The long game – Quentin Willson has been busy unearthing the fascinating backstory of a piece of automotive history – and you could do the same, he says… Photography Jonathan Jacob.
ROLLS CLOUD Quentin Willson unearths a special limousine prototype.
Willson’s World – driving and being driven in a Rolls Silver Cloud prototype. The Long Game – Quentin Willson recalls movie-star associations from the front and back seats of the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud prototype.
Today I’m sitting in the back of a rather special Rolls-Royce. It’s a gratifying moment. An exciting find. A piece of R-R history. The mellowed leather is soft, the inlaid walnut gleams and my feeling of satisfaction is palpable. We ooze majestically along in the summer sunlight like it was 1956 all over again. This is the heartening story of buying the prototype Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I long wheelbase for the price of an average – but not nearly so historically significant – Standard Steel version.
But here’s the thing, this car was advertised on the open market and hadn’t suddenly emerged from hidden storage. All I did was spot its potential and research the important back story. So, gentle reader, take heart, because you can do it too. When an old friend, Ian Mulingani, rang to say he’d spotted an experimental Silver Cloud for sale, I was intrigued. Ian already drives a Bentley S2 – bought, he admits, because of a column I wrote in this magazine – but fancied selling his modern Bentley Continental GTC and buying the Cloud as a weekend car instead. Was this, he asked, an insane idea? A few minutes on the internet showed that buying this unique Roller wasn’t insane at all but a cast-iron opportunity as the prototype of only 26 first-series lengthened Cloud Is ever built. For sale with Vintage and Prestige in Essex on behalf of a customer, it was worth a closer look.
We were charmed at how fresh and unmolested this car looked – restored, shiny and straight with matching numbers and in fine original condition. V&P couldn’t have been more helpful and allowed me to prod the underside on its ramps and take a long test drive. Apart from some micro-blistering in the paint on the roof, elderly Dunlop Fort tyres and some squeaking from the front antiroll bar bushes, I was impressed and frantically nudged Ian to get a deal done quickly. A couple of days of nail-biting negotiation followed and eventually V&P agreed to take Ian’s 2007 GTC in exchange plus a token amount of cash. But at that stage neither of us knew just how historic ‘YLG 990’ really was.
Leaing through R-R history books, pictures of the car kept appearing whenever an LWB Cloud 1 was mentioned. Then I discovered an entire chapter devoted to YLG 990 in Davide Bassoli’s history of the model, Every Cloud has a Silver Lining, with several photos of the bare bodyshell being worked on in the Experimental Shop of R-R coachbuilder Park Ward in North-West London. Another photo turned up suggesting that YLG was designed by R-R Chief Stylist John Blatchley, who penned the original Cloud in 1951. In a period Rolls-Royce PR picture showing Blatchley at work in his styling office you can clearly see a clay model of Design 858 – the experimental LWB Cloud – in the background. The positioning of the model wouldn’t be accidental in such a stage-managed photograph and is persuasive evidence that it was another of his Silver Cloud masterpieces and he’d been physically involved in sculpting this very prototype.
Experimental Design 858 was built up by Park Ward by cutting a Cloud bodyshell in half and fitting a longer floorpan, sills and stretched roof. Completely new rear doors and frames were fabricated, the central pillars repositioned, the rear wings reworked and two handsome quarterlights sculpted into the rear roof pillars. In early 1956 the completed ’shell was sent to Crewe for paint, trim and fitment of the longer chassis and mechanicals.
Checking the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club records, the finished prototype wearing experimental chassis number 28-B was registered for the road in October ’1956 with Cheshire County Council; YLG is a familiar number plate sequence often worn by R-R factory cars. It then went back to Park Ward for its engineers to carry out body stiffness testing and try out different versions of the central division. Final work and evaluation took three months and then YLG returned to Crewe for further development and road testing. After another trip to Park Ward in May ’1957 for finessing and servicing, the Experimental Department chassis number was changed to ALC1X. In June 1957 the finished prototype was delivered to Rolls-Royce’s London works, Lillie Hall.
YLG 990 was also a demonstration vehicle for the then-new optional Hobourn Eaton power steering – later to become standard equipment on all Clouds – and was also built with an electronic glass division and extension speaker to the rear compartment. At £6893 it was £1200 more than the Standard Steel version and marketed in sales literature as ‘the dual purpose Silver Cloud’ to appeal to ‘the busy executive who wishes to prepare notes, carry on confidential conversations, or simply relax’. The blurb continued, ‘At other times, with the division down, the long wheelbase Silver Cloud is a normal family saloon for weekend use or continental travel.’ YLG 990 was the photo car for the official factory sales brochure. I also found previews in Autocar and Motor magazines in September 1957, the month of the official launch, and two full-page magazine ads in October of the same year.
