When the fourth-annual Austrian Alpine Rally set off from the starting line in Vienna on the morning of June 22, 1913, more than a trophy was at stake for Claude Johnson, the managing director of Rolls-Royce Motorcars at the time. With a route that heaved and twisted some 1,800 miles into the Alps and through parts of what are now Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy before returning to the checkered flag outside the Kursalon concert hall in Vienna, the rally was generally considered the most rigorous in Europe. It drew all the big names in automaking: Bugatti, Austro-Daimler, Fiat, Benz, Mercedes, Puch, Audi, and Rolls-Royce.
Johnson would have skipped the competition that year if he could have. He had decided a couple years earlier—not long after an automotive publication declared Rolls-Royce “the best car in the world”—that the company had more to lose than to gain from rubbing elbows with lesser marques. However, the previous year’s Alpine Rally had been an embarrassment for the carmaker, and Johnson was determined to eradicate that blot on its prestige.
Shortly after its launch in 1907, the Rolls-Royce model called the “40/50 hp” (because of its engine output) began proving its mettle in endurance events and reliability trials that were supervised by the Royal Automobile Club, the governing body for motorsports in Great Britain. The 40/50 hp was also unusually quiet—as quiet as a ghost—which prompted Johnson to have one of the early examples painted silver and adorned with a nameplate identifying it as the Silver Ghost. Soon the automotive press was calling the entire model line Silver Ghosts. Rolls-Royce did not officially adopt the name until 1925. That was the year it launched the Phantom and the year before it ceased production of the 40/50 hp after building nearly 7,900 examples.
By 1912, Johnson was convinced that the marque had made its point with those early endurance tests, and so he was no longer entering factory-sponsored cars in competitive events. However, James Radley had his own Rolls-Royce, and he intended to drive it in the 1912 Austrian Alpine Rally.
Radley, an aviator as well as a racecar driver, was the sort of wealthy, dashing aristocrat who abounded in the drawing rooms and popular mythology of Edwardian England. He was no stranger to the Alps, having crisscrossed the mountain range numerous times while traveling from England to his family’s villa in Italy. The way he and his traveling companions saw it, the rally would be a piece of cake. Brimming with confidence, Radley ordered a Silver Ghost similar to one that had excelled in a London-to-Edinburgh endurance test. The transmission was designed for flat high-speed runs instead of the inclines Radley would encounter in the Alps, and for reasons nobody knows, Radley also specified a car with a big, heavy, and luxurious body but a lightweight suspension. Driving a car that was ill equipped for the trek that awaited, Radley and his entourage set off on the first leg of the rally.
Given the car’s insufficient power, excess weight, soft suspension, and woefully mismatched gearbox, Radley must have quickly realized he had no chance of winning the rally. It was still morning when he reached the Katschberg Pass, a series of gullies that snake back and forth in a relatively gentle rise. His car came to a halt. A push from Radley’s passengers got the Silver Ghost over the summit, but once it was on the other side, he apparently lost interest in the event. Radley retired before the first day had ended; instead of continuing along the rally route, he and his companions veered off on holiday, perhaps visiting the family digs in Italy.
Meanwhile, at Rolls-Royce headquarters in Derby, England, Johnson and his colleagues responded much as anyone might expect to the news that one of their cars had been bested by, among other competitors, an Opel. An Opel! (Actually, the early Opels, though modestly priced compared to the luxury models of the day, were valued for their reliability. The 4/8 hp model that debuted in 1909 was known as the Doktorwagen, or doctor’s car, because it was a preferred means of transportation for physicians who had to make house calls.)
Determined to repair any damage that Radley’s car had done to Rolls-Royce’s reputation, Johnson immediately began making plans for the 1913 rally. He had three new Silver Ghosts built specifically for the Alpine switchbacks. They were lighter and more powerful than previous versions of the car, and they were equipped with 4-speed transmissions that featured an extra low gear for the steepest inclines. The company also built a “shake machine” at the headquarters in Derby to reveal structural weaknesses in the cars.
As for Radley, the factory rebuilt his car, endowing it with a 4-speed gearbox, a more powerful engine with improved cooling, and a supplemental fuel tank. His vehicle would serve as the team’s pace car in the rally.
Rolls-Royce’s three team cars, plus Radley’s car, were waved off from in front of the Kursalon at 5 am, but not before Radley added his own touch to the proceedings by pouring a glass of Champagne into his car’s radiator.
Six days later, after finishing first in nearly every leg of the rally, the Rolls-Royce team approached the Loibl Pass, a spot where so many other cars faltered. The Loibl was the steepest and most dangerous of the rally’s 19 passes. It rises 2,300 feet in just three miles, and 100 years ago, the trail was rocky and pitched toward the outside edge. Radley did not just ascend the Loibl; he conquered it. The fastest anyone had ever reached the summit was six and a half minutes; Radley made it to the top in five—while entertaining onlookers by swigging from a bottle of Champagne as he rounded the final hairpin and rolled into Klagenfurt en route to Vienna and a first-place finish.
