'The Rolls from Rajputana' Formerly the property of His Highness the Maharana Sir Fateh Singh Bahadur of Udaipur, G.C.S.I. (1849-1930),1914 Rolls-Royce 40/50hp Silver Ghost Open Tourer  Chassis no. 64 AB

Road raj

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 51, Summer 2017

Page 9

The first owner of this exquisite Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was
no run-of-the-mill maharajah. Neil Lyndon investigates

The original purchaser of the 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost chassis number 64AB, registration number EL 1208, body number 5130, was no mere mortal. In point of fact, Sir Fateh Singh Bahadur – Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India, of the Indian Empire and of the Royal Victorian Order – was no mere maharajah.

That Sanskrit/Hindi honorific, meaning 'great king', was applied to scores of potentates and hundreds of princes throughout the Indian subcontinent before independence in 1947. Some may have been supernally rich. Some would have asserted that they received special blessings from the Almighty. All were powerful in their own kingdoms.

But Fateh made those great kings look ten a penny. As ruler of Udaipur and Mewar in the state of Rajasthan, he gloried in the title Maharana. Maharana means 'King of Kings'. That title crisply puts the maharajahs in their place.

Fateh was a descendant of dynasties that stretched back 1,400 years (give or take interruptions of a century here or there for invasions by Mughal emperors). His territory extended from Gujarat almost to Madhya Pradesh – an area about half the size of France. It included vast plains, mighty rivers, fertile valleys and one of the most beautiful cities ever wrought by human hand.

Udaipur is routinely described as the Venice of the East because it grows out of a system of lovely lakes (or rather 'grew out of': they are now slightly less lovely, due to the density of water hyacinths with which they are clogged). The Maharanas of Udaipur spent their days in a succession of vast palaces – some on the scale of Versailles – built beside or on the lakes. Today, most of those buildings are five-star hotels.

Nobody, naturally, can measure up to a King of Kings; nevertheless, Fateh was in exceptionally rarified company as a customer for the Silver Ghost. This was the first Rolls-Royce to be called "the best car in the world" (by Autocar in 1907) and the first to be celebrated for its incomparable reliability and quietness, largely because the hand-polishing of its internal components ensured near silent, smoke-free operation. It quickly became a must-buy for royals, aristocrats and potentates around the world.

In his collection of nine Rolls-Royces, Lenin owned three Ghosts. Others who bought the same car in the same period as the Maharana – according to John Fasal and Bryan Goodman's exhaustive study The Edwardian Rolls-Royce – included Lionel de Rothschild, the Duke of Westminster, the Viscount Curzon and the Maharajah of Mysore. When King George V visited the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1914, he was shown to the cheering troops from the back of an open Silver Ghost, as was Edward, Prince of Wales, when he visited Quebec in 1919.

Fateh, however, was so grand and magnificent that he did not deign to recognize the British rulers when they held their durbars in Delhi. Those gatherings, with their stupendous displays of power, wealth and grandeur, were held to mark the proclamation of each new Emperor of India. Two occurred in Fateh's time: the first to celebrate the accession of Edward VII in 1903; the second to honor George V in 1911. Such was the requirement on these occasions that ladies should bedeck themselves with jewels that Queen Mary of Teck, George's wife, was heard to murmur, when a lady-in-waiting pinned yet another bauble to her overloaded bosom, "Thank goodness I am not the kind of person who looks vulgar in jewels."

From the vantage point of his great majesty, the King of Kings and Maharana of Udaipur looked down on the durbars as events that were beneath his dignity and so he saw no reason to attend. Performing such obeisance, in his view, might be all right for common-or-garden maharajahs (all of whom attended), but was hardly appropriate for a maharana.

For this snub – among other displays of uppityness – Fateh was dislodged from his throne by the British, who appointed his son, Bhupal Singh, in his stead.

The Silver Ghost then began a period of wandering that would eventually carry it halfway round the world.

Constructed on a Colonial chassis, which has higher ground clearance than normal, the car had first been tested on 27 January 1914. After the Maharana was deposed, it was transported to Lahore, in West Pakistan, where it was owned by a Mr R.J. Baker. At an unknown date, it was taken to Scotland, where it belonged to a man named John Kerr. Back on its travels again, it then went to South Africa. From 1975, it was owned by Dirk du Toit of the South African du Toit dynasty of racing drivers. Thence it returned to Britain, taking up residence in Abingdon in 1979. And there it stayed, in the ownership of Mr R.E. May, until he died in the late 1990s.

During these peregrinations, the old Ghost changed character and appearance so many times it almost seemed it was assuming a series of disguises in order to cross the borders. The original Hooper body had been replaced in 1941 with a Maythorn limousine body. Later, Du Toit fell upon the idea of fitting it with a 1930s open-top Studebaker tourer body.

Fortunately, a decade ago, when the car was acquired by Terry Lister (of the Lister chain of car-dealers), every nut and bolt of the Silver Ghost was removed and the body was rebuilt as it was originally intended to be by the renowned specialist, Steve Perry of Reading.

Even after a hundred years, the six-cylinder, 7.5-liter engine was almost as good as new. It needed nothing more than the fitting of new pistons and it was again running as sweetly as it had in January 1914. "We checked it over and it was fine," says Lister. "That slow-revving, big side-valve doesn't get overworked, so it just goes on and on."

Lister founded his company as a single showroom when he was in his mid-thirties. Now he is in his mid-seventies, with his dynasty in the hands of his son. Something of a maharana in his own right, then, Lister is also the owner of a 1920s 8-liter Bentley, a 1930s Derby Bentley and a 1990s Bentley Continental – each one of them a car that automotive connoisseurs would sacrifice their first-born to own.

Terry Lister's view of the Silver Ghost, however, closely matches that of the renowned roué, political diarist and car-lover Alan Clark, who owned several Ghosts. In Clark's opinion, it was "the greatest road car of all time and the nicest of them all to drive on a fine day if you are not in a hurry".

In keeping with his general cast of mind, Clark had also once observed that "the incredibly durable Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost has 78 separate lubrication points that have to be oiled with a syringe – although, admittedly, this was as much to prevent the chauffeur hanging round the pantry harassing parlor maids as any need for maintenance."

Steve Perry completed his rebuild of Silver Ghost 64AB about four years ago, but in the meantime, alas, Lister split the Achilles tendon in his right leg. This injury makes the car, with its rear-wheel drum brakes, painfully difficult to drive.

Perhaps he should use the proceeds of the sale of 64AB to buy an earlier Ghost. Up to 1913, they were fitted with rear-wheel brakes that were operated by a hand lever – though, naturally, no maharana would sully his hands with such toil.

Neil Lyndon is a journalist, author and former motoring correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph.

Sale: Festival of Speed
Friday 30 June
Enquiries: Sholto Gilbertson +1 234 567 8910
[email protected]


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