Necessity being the mother of invention, and Brits being a nation of inveterate tinkerers, gave us “Men in Sheds” — a breed whose inventor/engineer mentality has won fame for fashioning functional devices out of parts that have no business near each other.
Thus, it was natural that redundant cars would become recycled or repurposed during and after World War II.
In the same way that Britain “dug for victory” in wartime, turning over domestic gardens to vegetable plots to provide food for the family, once that big old limousine had outlived its usefulness (and in any case couldn’t be run due to petrol rationing) then why not convert it into a much-needed utility that could do actual work?
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, private cars were allocated enough fuel to cover between 100 and 200 miles a month, while commercials — including shooting brakes (station wagons) — got more. By 1940, the government had all but banned sale of new cars to private individuals — and added 33% purchase tax even if you could get one, from which commercials were excused.
At the same time, large cars were requisitioned and turned into vans and ambulances for the war effort.
After World War II, Britain was still short of new cars, so many of these large, older cars were rebodied as station wagons. This is the reason for the sudden explosion in the number of woodies on British roads at this time. Petrol became available again for private use in 1945, although fuel rationing continued until 1950.
So chopping that big old stately pile on wheels into something more useful made sense to many of our men in sheds.
Any large passenger car was fair game, so long as it was massively constructed and had the right bones. Pre-war Rolls-Royces had just the right ingredients: deep, riveted chassis, beefy bolted-together axles and big, low-revving and torquey engines with, as one engineer memorably put it, “bloody great pistons going up and down like bloody great lifts.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ye olde British improvised breakdown truck.
From luxury to lorry
This phenomenon of riches to workhorse was not limited to old Rolls-Royces — and they were transformed into other valuable vehicles — not just trucks. As well as being built into armoured cars in World War I, Rolls-Royce chassis served as fire tenders, charabancs and ice-cream wagons.
A 1927 Sunbeam 25 hp (3.6-liter) sold at Brightwells’ first Bicester Heritage auction on April 5, 2017, had once been a wrecker — complete with Morris-Commercial cab. Even the famous Napier-Railton Brooklands Outer Circuit record holder was once pressed into service as a parachute tester, which is when it gained its rear disc brakes.
But Royces appear to have been the favourites.
At Alice Springs airport in Australia’s Northern Territory, there’s a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost pickup in a glass case. Connellan Airways, the local airline, owned the Rolls-Royce. After it was converted into a “ute,” it was used to drag logs to smooth the ground for a runway.
Even the 1909 Silver Ghost in the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, was once a breakdown truck, having started life as a limousine.
And back to luxury
Many of these makeshift commercials have, over time, been converted back to saloons with replica bodies after being discovered hidden away in barns and lock-ups — just as rising values made restoration viable.
So it’s rather refreshing to find one that’s been left as a commercial — and a rather nice period piece.
The 20/25 was one of Rolls-Royce’s smaller offerings. A logical progression from its first “owner driver” model, the 20HP, it was introduced in 1929. With its larger 3,669-cc engine, it had better acceleration — and with the right body could top 75 mph. Its substantial ladder-frame chassis had an all-round semi-elliptic leaf-spring suspension, four-wheel drum brakes and a mechanical servo.
The 20/25 remained in production until 1936, by which time some 3,827 are thought to have been sold, making it the company’s best-selling model between the wars. Autocar magazine noted that it had “great refinement of power, and a gentleness and quietness in doing its work, which makes results deceptive.”
So there were plenty of donors about. Our pickup, chassis GRC48, was taken off test on April 30, 1934, and originally bodied as a saloon by Rippon.
Converted into a pickup after World War II, it served as a delivery vehicle for a London brewery during the 1960s. Presumably the doors were left off due to the frequent stops at pubs.
I’m not quite sure what the old bill would say now about the chains instead of doors providing “security” for the occupants, but it all keeps the weight down, and I should think that with a body this minimal, it would go rather well.
Royces of this era are a tactile pleasure to drive, with a beautifully engineered and very mechanical feel to the controls, including fluid steering and decent brakes for the time. Post-1932, 20/25s even have synchromesh on the top two gears, although you still take your time shifting ratios (“two, three, change firmly but sympathetically,” while feeling in the next gear). Once you’re in top, you more or less leave it there.
Our 20/25 was sold to a German collector in 1994 and an Austrian museum three years later, where it was restored. That time in the museum probably saved it from being made back into a saloon. The pickup body was well done, so this Royce is a sturdy-looking construction with reinforced sides that would still be perfect as a brewery dray.
It has stood the test of time well, although the American-style headlights are a mystery.
Our Rolls-Royce pickup was good value too: it sold for $23,600 at H&H Imperial War Museum Duxford on March 29, 2017, against a $25k–$30k estimate, which was less than a 1933 20/25 in the same sale wearing a rather tired-looking limousine body.
To put it in perspective, a 20/25 Tourer from the same year sold for $46k, which was about right. That car had been rebodied in the mid-1980s with barrel-sided Barker-style coachwork. This is what in all likelihood would have happened to our pickup — had it not been tucked out of the way for the past 20 years.
At this price there’s every chance our pickup could still be made back into a saloon or more likely a tourer, but its charm, condition, and the fact that there’s plenty more donor fodder — such as that tired limo — means our 20/25 pickup will probably survive.
I hope so. It’s a charming old thing, still really useful even though it’s 83 years old — and a reminder of bygone times. ♦