There have been several very important models in Rolls-Royce’s long history. The standard-setting Silver Ghost. The America-conquering Phantom I. The V8-powered Silver Cloud II. The thoroughly modern Silver Shadow. These were all major milestones. Missing from the above shortlist is the first Rolls-Royce that was ever sold as a complete car: the Silver Dawn.
It was truly the Dark Ages before the Dawn. All you would get from the Rolls-Royce factory in exchange for your hard-earned cash was a chassis. You then had to schlep it to a coachbuilder an wait for them to build a body to your specs so you could drive the thing without getting wet. Amazing that Rolls never figured to sell their own body with their chassis before 1949, but there we are.
OK, so let’s drop the false naïveté BS and delve into this model’s history a bit. After the First World War, R-R figured they needed a small owner-driver oriented chassis to sell alongside the huge 7.4 litre Silver Ghost. In 1922, they launched the 3.1 litre 20HP, the first in a series of more affordable Rollers that proved very valuable when the Depression hit. The Twenty was followed by the 3.7 litre 20/25 (1929-36), the 4.3 litre 25/30 (1936-38) and the Wraith, which was a 25/30 with an IFS, made from 1938 to 1940.
As the war raged on and R-R made as many aero engines as they possibly could, the dormant car branch’s production planners were strategizing the company’s next move. The decision was taken to use Bentley to test the waters of the standardized all-steel body. In 1946, the Mark VI was launched. It included a new chassis, made by Rolls-Royce, and a complete saloon body made by Pressed Steel in Cowley and finished by Rolls themselves at their Park Ward subsidiary.
The Bentley Mk VI chassis was of course available without the standard saloon body, and there was still a sizable clientele for bespoke cars then, especially in that price range. As far as the Rolls-Royce marque was concerned, only the Silver Wraith chassis was on offer in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It was basically the same thing as the Bentley Mk VI, but 7 inches longer. The enormous prewar Phantom III and its V12 were no longer on the menu, either – it was back to a single model for Rolls. At least temporarily.
Given how the “Standard Steel” Bentley Mk VI was doing on the market, a slightly modified bonnet and the Greek-temple grille were all that was needed for a Rolls-Royce version of same to be created, which ended up happening in 1949.
The Silver Dawn was identical to the Mk VI in every way: a 4257cc IoE straight-6, a 120-inch wheelbase, coil-sprung IFS and leaf-sprung live rear axle, hydro-mechanical brakes and a 4-speed manual gearbox. The only notable mechanical difference (for RHD cars at least) was that the Bentley had two SU carbs and twin exhausts, against a single Stromberg and just one tailpipe for the Dawn.
In 1951, the engine got bored out to 4566cc; 1952 saw the Standard Steel saloon get a slight makeover in the shape of a bigger and more user-friendly boot and the welcome addition of GM’s 4-speed Hydramatic on the options list. All this commotion lead the Bentley to change its name, from some reason, to R Type (or just plain “R”), but the Silver Dawn just kept on going as was.
Strangely enough, in its home market, the Silver Dawn was not part of the Rolls-Royce range until the Earl’s Court Motor Show of 1953. So most Silver Dawns were exported; many were LHD cars and were sold across the Pond, where the currency was greener. It was “Export or die” time for Rolls-Royce just like for any other British carmaker. The lowly Standard Steel saloon was thus not seen on British roads quite as much as on overseas ones, helpfully preserving the marque’s reputation on its home turf, one surmises. No such restriction existed for the Bentley version, though.
It did not matter much in the end. By late 1954, Silver Dawns and their Bentley relatives were now 100% identical, down to the carb setup and twin exhaust. Even the Bentley’s dash eventually made its way into the Rolls. The winged “B” cars were the dominant variant of the breed. The number speak for themselves: the Bentley Mk VI and R Type with the Standard Steel body found over 6200 takers, whereas the Silver Dawn version only convinced 697 well-heeled folks.
One should add the chassis versions, as there were still a number of clients who wished for something a bit racier than the staid Pressed Steel saloon, decent though it was. The Bentley Mk VI chassis was pretty popular, with over 800 sold, so there were (and still are) many Bentley Mk VI and R Type specials. The unclad Silver Dawn, for its part, only managed 64 units. Still, as we can see from the four beauties above, opting for something custom-made had its merits.
