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.