Strive for Perfection

Trial of the century

Trial of the century

A man driving a car down a mountain road as part of an adventurous trial.

The legendary Alpine Trial of 1913 confirmed Rolls-Royce’s status as “the best car in the world” for the next 100 years and beyond

During the latter part of the first decade of the 20th century, managing director Claude Johnson’s marketing strategy for Rolls-Royce proved to be spectacularly successful. It revolved around the 40/50hp Silver Ghost, which was firmly established as “the best car in the world” following its success in the 1907 Scottish reliability trial and the ensuing almost 15,000 RAC-observed miles. At a meeting on 13 March, 1908, Johnson therefore proposed to the board of Rolls-Royce Ltd that the company should adopt a single-model policy and focus just on the Silver Ghost.

That same year, Rolls-Royce entered two cars known as “Silver Rogue” and “White Knave” in the 2,000-mile Scottish reliability trial. These Silver Ghosts were the first to be mounted on Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels, and Silver Rogue, with Eric Platford at the wheel, won a gold medal. Success followed in trials on the Isle of Man, home of the Tourist Trophy competition; in the United States; and in the 620-mile Bombay to Khalapur trial in India. This all contributed to the consolidation of the reputation of the 40/50hp and the company that made it, which overcame the challenges posed by Henry Royce’s frequent bouts of illness and the tragic, early death of Charles Rolls.

Since the 40/50hp had already acquired an impressive reputation, it became company policy not to take part in competitive trials. However, carmaker Napier was very aware that its own six-cylinder cars were in competition with Rolls-Royce. So, Napier responded by running a car from London to Edinburgh in top gear, emphasising that it had a rear-axle ratio of 2.7. This enabled the Napier to average 19 miles per gallon and to exceed 76mph in a timed test at Brooklands racetrack.

Johnson rose to the challenge by commissioning a 40/50hp Silver Ghost with a higher than normal compression ratio and a 2.9-ratio rear axle. The car had a narrow four-seater touring body on a lowered chassis, a tapering bonnet and Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels. It ran from London to Edinburgh and back with great success, averaging 24 miles per gallon with a timed speed of 78mph at Brooklands. This car was marketed as the London-Edinburgh 40/50hp – an attractive sporting model with a lightweight body and wire wheels.

But the London to Edinburgh trial was the exception rather than the rule, and conforming to company policy it was decided that Rolls-Royce would not compete in the 1912 Austrian Alpine Trial. However, a keen owner, James Radley, decided to enter the competition as a private entrant in his London-Edinburgh 40/50hp, causing great consternation when news reached the company that his car had stalled on an observed hill with a 35 per cent gradient on the Katschberg Pass. After being passed by other competitors’ cars, Radley managed to stagger up the hill by decanting his passengers, but the time that elapsed in this debacle led to his withdrawal from the event.

A century-old group of people standing in front of a landmark building.
The 1913 Alpine Trial Rolls-Royce team prepares to set off from Conduit Street, London

Preparing for the trial

After much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth because of Radley’s failure to prove the 40/50hp’s status as “the best car in the world”, the Rolls-Royce team was galvanised into action. A clear objective was defined: the company was to achieve an immaculate performance in the 1913 Alpine Trial, and whatever needed to be done had to be done quickly.

In June 1912, Johnson and John Knox Sinclair went to Austria in a 40/50hp limousine with wooden wheels to reconnoitre the Alpine Trial routes. As well as checking and recording the gradients of the steepest hills, they identified the shortcomings of the Rolls-Royce. They defined what gear ratios were needed and confirmed that the large 40/50hp engine was prone to overheating in summer. This led to loss of water from boiling in high temperatures. The car also lost water when descending steep hills.

Henry Royce and his team at Le Canadel in the South of France worked hard on modifying the car. The frame and suspension were strengthened with cantilever springs, and a larger, flexibly mounted radiator was fitted along with a modified special radiator cap known as a steam separator. This was an upward extension of the standard filler cap. A new four-speed gearbox with helical gears and a more suitable choice of gear ratios was designed and fitted to the London-Edinburgh engine, while a secondary petrol tank was added to increase the range.

Four cars were built at the company’s Derby works and tested on a hill steeper than any on the Alpine Trial routes. Such a hill was found near the town of Wirksworth, which is close to Derby. The chosen road was a narrow lane, which began in Wirksworth market square. The tests included many stops and starts.

A test team was sent on the Alpine Trial routes in February 1913. The tests included several stops and restarts with an overloaded car on the infamous hill where Radley had failed. The modified car sailed up the hill conveying its heavy load. This test car was chassis number 2212, driven by Sinclair.

