How to drive a 1913 Rolls-Royce
All you need to know to get behind the wheel of a 100-year-old Roller…
Posted: 05 Jul 2013
With the greatest of respect, sir, one does not simply drive a 100-year-old Rolls-Royce.
As we've already mentioned, the operational procedure requires an immense amount of the very cleverest thought. So, just in case you find yourself with nothing else to pop down to the shops in, we thought we'd give you a few pointers.
Once installed behind the wheel, you'll notice that the levers, handles and dials ordinarily associated with driving a car are clinging to peculiar places. You have to go outside to operate the gearstick and wheel brake, which is the equivalent to a modern car's hand brake. The fuel gauges are absent, but in their place you get a pair of pressure meters for each of the two tanks, conveniently located in the footwell.
The car's antiquity should tell you that there's no ECU. Maintaining the correct air/fuel mixture and ignition timing is very much the driver's job, undertaken using something mounted in the middle of the steering wheel that looks like a steampunk protractor. It has appealing words like ‘Governor', ‘Late', and ‘Early' embossed on it, though it requires constant study and robs the uninitiated of any opportunity to enjoy the scenery.
But how do you get underway? It begins with a bit of admin. With the engine idling at 180rpm - slightly slower than a potter's wheel - you have to make sure the ignition timing is the correct combination of advanced and retarded (though the words "advance" and "retard" in this context are of French parentage, which Sir Henry Royce would never have had, so "early" and "late" replace them respectively). There's no quantifiable measure of successfully finding the balance. Instead, you have to modify things - in my case wearing a face that looks like it's being told two very important pieces of information at the same time - until every lump and ruffle in the engine's movements congeal into one singular, chirring mass.
Now engage first gear and slowly release the clutch, mounted where you'd expect on the left of two other foot pedals, which also do as they do today. You'd think something so vast and so antiquated would accelerate like a Spanish afternoon, but the way it puts on speed in near-silent waves of torque is genuinely impressive. To add more occasion to the experience, a handle marked ‘Not for use in United Kingdom' can be pulled, which bypasses the exhaust silencer, adds 5bhp, and a bright explosion of unencumbered din.
Changing up a gear on the go is, theoretically, pretty straightforward. The four ratios are arranged in a familiar H pattern, selected via an enormous mast mounted between the running boards and body, hovering ominously by your right shoulder. Unluckily, you appoint them with a "crash" ‘box. This means that, providing you're moving, you have to match engine speed with road speed precisely. If you fail - which you will - the noise is so distressing and hostile that you feel a sense of personal gratitude to the gearbox housing for not exploding.
Now you've mastered gearshifts, and presuming the timing, mixture, temperature, fuel pressure, and RPM is roughly where it should be, you can employ the 'Governor'. It's effectively a cruise control system operated with a ratcheting handle on the steering wheel that's tied to the carburetor. Click it into place, remove your foot from the accelerator pedal and let it do its thing. Think that's advanced for 1913? R-R introduced it on its 1905 models...
You will, at some point, have to slow down. This is the most upsetting experience you can have that doesn't involve medical staff. There are two options, and you must use them both. The pedal brake, which decreases speed at the transmission, can't be used in anger without prompting costly repairs. The hand brake, which operates the rear drum brakes, is a system fascinatingly devoid of conventional function. Pull the lever and it turns brake pads into heat, dust, and not much else. Incidentally, few things skim years off your life like a modern car - inevitably with four rings on the front - overtaking you while you're driving someone else's priceless antique, then slamming on their servo-assisted, discs-all-round stoppers. It's best to alert the driver of his inappropriate behavior with all three of the on-board horns.
Now, if by some strange fate you can get a go in one, consider yourself fully briefed. But we take no responsibility if you find yourself buried in the back of an Audi.