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.

SCM Analysis


Number Produced:200 approx
Original List Price:Unknown (Classified)
SCM Valuation:$87,750 at least
Distributor Caps:$225
Chassis Number Location:Aluminum plate on firewall
Engine Number Location:Engine block on right side
Investment Grade:B

This 1925 Rolls-Royce WWI Armored Car Replica sold for $87,750, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’s sale of the Frank Cooke Collection at the late Mr. Cooke’s “Vintage Garage,” North Brookfield, Massachusetts, on September 23, 2006.

Frank Cooke (1913-2005) was an expert in the field of optical engineering and technology. He was part of the team that developed space optics for NASA on the Galileo probe and the Hubble telescope.

To Rolls-Royce and Bentley enthusiasts, Frank was the go-to man who could fix anything. For many years, as Technical Director of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club, he held numerous seminars and was famous for the cutaway engines he crafted for his classroom exhibits. He taught me much of what I know about these cars.

Cooke turned his avocation into a vocation when he formed The Vintage Garage. Anyone challenged with a difficult mechanical problem with a Rolls-Royce or Bentley-regardless of its vintage-knew that Frank could handle it. Cars were sent to him from all over North America for maintenance and repair. He developed a brilliant fix for the Achilles heel of the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the infamous cam follower problem.

When I whined to him about having to spend $150 for a correct oil filter for my post-war Bentley, (which required oil changes every 1,000 miles), he promptly fabricated and sent, as a gift, a machined spin-on filter fitting that I could use with inexpensive and readily available filters.

Cooke was so creative and mechanically skilled that he was the ideal man to build this replica in the late 1970s. Starting with a 1925 Rolls-Royce Springfield Silver Ghost rolling chassis, he fabricated this spot-on replica of a production armored car. Using aluminum for the armor plate, he followed the original drawings from the War Office to create an exact duplicate of the 1920 Pattern Mk I Rolls-Royce Armored Car.

Unlike many re-creations, Cooke never tried to pass this off as the genuine article and was quick to point out it was just something he built for fun.

The replica was displayed at numerous Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club events during the 1980s, and was exhibited at the Collier Museum in Naples, Florida, in 1993. Frank was always happy to show how the car was fabricated and if you were lucky, he would help you up onto the machine gun platform and give you a ride.

The Rolls-Royce WWI Armored Car Replica has not been used in recent years, and once the new buyer has made it road-worthy again, it should provide many years of enjoyment. The Bonhams condition disclosure exhibited British understatement when it said “Prospective buyers are advised not to rely heavily on the front brakes, which are not connected.”

It’s difficult to place a value on “HMS Sherman” or do more than speculate on appreciation possibilities, since this is the only one. However, I’d have to say that since it’s accurate to the last rivet and there’s unlikely ever to be another, this was well-bought.

If the new owner wants to maximize his investment, the body could be removed and preserved as a piece of history. With research, work and money, the restored chassis could be reunited with a correct body. This chassis originally was fitted with a body built by Rolls-Royce Custom Coachworks called a “Paddington,” number CA1642. It was a commodious formal limousine with division window and dual side-mounted spares.

Whether fitted with the original coachwork, or another period-correct Springfield Rolls-Royce body, the Rolls-Royce Armored Car Replica finished in condition 2 or better would be worth in the $200,000 to $400,000 range. The most elegant and rare coachwork, correctly done and impeccably presented, would carry the highest value.

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