But let it not be said that the humble Standard Steel was an unworthy vessel for the gentleman or lady of means who elected to purchase this automobile in the middle of the previous century. The hand of John Blatchley had little to do with it, as according to Dottore Andreina’s seminal post on the matter (a must-re-read, naturally), the famous R-R designer only had time to do detail work before the Standard Steel went to press.
It seems Blatchley did get to work on the interior, which is as lovely as can be expected. Alas, with this particular car being parked where it was (i.e. very sensibly and very well hidden under a house), interior shots were tricky to say the least. Here’s the best I could coax from what I had in front of me.
The rear end was Blatchley’s work though, as this is a late car with the bigger boot. Not the most attractive part of the design, honestly. But then that’s the case with most classic cars of the separate fender age, especially those 0of the Razor Edge persuasion: the rear trunk actually looked like what it was called, a stupid trunk. Some cars of the era put the spare tyre there, which actually made for a pretty good look. Not Rolls, though. Sadly.
The profile and front end more than make up for the rear end’s dullness, though. The massive vertical grille looks perfectly at home on the front end of this car – perhaps the last time this particular feature still looked somewhat germane to the design as a whole.
Here’s something I had never noticed on old Rollers: the Flying Lady, a.k.a Spirit of Ecstasy, the work of Charles Sykes seen perched atop most Rolls-Royces radiators since 1909, is kneeling on this car. It seems that Rolls thought the good old Spirit of Ecstasy was a bit too tall for the budding aerodynamic age.
So in 1934, they started fitting this version, still made by Sykes. The Lady remained on her shins postwar for the Silver Dawn, Silver Wraith and Phantom IV, but by the time the Silver Cloud came to be, it got to its feet again. Not really sure why they went back to the old style. Maybe because the Kneeling Lady looks a little weird…
Those rear lights, with “MADE IN ENGLAND” proudly embossed on the lens, were odd too. It’s interesting how ornate, grandiose and carefully-placed front lights always were on these cars, and yet how the rear wings were haphazardly adorned with badly-misshapen verrucae in lieu of taillamps. As far as I’m concerned, the first R-R to have paid proper attention to taillight design was the Silver Shadow. It only took them 20 years.
I suppose there’s always a nit that needs picking, even when you find a lonesome Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn at dusk in Ueno. I have been sourcing a lot of classics from this area, mostly British ones. Until recently, this was my most prized discovery from that place, which is home to a gentleman who collects and sells classics, but there have been additional encounters since. So there will be more. But for now, the curtain must now come Dawn.
What caused the huge differential in Bentley sales of the same car?
Did these have power steering or A/C?
A/C wasn’t even considered on British cars at that time.
Now I’m wondering what was the first British car with A/C.
Something aimed squarely at the export market no doubt.
Something high-volume at that, and I would not be surprised at all to learn it was Ford or GM-Vauxhall.
An oil sheik might want A/C, but there may not have been enough paved roads in his homeland in the 50’s, so he’d keep the car in London.
The first Rolls-Royce/Bentley to have factory fitted Power Steering was the Silver Cloud / S type.
That said, owners of older post-war cars often brought their cars in to be retrofitted with Power Steering, what was at the time called PAS, or Power Assist Steering. The factory was even willing to install the Hydra-matic transmission into older cars. If you were willing to spend the money, they would do it.
As to a factory fitted refrigeration system we know of as air conditioning, the earliest example I have found was a 1961 Vanden Plas Princess limousine, the car was built for the Royal family to use in North America, and it is a large trunk mounted unit. I happen to own this very car.
Earlier examples of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars with A/C were not installed by the factory, but were sent off to specialist A/C companies. The first Rolls-Royce and Bentley to have A/C factory fitted [in the area behind the facia and inside the right front fender], was the Silver Cloud III & Bentley S-3.
I once owned a 1964 Vanden Plas Princess 4 liter “R”, with the 4 liter commercial Rolls-Royce 6 cylinder engine. That car was made for the LHD USA market, and was optioned very well. It had factory installed A/C, a unit hanging under the rear package shelf, with air ducts on the package shelf.
The first Jaguar to have factory installed A/C is [I believe] the XJ6.
My goodness, but that car looks so traditional and old fashioned for 1955. But then again, that was really RR’s market niche, one that it occupied so thoroughly.
For 1946 at that, compared to other cars developed *during* the war for immediate launch – the Kaiser-Frazer, the “First by Far With a Postwar Car” Studebakers, even the Soviet GAZ Pobeda. I’d love to know whether Rolls even considered all-enveloping bodywork with integral fenders, given that was clearly in the air as the wave of the future, and if it was what their reasoning for rejecting it was.
