Barrie's Car Tale

Barrie R. D. Gillings
Founder Member, Rolls Royce Owners Club of Australia


At the age of 20, I purchased a 20 HP Rolls Royce, Chassis No GDK 35, and was thereby introduced into a fraternity which has been my major recreation for 30 years. A chassis is not much use without a body. I was fortunate in purchasing an excellent body from a Mercedes Benz, and after much effort joined body to chassis and became a proud Rolls Royce driver. Lady Jane, as she became known, was utterly reliable, but, in keeping with the marque, extremely slow, and invariably won the slow running contests popular in car clubs of the day (1956).

In seeking further information on Rolls Royces, I searched various bookshops, one of which sold me copies of the admirable Dan R. Post publications from the Motor Classic Bookhouse. Volume I was devoted to 'the British Rolls' and Volume II to 'the American Rolls'. The concept of an 'American' Rolls was to me a revelation, and a letter to C. S. Shoup, the then President of the Rolls Royce Owners Club Inc. was immediately sent to obtain further details, his address being thoughtfully included in the Post publications. Little did I realise that, in the fullness of time, I would actually meet Sam in Oak Ridge, and drive in his 'working Bentley'.

Another thing I did not realise at the time was that I would marry the girl who sold me the Post publications. We duly spent our honeymoon travelling in the 20 HP, but while courting, purchased a Silver Ghost hearse, removed the body, and fitted an old Crossley body. Fate arranged that this car was sold to the couple who were the Best Man and Matron of Honour at our wedding. While all this was going on, notion spread among various Rolls Royce owners that it would be a fine thing to form a club along the lines of the RROC Inc. So it came to pass that eighteen of us formed the Rolls Royce Owners Club of Australia.

Fate took another turn when the Inaugural President - Sep Hall (I was Vice President) - took a trip into the New England area of New South Wales. There he discovered an ancient hearse with a Rolls Royce radiator, still performing its appointed task. It was owned by three elderly bachelors, the Cooper brothers. Besides being local identities, they were also undertakers, stock and station agents and timber, hardware and feed merchants. Some months elapsed, then Sep, his son, my fiancee and I took a trip north and actually met the Coopers, and their hearse. With the brashness of youth, I informed them that I was very well connected with the funeral business (to a certain extent true, as I had already purchased a Silver Ghost Hearse). I would be able and willing to replace their 'aging' hearse with a more modern conveyance. I was also prepared to offer them $150 for the old one. I made this offer not without some misgivings, as the differential seemed to me to be non-standard, and there was no torque tube. In my sweet innocence, I thought all Silver Ghosts had torque tubes, and that this car was not, therefore, original. Later enquiries to the local RR agents, York Motors, and their Guru chief mechanic Bert Ward, (a mine of RR memorabilia) allayed my fears. Not only was the vehicle original, (it was a 1910 model) he was quite familiar with it, and had completed a number of factory recommended modifications on it. Over the next few months, my initial excitement died down, as I became resigned to the probability that I would hear no more from the Cooper brothers.

I was ecstatic when I received a telephone call from one of the brothers some months later. He had travelled down to the 'Big Smoke' specifically to take me up on my offer to provide him with a more modern hearse. If I could supply one, he was prepared to sell me the old Rolls. In what I can best describe as a quavering voice, I asked him where he was calling from, and he told me he was on the platform of Central Railway Station, right next door. I asked him to meet me in the foyer of the Dental Hospital, and immediately telephoned Wood Coffil, a local funeral parlour. I pleaded with them to have a hearse available for inspection and possible purchase. The Gods were kind, and a 1937 Hudson hearse was in fact available. I drove the elderly gent to the parlour; he liked what he saw, and closed a deal for the Hudson on the spot. I, in turn, closed my deal, and paid $150 (about $100 in U.S. greenbacks) to become the owner of Silver Ghost Chassis No 1492. The next problem was how to take delivery.

The following weekend, my wife and I (we were by then married) were committed to an all-night trial in the 20 HP (which, against all odds, we won). So I arranged for two undergraduate dentistry students to drive the Hudson up into the New England mountains and to drive the Ghost back. This admirable arrangement worked well initially. The students completed the first part of the trip successfully, even to the extent of providing a hitch hiker with the most unusual hitch he had ever had, in the business end of a hearse. The return journey was not quite so successful. The roads were icy, and the students were innocent of the oil requirements of ancient motor cars. So it was that the hearse nearly impaled itself on the rear end of a large semi-trailer, and ran out of big end bearings 200 miles from Sydney.