And so the legend was born.
It was all so exciting that 100 years later, on the centennial of the 1913 Austrian Alpine Rally, they did it all over again. Not Radley and his friends, of course, but the owners—some prefer the term “custodians”—of 47 vintage Silver Ghosts. They arrived with their cars and their navigators and other friends—more than 100 people altogether—in Vienna this summer to reenact the event. Among the cars was the one driven by Radley. On hand, too, were representatives of Rolls-Royce, which helped support the rally and brought an example of the Alpine Trial Centenary Collection, a special edition of the contemporary Ghost that, like Radley’s rally car, sports a powder-blue paint job, black wheels, and a black grille. The reenactment covered roughly the same route as the original rally and lasted 16 days.
Most of the drivers were members of the 20-Ghost Club. The group, which ran Austrian Alpine Rally reenactments 10 and 20 years ago, comprises owners of pre-1940 Rolls-Royces. The club’s name references the Silver Ghost model and the horsepower output of the original Rolls-Royce cars. Members are based primarily in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States.
“It’s an experience straight out of the Twilight Zone,” Michael Zeitlin, a New Yorker, said during one of the rally’s stops, in Croatia. He was driving a 1914 Silver Ghost tourer that is said to have carried the United Kingdom’s King George V on his parade tours of New York in 1919. “We’re driving cars that were built before any of us were born, on roads that have long since disappeared since Radley rolled by a century ago.”
However rustic these ancient flivvers, some of them could draw multiples of a new Ferrari’s sticker price. As Oleg Satanovsky—Rolls-Royce’s product communications manager, who accompanied the new special-edition Ghost to the rally—noted, during a 2012 Bonhams auction, a 1912 Double Pullman Limousine Silver Ghost known as “The Corgi” sold for about $7.5 million. “But it is hard to say what a Silver Ghost might sell for at any given time,” he said, “because they are rarely bought and sold.”
No doubt owners are reluctant to sell their Silver Ghosts, in part because they are more than just collector cars; they are artifacts with compelling histories—though 20-Ghost Club member Tim Forrest cautioned that in many cases these histories have not been confirmed by “hard evidence,” such as photographs or precise records. The rally’s cars and their provenances, some of which have been verified, included a 1914 open tourer that was first owned by the Duke of Westminster, who equipped the rear of the car with a Colt automatic gun when he had it in France during World War I. A 1919 open tourer was built for Edward, Prince of Wales, and comes with a “build sheet” showing that the car was inspected by Wallis Simpson in September 1920. And the first owner of a 1920 open tourer was Winston Churchill.
Exclusive as the 20-Ghost Club may be, its members are remarkably friendly and welcoming. “If I have a breakdown on the road and a club member comes by, I know he’ll stop and help me out,” said Michael Kadoorie of Hong Kong, who drove a 1912 London-to-Edinburgh tourer in the rally. He had many new Rolls-Royces at home; as the chairman of the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels group, which includes the Peninsula hotels and their fleet of Rolls-Royces, Kadoorie may be the carmaker’s best customer.
Among the most venerated Silver Ghosts is the Radley Car, the tourer that Radley drove in the 1913 rally. Its role in history seems to warrant that the car be displayed in a climate-controlled museum patrolled by uniformed guards, but on one afternoon during the centennial rally, the powder-blue four-seater was hurtling along a rocky cliffside road in Slovenia with the New Zealander John Kennedy at the wheel. “People who drive exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis treat them like fine china,” said Kennedy. “They move them about on flatbeds. But these cars were made to be driven—the harder, the better.”
Of course “driving” in the context of a Silver Ghost is not to be confused with the comparatively passive exercise of modern-day motoring. “You have to plan every move in advance. There are no front-wheel brakes, and shifting takes some experience,” Kennedy said while wrestling with the wheel, yanking levers, and stomping on pedals as the car approached the massive twin obelisks that mark the Austrian-Slovenian border and the Loibl Pass. “The cars are very valuable and need to be preserved. But ultimately they aren’t worth anything if they’re not driven. It’s good to remind people that they can be driven—and driven quite hard.”
For Rolls-Royce, rallies such as this one are more than just an exercise in nostalgia. As they were a century ago, these demonstrations of endurace can be good for business. “The trials are still significant to the new-car market,” said Forrest, who was driving a 1912 Torpedo Phaeton Tourer formerly owned by the maharaja of Nabha. “According to my friends at Rolls-Royce, being able to demonstrate that a brand has a genuine history of excellence for many years is very important in certain markets. If you see that the old cars can still work as well now as when they were first produced, then that helps much more than just exhibiting them in a museum.”