Even the all-new for 1955-6 Silver Cloud had a refinement of this shape with distinct if not structurally separate fenders. Rolls’ US advertising, like VW at the other end of the market, sold the fact that redesigns were few and far between as an advantage to the buyer.
Curious about that GAZ Probeda? I was.
For your convenience:
You guys are missing the point – people spending Rolls Royce money expected their car to look like a Royce.
You can’t say the company wasn’t moving with the times – the manual gear lever was still down by the drivers’ door, but now it was inside the car rather than outside….
My goodness, but that car looks so traditional and old fashioned for 1955.
This was in the very last year of its long production run. The new Silver Cloud arrived in May of 1955. of course it wasn’t exactly a leading edge design either, by a long shot. 🙂
I love that Pinin Farina version of the ‘Dawn, even if the fender flares look a bit pronounced.
I wonder if it influenced the Continentals based on this chassis, or was itself influenced by the ’49 Cadillac?
Was n’t this car featured on the album cover of ‘Delaney & Bonnie and friends on tour with Eric Clapton?
There was a traditional appearance to high end British cars that were shared among different manufacturers. This was a look that their buyers expected. This separate fender design was morphed into the model, that to most of us, became the familiar Rolls that we saw so often on television in the 1960’s. This look was also adopted by other cars such as the Armstrong Siddley, the Jaguar Mark VII premiered this look back in 1951. While the process of providing bespoke coachwork to factory produced chassis has almost disappeared, the proliferation of immensely expensive “niche vehicles” produced in extremely limited numbers reveals that the desire for exclusive vehicles is still there.
My late father-in-law had a nice Mark VI Bentley, now in his son’s garage (last I heard). I rode in it exactly once, on my first visit to their home in Pasadena, on a short trip to the L.A. Arboretum, for which he prescribed Proper Dress. I was cool with that, if not really cool IN it … But the car was a sweet one, and my first with LH drive. The other Bentley (model unknown) belonged to my mechanic in Menlo Park, who gave me a ride in it one day in El Camino rush-hour traffic. Sitting in the “wrong” seat, headed into thousands of cars and with no seat belts, took a fair amount of the enjoyment out of the ride.
I have always had a soft spot for both the 1930s-50s Bentleys and Silver Dawns, and if I had the loot and the garage room that’s one car I could add that my wife would welcome. Not likely, but a nice daydream.
I briefly had a roommate in the late seventies who needed space in the garage for his non-running Rolls project car. Except when I first saw it, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a Rolls, but a Bentley Mk VI with a RR grille and badging; the bonnet was more curved and didn’t match the grille. But in hindsight, maybe it was a Silver Dawn with a Bentley bonnet. Unlikely, though. By the way, we were all in our early twenties then and this guy had a basic hourly job. Cars were a LOT cheaper then. I was happy to park my $600 Vega outside and leave room for the immobile Crewe-mobile.
Same tail lights as a comtemporary big Humber but the Humber had more modern styling and only a 4.1L six and that is what Royals rode in on tour out here not RRs.
Sour old things, these. Too skinny for its tallth, far too much Victorian bustle-bum out back for its prim cabin size, too scrunched in the wheelbase (again, the heighth issue), and proportioned in general as if if it has pretences to be some thing far larger. Looks as if it was designed by some pinched rules in a post-war ration book, all up – no wonder the toffs bought so few as Royces (something I learned from the good Dr T’s words just now). Cad Bentley types can buy that nasty, declasse new thing, don’t you know.
Did you know, if one cuts off the body above the window sill, one has a roofless car? No, not that sorry, one meant to say that a lot of the named problems are relieved by so doing, so maybe it’s just that that the lady has too big and frumpy a hat.
A/C is mentioned above: this old snob here doesn’t have it, as you can notice the foot-level doors on either side being open, and these – which, contrary to the popular story, are not the tradesman’s entrances – let one share one’s foot odours with all on board by letting fresh airs directly in down there. Wouldn’t do a huge amount for cooling one’s head under that black roof, mind, but then, the slightly gin-sozzled lower-aristocrat would merely arrive slightly boiled in the head, and, the gin thus evaporated, no-one would really notice the difference. What.
The Pininfarina fastback appears closely related to the Bentley Continental coupes by Park Ward.
As nice as the Roller looks, if I had that kind of money in late 50s England I’d probably drive a Rover P5 so I could enjoy both luxury and discretion.