For two years it served as a press car and demonstrator with Rolls-Royce London Sales, and then in 1959 is recorded as a ‘Rolls- Royce Limited company car’ used first by the R-R Hythe Road Service Department and then by the Aero Division in London as a limousine for the jet engine maker’s executives. Surprisingly, it stayed on the company’s books until October 1968 when the chassis card history states it was sold ‘as it stands in used condition’ to Surrey R-R dealer Weybridge Automobiles for £1150. After that it drops of the radar for a decade and reappears in 1977, painted white and owned by Weber Garage in Southampton. In 1981 it was sold to Southern Comfort Luxury, also in Southampton. One more owner followed, who forked out a large lump of money for a very good restoration and paint job back to the handsome original Sage over Velvet Green. In 2015 YLG was advertised by Ghost Motors in Kent and bought by a doctor, and in 2018 it was offered by V&P – which is where Ian and I join the story.
Lounging in the back while Ian plays chauffeur, I’m struck by how wonderfully opulent the extended rear compartment is. The substantial walnut centre divide with its shimmering writing tables looks like an art deco sideboard. There’s a generous central chrome ashtray, switches and loudspeaker volume controls. Press a dainty white button and the electric glass division slides smartly up and I can’t hear a word Ian is saying. I settle back into the deep-pleated green leather seat and try to savour the same languid self-importance of those Fifties and Sixties VIPs. Blatchley’s quarter-lights in the rear pillars let in much more sunshine than the standard Cloud and I feel as though I’m in the First Class compartment of a Fifties steam train. Philip Larkin’s line on the train journey in Whitsun Weddings comes to mind, ‘All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense of being in a hurry gone’.
I can see that Ian is still talking but the raised division means I’m in a silent world, mesmerised by the thought that YLG’s 1957 £6893 list price was a whole £2400 more than the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing W198 and £400 more than a Ferrari 250GT.
For the same money you could have bought three Jaguar XK150s and a Frogeye Sprite. Back then this was a proper tycoon’s ride. We switch seats and I take the helm. The long chrome selector wand snicks precisely into drive and the hefty Bakelite wheel feels liberated by the essential power steering system. Never buy a Standard Steel Rolls or Bentley without it – they’re just too cumbersome at parking speeds. The 4.9-litre straight-six spins silently – I prefer its silken smoothness to the later V8s – and we waft imperiously through the Warwickshire countryside.
The controls and dials aren’t just beautiful, they’re a paragon of ergonomic efficiency. The big white-on-black 110mph speedometer is next to the steering wheel, exactly where you want it, and just a glance away are four neat little gauges for fuel, oil, coolant and charging plus a clock. Placed perfectly in the centre of the dash are warning lights for fuel and generator, the headlamp switch and lock for the Yale ignition key. The original factory-fitted push-button His Master’s Voice radio still lives below. Everything is symmetrical, balanced and harmonious, neatly laid out with enormous care, like an aristocrat’s tea service.
Despite a bodyshell that’s been literally sawn in half and stretched, body control is good with few creaks or shudders. Fresh tyres, some work on the suspension bushes and rubber body mountings plus new lever-arm dampers would improve the ride quality even more. Despite its 18ft, two-tons and extra 170lb of weight compared with a standard Cloud, YLG feels alert and poised and I’m impressed with the sheer engineering integrity of Blatchley’s conversion. Design 858 doesn’t feel like a ponderous limo but drives just as precisely as a standard Cloud. This car’s great achievement is that it really does have a dual personality – glorious to drive but even better to be driven in. You can imagine the well-heeled Sixties company director being chauffeured, reading his board meeting minutes in the rear during the week, and then driving himself to see his family in their county pile at the weekend. Elegant, handsome and visually balanced, it’s an exemplar of classy low-profile embellishment. The concept of the upper class post-war limousine had been democratised, but at a cost – at 1956 prices each of those extra four inches cost £300.
We waft around, stopping to take photos, and YLG dominates the narrow leafy roads, its two-tone green colour scheme blending perfectly with the vibrant summer hues. Parked on the driveway of Rowington Hall, a manor house given by Henry VIII to his sixth wife Catherine Parr, the car looks perfectly at peace outside the sort of country house where Cloud LWB owners might have lived.