They hitched a ride back, and gave me the sad news early on a Sunday morning. If you have been paying attention, you will remember that my wife and I had just completed an all night trial, and were, as the saying goes, sleeping the sleep of the dead. The vehicle had to be recovered, but the question was, how? The solution lay in a telephone call to a fellow enthusiast, Ron Grant. He was at the time, the proud owner of a 30-98 Vauxhall and a solid tow bar, and was game for anything to do with motor cars.

I will not dwell on the 200 mile journey north, except to say that it was the first occasion when I had travelled in a vehicle which was doing (as we used to say at the time) the 'ton', or 100 miles per hour. I still have the occasional nightmare about that trip north. I have regular nightmares about the trip south, however. A towbar is a significant advance over a tow rope, (breaking can be left to the discretion of the towing vehicle), and for the first part of the journey, all went well. All I had to do was steer, leaving the motive part of the exercise to Ron. But Ron, for all his admirable qualities, had one peccadillo for which he was renowned, a quality referred to in our circles as having 'a lead boot'. He knew two speeds, flat out and stop. At one point in our journey home, Maitland, forever branded on my soul, he elected, at 2 am, to make a sharp left turn. I, alas, did not; and there, in the middle of Maitland, the two vehicles performed an elegant pirouette - thankfully in a wide and deserted intersection. This resulted in a tow bar which became a tow angle, some ninety degrees of it.

We straightened the bar and I took advantage of the pause to advise Ron that when I felt he was going too fast, I would sound the horn, as an indication that he should then slow down. He responded with a sly smile, and we continued on our merry way. It was in the wee hours of the Monday morning that we came to the winding road that lay between us and our destination. It was also when I took to sounding the horn on a regular basis. Approximately half way through the ordeal, we stopped for refreshments and a comfort stop (it was a cold night). It was then that Ron made the statement that I have dined out on many an occasion since. He said, "Barrie, don't sound your horn so much. Otherwise we are going to pass a police station, and an officer is going to say to his sergeant, "You won't believe this - but I've just seen a 30-98 Vauxhall flat out, with a 1910 hearse behind him honking to pass!"

We eventually arrived home safely, and I dropped the sump and repaired the run big end bearing in No 5 cylinder. In checking the bearing for nip, I had my wife under the car holding the piston (she's a good sport) while I cranked. Something went wrong with our communications, because the piston slammed against the sump housing, and a portion of the skirt got broken. After the usual recriminations usual in such circumstances, I had the piston repaired, and it has remained in the car since then, nearly 30 years ago.

Readers with a yen for details may be interested in a capsule history of the car. It was originally purchased by the Whitneys, a farming family in Victoria, and was supplied with artillery wheels and a five seater touring body by Maythorn, London. Around 1920, it was modernised by the fitting of Dunlop wire wheels and aluminium pistons. Some of this work was done by B.A. Peat, who was sent to Australia by the Company in 1914 to work on Rolls Royces, in the absence of an official agency. In 1920, Dalgety and Company were appointed as agents for Rolls Royce in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Their company-trained mechanic, Bert Ward, did a rebore about that time. The blocks were returned to the United Kingdom for this purpose. In those days it seems that the Company did not trust the local machining. In 1925 the car was sold to Kinsella Funeral Parlours, who fitted the elegant Edwardian hearse body illustrated.

In the nearly 30 years I have owned the car it has performed as one would expect a Rolls Royce to perform, and must have traveled in excess of 300,000 miles. Apart from radiator repairs, valve grinding and brake relining (especially the transmission brake), little has been done to the car's mechanics. It did, however, have a replica body built on it in 1958, by Grice of Summer Hill, Sydney. This was done by my co-owner, George Green, now deceased, and the car is now in the sole ownership of the Gillings family. Four useful modifications have been made. The headlights have been fitted with concealed quartz halogen bulbs. The pressurised air system of fuel delivery has been augmented with an electric fuel pump (concealed). The trembler ignition has been preserved, but with a two way switch (concealed) so that starting is on the original massive spark, but running is on a modern (also concealed) coil. This last modification has made all the difference to the slow speed running and low speed torque of the car. It is a delight to drive, and is handled admirably by my wife and 20 year old daughter, and those of my five sons who have an interest. In fact, my wife (with No. 1 son, then 13 years old as navigator) won the ladies driving award in the car on the occasion of the last International FIVA rally in Australia in 1970.


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