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Back Page: Silver Ghost Stories

Sheila J. Gibson

We may have been guilty of hyperbole in January 1986, when our cover touted excerpts from the book Rolls-Royce/The Complete Works: The Best 599 Rolls-Royce Stories as the greatest stories ever told, but then, a tendency to overstate is a vice shared by most cover line writers. (Is actor Ben Affleck really the sexiest man alive?) Nevertheless, the 1984 book, authored by British writers Mike Fox and Steve Smith, who had previously penned some award-winning print ads for the marque, is fondly remembered by Rolls-Royce aficionados. "It’s a very good, very funny book," says Phil Brooks, who has been the historian for the U.S.-based Rolls-Royce Owners Club (RROC) for the last 10 years. Aside from the 29 false factoids that the authors created for a 1983 April Fools’ Day Rolls-Royce print advertisement—the rear armrests in the Silver Spirit are, in fact, not edible—the book’s contents are largely credible, says Brooks.

Brooks’ favorite story from the book is one of the most popular and enduring Rolls-Royce tales, even if it grows ever more fantastic with each telling. The year was 1932, the place was the South of France, the model was a Phantom, and its owner was Rudyard Kipling. It was not clear what was wrong with the car, but it had certainly "failed to proceed," to use the preferred Rolls-Royce phrase. Kipling placed a midnight call to the nearest distributor, went to sleep, and spent the next morning waiting in his hotel room for a representative to appear. By noon, he was fed up and asked the hotel manager to contact the Paris Rolls-Royce office so that he could express his displeasure. The manager replied, "But monsieur, the gentlemen from Rolls-Royce came last night." The mechanics had risen from their beds, driven roughly 100 miles during the wee hours, made the repairs, and departed before Kipling awoke.

That is where the truth ends and the urban legend begins. According to the latter, the mechanics repaired a broken axle and departed without leaving a bill, prompting the owner to write the company to ask what he owed for services rendered. He received a reply that stated, "We have no record of the incident you refer to. Rolls-Royce axles do not break."

They do, however, crash, as indicated in another tale that involves stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She caused a car accident while driving her Rolls-Royce through rural Yugoslavia and was perplexed when the occupants of the other car ran from the scene in terror. Lee proceeded to her destination, where she described the incident to her Yugoslavian hosts, who explained, "There are at the moment only three Rolls-Royces in Yugoslavia. The other two belong to President Tito."

Possession of a Rolls-Royce as a privilege of political power is a common theme in the book, which describes the wondrous and bizarre Rolls-Royce features—a steering wheel made from elephant’s tusks, a gemstone-encrusted dashboard, a thatched roof—ordered by the maharajas of India in the years before the country achieved its independence. "There is an embargo on bringing [these] cars out of India," explains Brooks. "They are considered national treasures."

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian-born cult leader who died in 1990, possessed a trove of similar treasures. In their book, Fox and Smith quote the self-styled guru as saying, "There is nothing holy about being poor," and in the righteous pursuit of holiness, the Bhagwan accepted 90 or so Rolls-Royces—all with garish, psychedelic paint jobs—from his followers. The gifts seem appropriate when you consider the following passage that Fox and Smith reprinted from the Bhagwan sect’s newspaper: "Thanks to the unique suspension on the Rolls-Royce, he rides in a tranquillity that compares with the endless peace discovered by the Buddha."

While the stories of the maharajas and of the Bhagwan have a ring of veracity to them, in 1998, when BMW Group acquired the rights to the marque, one item from the book was debunked: the authors’ statement that "Rolls-Royce will always be British. Should the firm fall into foreign hands, the name will die." Rolls-Royce is alive and well and owned by Germans.

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