company resolutely refused to support the effort. But Bengry carried on, and though the car didn't win (that honour went to Ford drivers Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm) this unusual Silver Ghost – despite mechanical calamity and an ugly crash in Brazil – survived to cross the finish line. —Matthew Phenix
When the SUV rolls out in 2017 or thereabouts, it will not be a slap in the face to its ancestry. Rather, it will continue a heritage of visiting impossible places and doing impossible things. Like a modern noble family, if you trace the roots of Rolls-Royce back far enough, you'll find adventurers, explorers and knights-at-arms.
When Henry Royce and Charles Rolls first began manufacturing automobiles, they were not built to a high standard of craftmanship for ostentation’s sake. Rather, the luxury offered by a stout and overbuilt vehicle was a swift, stealthy dependability – the luxury of travelling with haste, yet arriving unruffled.
Sensing that this durability would appeal to those living in remote areas and demanding climes, British businessman Frank Norbury pulled an unusual stunt. Locking the hood of his Rolls-Royce 40/50hp – better known today as a Silver Ghost – he allegedly tossed away his toolkit and took the car over the rugged passes of India’s Ghat Mountains. The trip from Bombay to Kohlapur covered 620 miles of poorly maintained paths, over which Norbury sailed undaunted, his Rolls-Royce performing without fault.
Seeing this peerless performance, the maharajahs of India hurried to snap up examples of this new mechanical elephant, going on to adorn their Ghosts like royal howdahs. Norbury's car ended up in the hands of the Maharaja of Gwalior, who painted the car with pulverised pearls. It would later forever be referred to as “The Pearl of the East”.
Thousands of miles away in the rain-soaked British Isles, war clouds were forming. With slow inevitability, the colonial era was leading towards the cataclysm of World War I – and when nobility eventually went into battle, they brought their Rolls-Royces.
At first, the cars served as speedy rescue for airmen downed while battling the scourge of the German Zeppelins. Wing Commander Charles Rumney Samson attached a Maxim machine gun to the back of his open tourer and used it to strafe a German staff car he happened upon. Sensing success for this newfangled weapon of war, Samson swept into Lille, France.
Hearing of success in the field, the British War Office commissioned Rolls-Royce to build armoured cars in an official capacity. Turreted vehicles with heavy, riveted steel armour, they were armed most commonly with Vickers machine guns, and could manage 70mph.
When the Western Front bogged down into muddy trench warfare, Rolls-Royce armoured cars would head to Russia, China and the deserts of the Middle East. TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, is on record as having said, “A Rolls in the desert is above rubies.”
The armoured Rolls-Royce would later play a significant role in the Irish Civil War, where it would be treated as a sort of rolling fortress. The Irish called the Rolls “Whippets”, as they were quick-striking and relatively quiet. Having been mortally wounded in an ambush, the Irish National Army General Michael Collins was transported in one that is still in existence.
This innate toughness has translated into incredible longevity for the early Rolls-Royce. Many Ghosts still compete in long-distance endurance events, such as the gruelling Peking-to-Paris. Genteel these cars and their owners might be, but the latter do not shy from rolling up their sleeves, and the former lay claim to being the original high-sided all-terrain motor cars – no cageyness or apologies required.
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