And wherever we park YLG I’m amazed just how good looking it is and how Blatchley’s mastery makes it seem sleeker and more voluptuous than his original standard Cloud design. I’m impressed too that after several hours of innumerable stop-starts, nine-point turns and reversing into tight country gateways, it doesn’t miss a beat and the needles on the temperature and oil pressure gauges hold rock-steady. Ian is delighted too and confesses that despite the day’s sunshine he doesn’t miss his modern convertible Bentley. He’s overjoyed that he owns such a special, historic Rolls. And I’m sure there’s even more history to unravel. There may be more road tests in period newspapers and magazines, more photos of its testing and evaluation phases at R-R and Park Ward, and then there’s the ten years it spent ferrying VIPs for the Aero Division. Limousines like YLG lived a gilded life carrying larger-than-life passengers to special places. All I have to do is carry on digging. YLG 990 deserves a footnote in history as the first long-wheelbase car to use a production body marketed at the owner-driver.
R-R’s ‘dual purpose’ tag was a revolutionary idea because most LWBs up to 1956 were florid coachbuilt sledges meant to be driven by a fellow in a peaked cap. Design 858 was a stunning conversion of a standard car that pioneered the manufacturing economies of lengthening a normal bodyshell. It can legitimately claim to be the pioneer of all those long-wheelbase BMW 7 Series, Audi A8s, Jag XJs and Mercedes-Benz S Classes that are so familiar today. That it still survives in such a well-preserved and original state is remarkable enough, but to have bought such an important Rolls-Royce so easily and reasonably feels a total triumph.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1957 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I LWB
Engine 4887cc, six-cylinder in-line, iron block/alloy cylinder head, two 1¾in SU H6 carburettors.
Max Power 178bhp @ 4000rpm (est)
Max Torque 299lb ft @ 2000rpm (est)
Transmission Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Steering Hobourn Eaton cam-and-roller, power-assisted
Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs, radius arm/adjustable lever-arm dampers, anti-roll ‘Z-bar’
Brakes 11 ¼ in drums front and rear, servo-assisted
Weight 2157kg (4750lb)
Performance Top speed: 106mph; 0-60mph: 13sec
Fuel consumption 20mpg
Price new £6893. 17s
Classic Cars price guide £20,000-£44,000
YLG 990 can lay claim to siring all of today’s long-wheelbase luxury cars. Touch a button and a screen cocoons rear occupants in soundproofed luxury. Original experimental chassis number evolved from 28-B to ALC1X With this car Quentin and owner Ian Mulingani have plenty to grin about. Quentin says that the lengthened rear compartment ramps up the opulence. Larger rear quarter-lights helped stretch the Cloud by four inches.
Memories of a star-studded Cloud prototype
This isn’t the only historic LWB Silver Cloud I’ve seen at a bargain price. Several years ago I spotted an online ad in America for a slightly tired ‘1962 Cloud III LWB, originally registered ‘226 XMA’. The plate rang a distant bell so I checked my records and found it was Chassis CAL7, the car used in the 1963 Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie The VIPs, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Both were pictured with the car of the film set, so they clearly spent some personal time on that rear seat. XMA was also a Rolls-Royce press car and demonstrator at the company’s London showroom in Conduit Street. The asking price back then was $25,000 but by the time I’d rung the seller it had already gone. I wonder if its new owner appreciates their purchase’s star-studded past?
Photo Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayre
Owning the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I LWB
Ian Mulingani is a big fan of Standard Steel Rolls-Royces and Bentleys and, having run an S2 for five years, he knows all about the costs and challenges. ‘These cars aren’t really that complicated and if you keep on top of bodywork and servicing and change all the fluids often they’re very reliable. I’ve just spent £6k on the S2 to include trim work, brakes and carb’ overhauls and that’s the biggest bill I’ve ever had. They don’t depreciate either, so investing in ‘YLG 990’ made financial sense. I love its colour scheme, that decadent rear compartment and the fact it looks even slinkier than the normal Cloud. The trouble is you need a chauffeur to really appreciate its magic. I’m going to join the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club, go to some events and raise the car’s profile.
‘I took it to Rolls-Royce and Bentley specialist Balmoral in Stourbridge to check over. They said it was in great condition and only needed tuning, some work on the front suspension and the front bumper adjusting because it squeaks. I know I’ll have to spend money freshening up the paint to make it really perfect but with such a special history it’s always going to be worth improving.’
For Ian the greatest bounty in buying YLG is other people’s reactions. ‘Everybody wants to hear its story and I get treated like royalty on the road. Sometimes I use it to go to see clients and it’s the first thing they want to talk about. They think I’m properly eccentric and I rather like that.’