At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.’ I didn’t say that. Another journalist did; in fact, he was the technical editor of the The Motor magazine, and made this comment about the Silver Cloud when he tested it. This little note was picked up by a certain gentleman called David Ogilvy, who made it the headline for an ad for the Silver Cloud. The ad ran in only two magazines and two newspapers, yet is considered a classic, not just in automotive advertising, but in the history of advertising itself. This all-time great ad not just contributed to the making of the advertising legend called David Ogilvy, but also sold a car that was, to put it mildly, pretty expensive and splendidly anachronistic.
It was a Rolls, which means it had better be expensive. What else do you expect from a car that took three months to make and was fettled with the finest in wool, leather and wood veneer, boasted 12 coats of paint and the thickest chrome plating of any car in the world, was secured by nothing less than Yale locks, featured walnut picnic tables and, if you wanted, could be fitted with an espresso machine, a dictaphone, a telephone, a bed and even plumbing for hot and cold water! It was anachronistic because it actually looked out of place in a changing world – the imperial hauteur of the Silver Cloud, according to me, came about because Rolls-Royce failed to recognise the fact that it was hardly high noon over the British Empire anymore; the sun had well and truly set on it.
The Silver Cloud may have looked overtly old-fashioned in the Swinging Sixties – at a time when social customs, orders and morals were rapidly changing – almost like a dowager clinging to her past glory, wealth and appearance, but nevertheless carrying herself with an impressive dignity that can never be bought or lost. You see, the Silver Cloud was built on a heavy chassis and used manufacturing practices that were commonplace before the Second World War, at a time when monocoque construction in cars was proving to be infinitely better. The bonnet was hinged in the centre and opened sideways, just the way it was 20 years ago. Disc brake technology was available, but Rolls stuck to drum brakes because they were deemed to be quieter!
Defenders of the Rolls-Royce faith maysay that tradition overrules everything else, but do check out this fact. When Rolls-Royce finally replaced the Silver Cloud with the contemporary looking Silver Shadow, which used monocoque construction and was fitted with all the technology available at that time, including disc brakes and self-levelling coil spring independent suspension, it turned out to be the biggest selling Roller of all time. Rolls-Royce manufactured 34,611 Silver Shadows – substantially more than all the cars they produced since their first car, the 10 HP in 1904!
Coming back to the Cloud, it did make a break with tradition actually. It was one of the very first Rolls-Royces designed to be owner-driven, rather than being piloted by chauffeurs. Maybe that explains the just about adequate legroom at the rear. Which is just as well, because in spite of what I have said about it in the earlier paragraphs, driving this car is sheer, unadulterated pleasure. You sit virtually upright and your back and bottom is resting on fine, well-worn leather. The large spindly three-spoke steering is upright as well, the veneered dash is filled with a gaggle of Smiths gauges and at the extreme right is a speedo marked up to 120 mph. And beyond that is a column mounted shifter marked (surprise, surprise) 2, 3, 4 and N. Yes, it’s a four-speed automatic that is actually a General Motors Hydramatic gearbox which Rolls-Royce manufactured under licence. This is in fact one of the reasons why the Silver Cloud was touted as an owner-driven car. As Ogilvy’s ad says, ‘It is very easy to drive and to park. No chauffeur required.’ Absolutely. Turn the little ignition key and the massive V8 burbles to life. Shift from N to 2 and let go. The engine collects enough revs to move the two-tonner from inertia and virtually glides over the road. Then it is just a matter of throttle control. The engine is butter smooth, and with the windows shut and the airconditioner gently cooling you, you will never know that there are innumerable little parts beneath the hood that are furiously at work – which is why you hear that electric clock! Though I may have described the engines of many of today’s cars as refined, they barely come close to this level. When you gain speed and the gears shift, you can just about make out the surge, but it’s so discreet that it will also put modern automatics to shame. It’s as if a tiny Jeeves is sitting inside that gearbox, clearing his throat with a delicate ‘ahem’ and doing the shifting for you.
When the Silver Cloud first debuted in 1955,it had an ancient 4887cc six-cylinder engine in it. And the Silver Cloud II got that numeral because ye olde straight-six was replaced by a much deserved new V8 powerplant in 1959. Displacing 6230cc, this V8’s output was never revealed – yes, it was ‘sufficient’. However, reliable estimates put it at 185 bhp at 4500 revs, which is more than sufficient. Torque figures are still unknown, but let me tell you this, it was not found wanting. This, even with an ancient auto’box that would have sapped some of that performance.
It’s that instant access to a huge amount of torque that makes this XL-sized machine so easy to pilot. When given a straight, empty stretch, the motor swiftly whooshes you ahead, not in a neck-snapping manner, but gently and relentlessly – like a ghost locomotive surging forward with prodigious power. Rolls-Royce claimed that the Silver Cloud II could manage a top speed of 180 kph and could attain the 60 mph mark (96 kph) from standstill in 10.8 seconds. If that’s indeed the case, then knowing the power output figures really seems unnecessary! However, I wonder why no one asked about the brakes, because they are not what Rolls-Royce would describe as ‘sufficient’. The brake pedal is quite tough and the Silver Cloud had to be persuaded by my right foot to come to a halt. Given a choice between sure-stopping but noisy disc brakes and just about manageable but silent drum brakes, I know exactly what to choose in a car this powerful. And this huge.
For its size and with a massive steel body sitting atop a gigantic chassis, the Silver Cloud is pretty nimble. Thanks to power steering, there is hardly any effort involved in manoeuvring this Roller. The Silver Cloud is supremely confident even in corners, it doesn’t lose its poise even when provoked and there is no tendency to roll either – if it had an upper lip, I’d say it was quite stiff. But the best part about driving this car is not the way this over-large matron flawlessly does the waltz, but the way the Spirit of Ecstasy guides your path, especially at turns – it’s an unmatched experience.
The ride over all sorts of terrain is also unbeatable. The front suspension is independent, with coil springs and wishbones (which also lends it a degree of steering precision), while the rear sticks to semi-elliptic leaf springs and hydraulic shock absorbers, yet it wafts its way around. Of course, with the help of a toggle switch below the steering wheel, you could choose between Normal and Hard suspension settings... just in case an empty country road suddenly presents itself in front of the enthusiastic owner-driver.
Maybe it was the marketing focus towards the owner-driver that made this Roller the limousine for just about anybody who could afford it. It was no more the car for royalty and the landed gentry – who themselves could just about make ends meet in those days – but for the nouveau riche. By the end of the 1960s, the Silver Cloud lost its social standing completely and was available cheap in second-hand car dealerships. In fact, in 2000, I remember seeing a cream Silver Cloud serving as a wedding car, with the newly-weds happily posing in front of it in Rome. How sure was I of it being a commercial wedding car? Well, Murali Menon, one of BSM’s ex-members, saw the same car doing the wedding run in Rome when he was there a year back!
A sad fall for a car that prided itself on being a cut above the rest, and was engineered like no other. In fact, legend has it that after seeing the ad, the chief engineer of Rolls-Royce is reported to have said, ‘We should do something about that clock.’ Good they left it as it is.
We would like to thank one of Rolls-Royce’s biggest admirers, Yohan Poonawalla, for allowing us to drive and feature his Silver Cloud II.