“The company’s tactics were apparent from the beginning: Radley was to make the running, and the other three cars were to aim for the team prize”

The four team cars, with their lightweight tourer bodies, tapered bonnets and wire wheels, were christened “Alpine Eagles”. This model formed the basis of all the post-war Silver Ghost 40/50s fitted with, from 1914 onwards, a modified radiator, which cured the overheating and water-loss problems.

One of the rules of the Alpine Trial was that each car’s bonnet should be sealed. If a seal was broken, the car was penalised. Unfortunately, the procedure for starting the Silver Ghost from cold was to pump up the pressure in the fuel tank, open the bonnet, tickle the carburettor, put a penny under the low-speed jet adjuster, start the engine, wait until it was warmed up, then remove the penny and close the bonnet. Alternatively, the bonnet and a priming cock – on top of the inlet manifold – were opened and petrol from a syringe or a can in the toolkit was poured into the cock – and therefore the inlet manifold – to start the engine.

In either case the bonnet had to be opened, thus incurring a penalty. As a result, Royce devised a rather “Heath Robinson” modification: a system of rods terminating in a control on the dashboard on the passenger side that opened the priming cock. Next to this control, Royce mounted a nipple into which the riding mechanic squirted petrol, which ran down the pipe into the priming cock. This modification enabled the team to start the car without incurring a penalty. It was further developed on post-war 40/50hps by replacing the petrol cock with a starting carburettor fed from the onboard fuel supply.

Eric Platford was chosen as team manager and was therefore in charge of the building and testing of the four modified trial cars. They were: chassis number 2212, registration number R1492, driven by Sinclair; chassis number 2224, registration number R1705, driven by Ernest Hives and George Hancock; chassis number 2260, registration number R1706, driven by Platford, CC Freise and Tom Warwick; chassis number 2260E, which was entered as a private entrant and driven by James Radley. The latter’s registration number during the trial is not recorded, and it was equipped with electric lighting, while the other three had acetylene and oil lighting.

A fifth Rolls-Royce car is recorded to have gone to Austria at the time of the trial. Its chassis number was 2148 but, unlike the team cars, it was not modified. It is known that Claude Johnson, as overall co-ordinator, encouraged the Rolls-Royce entrants. His car was registered R1487 and was probably chassis number 2148.

The team cars set off from the Rolls-Royce showrooms in Conduit Street, London, on 2 May 1913. The riding mechanics who accompanied Freise were Jim Bullamore, Warwick and Platford. Hancock, who was a very competent driver as well as a mechanic, accompanied Hives. Sinclair’s riding mechanic was EP Parsons, while Ambrose Ward was with Radley.

Trial of the century

An old photo of a man lifting a car onto a boat in the early 20th century.
One of the "Alpine Eagles" is hoisted onto a ferry
A vintage car captured in a black and white photo.
2260, which was driven by Eric Platford, CC Freise and Tom Warwick
A sportingly styled London-Edinburgh 40/50hp Rolls-Royce
An old fashioned car parked in front of a century-old brick building.
One of the company's rigorously prepared 40/50hp Alpine Eagles, 1913

Start your engines

The team’s objectives were to achieve reliability and to avoid incurring penalty points. CL Freeston FRGS followed the trial in an 18-24hp Siddeley-Deasy lent to him by JD Siddeley. Describing the performance of the Rolls-Royce cars in The Autocar magazines published on 5 July and 12 July 1913, he stated that the company’s tactics were apparent from the beginning: Radley was to make the running, and the other three cars were to aim for the team prize.

The trial began on Sunday, 22 June. The order of running stipulated that the most powerful cars should set off first, so the Rolls-Royce cars led the way. Radley completed the course to Salzburg at one o’clock in the afternoon, having covered 260 miles in eight hours. The rest of the Rolls-Royce team arrived three quarters of an hour later, followed by the Minerva team. Freeston described in great detail the spectacular scenery, rough road surfaces and multiple hairpin bends rising to several thousand feet.

“Radley slaked his thirst with one hand on the wheel while traversing a hairpin bend with a gradient of one in four – much to the delight of the spectators”

On Monday, 23 June, the contestants set off from Salzburg via a corridor of flag-waving soldiers. The route included the formidable Tauern, Katschberg and Brenner passes and covered a distance of 262 miles. Freeston emphasised that the road surface of the Katschberg was worse than it had been the previous year and that there was a “violently quick rise” on the Katschberg road. He also stated that: “The worst road surface was on the steepest parts of the road … No one, in fact, who has not seen the Katschberg with his own eyes can form any adequate idea of its severity as a climb; and, after crossing it two years in succession, I can only say that few touring cars could reach the summit unless geared very low on the first speed and provided with radiation of the most effective kind.” Clearly, he had been talking to Claude Johnson. “The Rolls-Royce cars went up on half throttle with consummate ease,” Freeston continued. “Radley tells me that his average speed was over 25 miles an hour.”

