Story and Photos supplied by Myles Kornblatt
The recent and Rolls-Royce pickup truck rendering have set our imaginations running wild about rugged vehicles from British aristocracy. Fans of the John D. MacDonald literary character Travis McGee have wondered for decades what a real Miss Agnes — McGee’s Rolls-Royce pickup truck — might look like. But for all those concepts, drawings and imaginary exercises that never got made, there is at least one that made it into reality.
While it looks like the brainchild of some eccentric Texas oilman, this 1920 Silver Ghost has a legitimate workman’s past. It is a one-of-one service vehicle that was built so that Rolls-Royces would never have to be seen assisted by a lesser car.
Brewster & Co. in Long Island City, New York, was one of Rolls-Royce’s custom coachbuilders. Because it was building the bodies for Rolls, it also was responsible for service calls on completed vehicles. The builder did not want to occupy its time with Rolls-Royce’s lengthy service plans. Instead, Brewster created a close relationship with the shop across the street called Vancura Machine Co. (Brewster’s chief mechanic had the last name Vancura.) Rather than bring cars in for repair, Vancura would make house calls.
Having a specialist on your doorstep is exactly the kind of service many would expect from a company like Rolls-Royce, but unfortunately, many customers found the appearance of a regular work truck next to their prized possession unseemly. In the 1920s, a Silver Ghost cost the equivalent of $195,000. While that’s a bargain compared to today’s more typical $250,000 price, this car still commands a certain social stature. Owners do not like having an old Ford wrecker parked next to their disabled Rolls or even worse, having the neighbors watch as their vehicle was dragged away by a greasy truck.
Brewster had an idea for an elegant solution: a Rolls-Royce service vehicle.
In 1919, Mrs. Guggenheim (yes, believed to be part of the famous mining family) ordered a Silver Ghost, but by the time chassis 37WL was completed in 1920, she had lost interest. This was typical for Rolls-Royce. Customers in England were used to waiting months for a quality product, but Americans often grew impatient with the automaker. Since chassis 37WL was going unused, Brewster created a bespoke car that would make Vancura welcome at any country club.
The service vehicle was designed to look like many of the other standard bodies that Brewster built for Rolls-Royce. From the cab area forward, it could easily be mistaken for any other Roller of the era. The rear’s lower half carried the same profile as the passenger cars. There were even brass railings along the bed area to help draw a similarity to the upper crust of cars.
The rear is where the service vehicle is most distinctly different from customer cars. The toolboxes are hidden in oak wood casings along the bed. Most importantly, there is an I-beam above the bumper for towing. Although there is no separate bed and cab, the vehicle’s bed fits the description of a truck by today’s standards. Think of it as the El Camino’s wealthy English uncle.
This vehicle was intended to exclusively service Rolls-Royces, so there was a specially fabricated tow bar that would connect to the front suspension of a Silver Ghost. Now, instead of a big domestic wrecker hauling a Rolls off for repair, this service vehicle could connect to another Silver Ghost. The towing experience became more dignified because by most casual appearances, it looked like two Rolls-Royces closely following each other.
The changes needed to turn a town car into a car hauler were minimal. It already had some of the right tow credentials because the Silver Ghost was a body-on-frame design like all other consumer vehicles of that era. Even the transmission retained its original gearing. The one concession the service vehicle does have is brakes on all four wheels. Stopping power was essential since the Silver Ghost’s chassis weighs in at almost 3,000 pounds, but some of the more extravagant custom bodies could weigh as much as 5,000 pounds.
One of the truck’s primary features is a tow vehicle, so it is only natural to wonder how much power sits below the flying lady. Unfortunately, it is a somewhat elusive figure. The 7.5-liter inline-six-cylinder engine was known as the 40/50 because it fit into the British tax structure for vehicles making between 40 and 50 horsepower, but that’s not the real story.
Current owner Bill Kennedy knows Silver Ghosts. He presently has six of them; he is the technical representative of the Silver Ghost Association’s board of directors and has an extensive collection of articles detailing repair and maintenance on these machines.
Kennedy’s extensive dyno testing and mechanical research puts the power at the wheels closer to 70 hp. While Rolls-Royce was not one to talk about torque figures, it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out that it took plenty to move 2.5 tons worth of car with ease.
Kennedy is the right custodian for this piece of history. Just as the people who drove this service vehicle in the Vancura days were Rolls-Royce service experts, Kennedy is the one who maintains his Silver Ghost fleet. He hasn’t had the urge to use this one to tow any of his other Ghosts yet, but we have a feeling that photo will end up in our email inbox one day soon.