The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost refers both to a car model and to one specific car from that series.
Originally named the "40/50 h.p." the chassis was originally produced at Royce's Manchester works moving to Derby in July 1908 and between 1921 and 1926 at Springfield, Massachusetts factories. Chassis no. 60551, registered AX 201, was the car that was originally given the name "Silver Ghost." Other 40/50 hp cars were also given names but the Silver Ghost title was taken up by the press and soon all 40/50s were called by the name, a fact not officially recognised by Rolls-Royce until 1925 when the Phantom range was launched.
The Silver Ghost was the origin of Rolls-Royce's claim of making the "Best car in the world" – a phrase coined not by themselves, but by the prestigious publication Autocar in 1907.
The chassis and engine were also used as the basis of a range of Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars.
The car at first had a new side-valve, six-cylinder, 7036 cc engine (7428 cc from 1910) with the cylinders cast in two units of three cylinders each as opposed to the triple two cylinder units on the earlier six. A three speed transmission was fitted at first with four speed units used from 1913. The seven-bearing crankshaft had full pressure lubrication and the centre main bearing was made specially large to remove vibration, essentially splitting the engine into two three cylinder units. Two spark plugs were fitted to each cylinder with, from 1921, a choice of magneto or coil ignition. The earliest cars had used a trembler coil to produce the spark with a magneto as an optional extra which soon became standard - the instruction was to start the engine on the trembler/battery and then switch to magneto. Continuous development allowed power output to be increased from at 1,250 rpm to at 2,250 rpm. Electric lighting became an option in 1914 and was standardised in 1919. Electric starting was fitted from 1919 along with electric lights to replace the older ones that used acetylene or oil.
The substantial chassis had rigid front and rear axles and leaf springs all round. Early cars only had brakes on the rear wheels operated by a hand lever with a pedal operated transmission brake acting on the propeller shaft. The footbrake system moved to drums on the rear axle in 1913, but from 1923, four-wheel, servo-assisted brakes became optional.
The success of the model led to the company's dropping the previous range of cars and following a one-model policy until the launch of the Twenty in 1922. In all, a total of 7874 Silver Ghost cars were produced from 1907 to 1926 including 1701 from the American Springfield factory, many of them still running to this day.
After the introduction of the Phantom I in 1925, older 40/50 models were called Silver Ghosts to avoid confusion, but there was only one car given the name "Silver Ghost" - 60551, registered AX-201. The name referred to the car's ghost-like quietness. For many years after, Rolls-Royce continued with the paranormal theme of naming cars, and the Ghosts remain one of the most evocative symbols of their time.
A 40/50 was privately entered in the prestigious 1912 Austrian Alpine Trial by James Radley but its 3 speed gearbox proved inadequate for the ascent of the Katschberg Pass. A factory team of four cars were prepared for the 1913 event with four speed gearboxes and engine power increased from 60 to 75 bhp by an increase in compression ratio and larger carburettor. The team gained six awards including the Archduke Leopold Cup. Replicas of the victorious cars were put into production and sold officially as Continental models but they were called Alpine Eagles by chief test driver (and later Rolls-Royce Managing Director) Ernest Hives and this is the name that they have kept.
The aim was to raise public awareness of the new company and to show the reliability and quietness of their new car. This was a risky idea: cars of this time were notoriously unreliable, and roads of the day could be horrendous. Nevertheless, the car set off on trials, and with press aboard, broke record upon record. Even after 7,000 miles (11,000 km), the cost to service the car was a negligible £2 2s 7d. (£2.13)
The reputation of Rolls-Royce was set, and the 40/50 very successful.
AX201 was sold in 1908 to a private customer and recovered by the company in 1948. Since then, it has been used as a publicity car and travelled worldwide. In 1989, the car was restored by SC Gordon Coachbuilders Luton, and P&A Wood, London, UK. It is now owned by Bentley Motors Ltd.
In 1984, the car was photographed in great detail whilst in storage in Luton by precision model makers Franklin Mint. This went on to become one of their best selling products.
The Silver Ghost is considered the most valuable car in the world; in 2005 its insured value was placed at USD$35 million.