Dating back to an era where you selected the car body you wanted, this Rolls-Royce presents the ultimate in style and luxury from the 1950s...
It is fascinating how varied our experiences in cars are. As motoring journalists, we’re often asked about our favourite car experiences. It’s such a tough question to answer because it can depend on the purpose of the journey, the destination, your travelling companion or if you’ve gone alone. When I first laid eyes on this 1958 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith Touring Limousine, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this driving experience would top my list.
The sheer size of the car is immediately obvious – it’s enormous. This generous footprint allowed the coachbuilders – in this case, Park Ward & Co Ltd – to design a flowing and elegant vehicle. However, that massive rectangular grille and the Spirit of Ecstasy still dominate the front of this behemoth, as is custom on a Rolls.
The Silver Wraith was an important car for the brand, as it was the first one manufactured after World War Two. Production concluded in 1958, so this vehicle was assembled in the final year. I paged through the owner’s documents and they made for interesting reading. It was delivered on 24 June 1958 to its first owner in Somerset West, 45 km from Cape Town. This car was fitted with a number of quirky features for the export market, including high-frequency horns, export-type rear number plate, step irons and special head-, side-, fog-, stop- and taillamps. The owner also opted for a cocktail cabinet with two decanters and four tumblers. Even a tin of polish was included in the sale!
The doors open and close with a lighter touch than you might expect. As I climbed in the rear, it was clear this is the place you want to spend your time. The original red leather-trimmed seats have more in common with a plush sofa. Three adults are able to sit in sheer comfort; the outer two have wide, leather-covered armrests. On the floor are footrests set at an angle to relax passengers’ feet. There are even smooth veneered table tops. This was the late ‘50s; of course, you’d want to take out your fountain pen and write a letter.
There is abundant space and if you want privacy from the front occupants or driver, the centre glass divider can be raised. The view of the outside is perfect as the glass windows are large and upright. The height of the limousine roof is remarkable and only adds to the sense of roominess, unlike any sedan I’ve sat in before.
Belonging to the same family since 1981, this car has been expertly maintained throughout its life and, fortunately, has never been restored, a rare case for a classic that’s 62 years old. It shows its age in some ways, certainly, but nothing detracts from its originality. When we opened the winged engine lids, the size of the powertrain is scarcely believable by modern standards (the chassis plate is here, too, and reads HLW5). Open the doors and the Park Ward Coachwork-engraved plates are a gentle reminder you are about to climb aboard an incredibly stylish vehicle.
It is not the type of car you drive every day. Since this Silver Wraith’s purchase with an odo reading of 63 321 miles, the family has added just 14 850 miles (24 000 km) over the past four decades. The owner showed us wedding pictures of a couple who used this car many moons ago in Kroonstad. Today, he is a foremost car collector.
When I climbed into the driver’s seat, I had a sense of sitting on my living room couch. For a car of its size, I was closer to the dashboard than I had anticipated. Understandably, most cabin space has been allocated to the VIPs in the rear. As the sun slowly set over the Free State countryside, the glove compartment light glowed gently in the front, the “Radio 4300” neatly installed beneath the speedometer.
You feel the sheer size and weight of the Silver Wraith once it starts to move. Not only is it heavy, but the large tyres (7.5-16) with their prominent sidewalls enhance the movement of the body through the suspension. One element that stands out is a disconnection with the road and there’s very little noise intrusion. The four-speed automatic transmission complements the relaxing sensation of piloting this car. It is arguably one of the laziest gearboxes I’ve ever experienced; you can almost count the seconds it takes to shift gear. It matters little, as it recalls an era when automatic transmissions were still in their infancy. There is the option to switch the lever to third or second gear should you wish to speed things up.
There is the matter of the substantial engine lid to consider as you don’t sit even remotely close to the front wheels. It is best to use the Spirit of Ecstasy as a parking guide. However, you also need to remember the presence of the front bumper with two overriders. If you want to reverse … well, that is a whole different challenge!
If you don’t regularly drive older cars, the delay in the steering input will come as a surprise. You must turn the wheel sooner and further than you would with other cars from this era, but you never feel you want to rush when driving. It flows and glides down the road with a sense of occasion, making the driver feel completely cocooned in the best Britain had to offer.
FAST FACTSEngine: 4,9-litre, 6-cyl, petrol
Transmission: 4-speed auto
Power: 130 kW
Compression ratio: 6.8:1
Body and frame: steel body on steel frame
Weight: 2 340 kg
Wheelbase: 3 378 mm
Length: 5 359 mm
Number made: 1 886