Bonhams exhibited British understatement when it said, “Prospective buyers are advised not to rely heavily on the front brakes, which are not connected”
Once described by Lawrence of Arabia as “above rubies in the desert,” Rolls-Royce’s WWI armored cars proved to be astonishingly durable. But a mandate from the British Government did what the Empire’s enemies couldn’t and the last was scrapped in 1944. There are no survivors, but an accurate replica just sold at auction.
The project stemmed from a 1914 report that Belgian soldiers were using an armor-plated Minerva sedan car to raid the German Army. Inspired by this knowledge, Rolls-Royce quickly armored an assortment of Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts donated by private citizens.
The cars were shielded with 3/8″ thick armor plate, fitted with dual rear axles and two machine guns, with 3,000 rounds of ammunition. They carried a crew of three and despite their crudeness (and four ton weight), could reliably maintain 60 mph on dirt roads, thanks to the seven-liter, six-cylinder engine.
Each Rolls-Royce WWI Armored Car had a five-foot steel machine gun turret, with an open wooden platform behind it. The hood was armor-plated and the vulnerable radiator shielded by two armored doors, which could be closed by the driver. The driver sat on the mattress-covered floor, leaning against a canvas sling, looking through a narrow slit. The only other alteration was to install 13 leaf springs in front and 15 leaf springs at the rear, for the added weight.
The armored cars were organized into fifteen squadrons. They weren’t suited for the stalemated Western Front, so were dispatched to Africa and the Middle East. Most went to Egypt, sporting names like “Bull Dog,” “Biter,” “Bloodhound,” and “Blast.”
They were spectacularly reliable-“a triumph of British workmanship”-crowed The Times, but awkward and ungainly. In fact they were mistaken for water trucks by a German spy in West Africa; a costly mistake, one imagines.
Colonel T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) commanded a fleet of nine Rolls-Royce armored cars in Palestine. On one single day, Lawrence took three of the cars and captured two Turkish posts, blew up a bridge, wiped out a Kurdish cavalry regiment, blew up another bridge, and ripped up miles of rails, throwing the whole Turkish supply system into chaos.
After the Armistice, the journalist Lowell Thomas asked Lawrence if there was anything he would like to have. Lawrence answered, “I should like to have a Rolls-Royce car with enough tires and petrol to last me all my life.”
The early passenger car conversions were so effective, the War Office ordered specifically-designed armored cars to be built on the Silver Ghost platform. These cars were assigned chassis numbers WO1-279. Officially phased out in 1922, some served in India during World War II until they were all scrapped in 1944.