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The Dangers of Road Testing

By Adam Hagrem

 

Between 1918 and 1939 the number of vehicles on British and Continental roads increased dramatically. In 1930 there were 2½ million motor cars on Britain’s roads, about a tenth of the number today. Unfortunately in the early days all that was necessary to obtain a driving licence was to apply for one, there being no driving test until the 1930's. This resulted in the roads of Britain and the Continent being very dangerous places frequented largely by unskilled drivers. In 1930 there were over 7,000 fatal accidents on Britain’s roads compared with just over half that number today.

From the very early days of the Company’s history, Henry Royce had insisted on extremely thorough testing of all components before they could be included in production chassis. Parts were tested to destruction, re-designed and tested again until absolute reliability was obtained. This is probably the reason why so many early Rolls-Royces have survived. Parts were tested on rigs in the Experimental Department and chassis complete with coachwork were tested on the open road by brave and courageous experimental test drivers, who faced the hazards of the roads almost every day of their working lives.

In 1924 Rolls-Royce decided that rural France would be a better place to test experimental cars than the increasingly policed roads around the Works situated in Derby in the English Midlands. W A Robotham, then a recent addition to Ernest Hives’ Experimental Department, searched for and discovered an ideal base for experimental testing at Chateauroux, 160 miles southwest of Paris. Here experimental cars could be put through the required 10,000 mile tests without too much interference from the French authorities.

The first cars to be tested in France were the experimental 20hp cars, codenamed Goshawk, the experimental front wheel brake Silver Ghosts codenamed EAC III and the top secret New Phantoms codenamed EAC II. Eight chassis were used for the EAC project and by the end of the first phase of development in 1926 no fewer than six of them had been involved in accidents, mostly in the area around Chateauroux:

 

46PK

On 14 February 1924 driving down to Le Canadel to demonstrate the first Phantom experimental EAC II to Royce, Percy Northey skidded into a ditch whilst avoiding horses and carts blocking the road. Northey managed to get the car to Le Canadel where mechanic Lauro repaired the damaged braking system. On 10 April 1924 Experimental Department engineer and driver, A J Lidsey, had a car run into the rear of 46PK on the A38 road between Burton-on-Trent and Derby; the damage required the replacement of the petrol tank.

 

9PK

An experimental EAC III front wheel brake chassis had a minor accident in France whilst on a 10,000 mile test requiring repairs to the back axle.

 

98NK

The second EAC III front wheel brake chassis to be tested in France, with driver F Harvey and mechanic W Brazier as passenger, had a serious accident near Chateauroux involving a small boy on a bicycle. Fortunately the child survived his injuries. In September 1924 when back in England a further accident occurred in Bakewell, Derbyshire when another vehicle ran into the rear causing damage to the petrol tank. A third, slight accident occurred to the car whilst on test in France on 2 March 1925.

 

35PK

The third EAC III front wheel brake chassis to be tested was unfortunate enough to have two accidents within five weeks whilst on test at Chateauroux. The first was not serious, requiring only relatively minor mechanical repairs, but the second on 15 August 1924 was much worse. Driver Shepard and mechanic Crofts were thrown out of the car as it went into a river near Veirzion and both employees finished up in hospital, although their injuries were not serious. The car suffered major damage and had to be returned to Derby in a packing case and was later written off.

PIC The second of two accidents suffered by 35PK over a five week period, clearly illustrating the risks that test drivers were facing daily.

 

44PK

An EAC III recently converted to an experimental Phantom EAC II was slightly damaged by the sales department whilst being tested in London in March 1924.

 

48PK

The fourth EAC III front wheel brake chassis on test at Chateauroux suffered a broken bolt holding the front axle to the front spring whilst being driven by driver Henning. With no effective steering it was inevitable that an accident would result and the car left the road and hit a tree but was not seriously damaged; it was repaired in the garage in Chateauroux before being returned to Derby for detailed examination.

 

By the end of 1925 the New Phantom had been launched and the Experimental Department’s attention turned to the development and testing of the next model, the Super Sports, later to be named the Phantom II. Cars were getting more powerful and higher speeds were being achieved during experimental testing in spite of Royce, Johnson and Hives warning against high speed. It was inevitable that disaster should strike.

 

On 24 March 1928, 15EX - an experimental Phantom II - was being driven by Briggs with Harry Grylls as passenger and Reg Butler, a regular Chateauroux experimental driver, in the rear. The road was wet when the car approached a slight curve at about 50mph. It skidded, left the road and hit a tree. Briggs was unhurt, Grylls was only slightly injured but Butler suffered a fractured skull and died in hospital in Amiens a few days later.

 

Further accidents occurred both in Britain and France, mostly caused by other road users such as the errand boy in Derby in 1929, who pulled out of a side road on his bicycle into the path of an experimental 20/25hp, fortunately without serious consequence.

Death struck again in 1935 when 31EX, a Phantom III experimental car on test at Chateauroux, was involved in an awful accident with a cyclist. The cyclist was struck and killed instantly, driver Barry English was charged with manslaughter. Reg Pattinson who was in the front seat, was off work for over three years with a broken arm resulting from the accident. Accidents continued to happen to the experimental cars right up to when testing ended with the outbreak of war in 1939.

 

Now, over sixty years on from those early days of road testing experimental cars, it is sobering to think of the bravery of the drivers who daily risked their lives on poorly surfaced roads and meeting other inexperienced road users. Their work resulted in improvements in design and performance of steering, brakes, suspension and engine power. Through their efforts, motor cars became safer and the dreadful death toll on our roads was reduced. They were the unsung heroes of early motoring.