The distance travelled on Tuesday, 24 June was 246 miles to Riva via Reschen Scheideck Pass. All of the teams in contention completed the day’s journey. On Wednesday, 25 June, the weather was fine after the dull and rainy previous days. “Here the Rolls-Royces came past in great style and I am bound to say that I have never seen anything more beautiful in the way of locomotion than the way in which they flew up the pass,” Freeston said. A spectator describing the cars rising up the Pordoi Pass commented: “The Rolls-Royces seemed to be the living embodiment of grace and power.”

However, later in the day the rain came down in torrents and at the summit of the Pordoi Pass the rain turned into heavy flakes of snow. One of the Minerva cars skidded badly onto the grass, where it turned over, luckily without serious injury to driver or passengers. Although the car was capable of making it to Vienna to be repaired, its accident ended the hopes of the Minerva team, which had been running second to Rolls-Royce. As usual, Radley finished well ahead of the field, with the Rolls-Royce team following close behind.

On Thursday, 26 June, Radley and the Rolls-Royce team finished in Trieste, far ahead of the rest of the competitors – none of them could match the Rolls-Royce cars for speed. Friday, 27 June was a most welcome day of rest, and in the afternoon everyone embarked on the steamship Prinz Hohenlohe and enjoyed a sail around the Adriatic Sea.

Two century-old cars parked on the side of a road.
Claude Johnson's Silver Ghost alongside CL Freeston's 18-24hp Siddeley-Deasy in Austria

On Saturday, 28 June, the route meandered from Trieste to Klagenfurt, with many gutters waiting to trap the unwary at the edges of the road surfaces. The road leading south out of Trieste towards Rijeka rises steeply from sea level to 4,275ft then rapidly down to the Adriatic on the other side. Freeston informed his readers that even more than the notorious Katschberg Pass, the most feared section was the Loibl Pass. It had a great many corners and was a lot steeper on its outside edge than in the middle of the road. The best time ever previously achieved on this mountain was six-and-a-half minutes. Radley managed it in five and, desiring a drink, slaked his thirst with one hand on the wheel while traversing a hairpin bend with a gradient of one in four – much to the delight of the spectators.

The last day’s journey, on Sunday, 29 June, was 260 miles. The road over the Radl Pass rose steeply and was intersected by many gutters. The luckless Sinclair, driving the third Rolls-Royce, subsided into a gutter until the car’s axle was resting upon the ground. But he managed to get out, and with a delay of three minutes he was on his way again.

On the final stretch, only a few kilometres from Vienna, Sinclair was going round a bend when a large Minerva, driven by a non-competitor, rammed him. The impact drove his Rolls-Royce sideways into a telephone pole, which was moved by one foot. On one side of the car, the running board was dislodged, while the rear mudguard was also damaged. In addition, the gear quadrant and the driving wheel were damaged, and the wing was bent.

However, the engine did not stop, and the seals on the bonnet and radiator cap were undisturbed. After changing the wheel, the car was driven to Vienna in third gear – the only one that could be selected by the damaged gear quadrant. This incident prevented, for the first time, all four Rolls-Royce cars arriving before any other car at the end of a stage. However, Sinclair’s car fared a lot better than the Minerva, which was a write-off.

After much calculation, the Rolls-Royce driven by CC Freise was adjudged to be first. The Audi team of three cars completed the course without incurring any penalties and, accordingly, was awarded the team prize – the second Rolls-Royce, driven by Hives, had lost only one point as a result of an accidental stoppage of the engine for one minute when leaving the car park at Salzburg.

The Autocar correspondent Freeston was of the opinion – supported by the drivers – that the third Rolls-Royce driven by Sinclair should also have incurred a one-point penalty for the same reason. “There can be no question, however, among those who witnessed the trial throughout, that the honours of the road fell to the Rolls-Royce team,” Freeston added. The Rolls-Royce company never again entered competition; they did not need to do so.

A group of men standing next to a trial of the century.
(Left to right from seated) John Knox Sinclair, George Hancock, Ernest Hives and EP Parsons
Three men in coats standing on a century-old dirt road.
(Left to right) Sinclair, Parsons and Hives celebrate their Alpine Trials success

This article is an abridged version of a feature written by Tony James, former President of the RREC.