While we were making our way to the RREC annual meet in the UK, my dad stopped by the side of the road and asked me if I wanted to drive his 1934 Rolls-Royce. You bet I did! So here’s the review, as promised. It’s not gonna be fully complete as I obviously don’t own the car and didn’t get to drive it for extended periods of time. But I figured you guys would still be curious about it!
What is a Rolls-Royce 20/25?
The 20/25 was Rolls-Royce’s “owner driver” car, meaning that you weren’t supposed to be chauffeured in one. That role was left for the bigger, more powerful Phantom II. So the 20/25, produced between 1929 and 1936, was actually at the bottom of RR’s range, despite its imposing dimensions by modern standards.
It is often dubbed as “the car that saved Rolls-Royce”, and that makes a lot of sense considering how successful it was. Nearly 4,000 were sold at the time, which for a pre-war luxury car is pretty astounding. It helped the company get back on its feet after the 1929 financial crisis and through the acquisition of Bentley and the continuation of the model (later upgraded to 25/30 and the renamed Wraith), it allowed Rolls-Royce to cement its place as a leader in the luxury car segment and thus survive WWII to them become the monument it is now.
All that isn’t too surprising given how modern the car feels to drive, but more on that in a minute.
Being, of course, a body-on-frame car at the height of the coachbuilders era, it was built with a wide variety of body style and designs. My dad’s was built by Mulliner in 1934 for a Scottish gentleman. The body is made of aluminum beaten onto a wooden frame. It’s basically a big piece wooden living room, making old house noises over bumps.
It stayed in Scotland until the eighties, were there’s a gap in its known history. My dad bought it 8 years ago in England and drove it back to its current home in France. But he didn’t get to drive it more than two or three years since, having had to do a full restoration on it. It currently has about 95,000 original miles.
Let’s get that out of the way: the steering is probably the least pleasant thing of the whole car. It is obviously unassisted and the car is pretty heavy, making low-speed stuff a massive pain. But even at speed, it’s not that much better. Weight is acceptable there, but there’s simply no way of knowing what the front wheels are doing. It feels like the steering column is “sticky”, and so you have to steer by small increments, guessing how much angle you’re gonna need. This car isn’t passing any moose test anytime soon. Worse, because of the geometry of the front suspension, the car tends to move around a bit on its own, and challenging sidewind aerodynamics sure don’t help.
You basically have to keep your hands on the wheel at all time, even when cruising on the highway. It’s not full on scary, but not really relaxing either.
The wheel flexes a bit when you apply force to it, but apparently that’s a feature, designed to make it more comfortable. You know your steering is too heavy when having a flexing steering wheel is seen as a feature.
Now that the worst part is done, we can do the best one: the engine.
It’s a 3.7L straight six, and while power outputs were never quoted at the time (only the period RAC tax hp rating of 25,4, hence the name), my dad says it produces about 70bhp, which is fairly impressive for a non,-performance car from more than 80 years ago.
Thanks to that power, and despite having the aero of a small house and a very short 4-speed gearbox, the car will cruise comfortably at 55mph. That’s just shocking speed when you see the car from a standstill.
Even more shocking than the speed is the way it achieves it. That engine is just unbelievably smooth. When it starts, you hear a whizz from the starter, and then nothing. Did it stall? Is something wrong? No, Sir, nothing’s the matter. That’s just what Rolls-Royce engine does. It’s quieter than my 1.4 Clio at idle. Seriously. It has to be heard to be believed. It still surprises me every time my dad starts it.
Even at cruising speeds it’s pretty quiet, but more on that on the Comfort section. A pure marvel of pre-war engineering, and the building stone of Rolls’ reputation for luxury and refinement.
It also just doesn’t overheat, even stuck in traffic during a heatwave, which again, for a pre-war car, is just incredible. The only time you have to watch water temps is when you shut it off after a demanding drive, for example when stopping to fill it up. By the way, fuel economy isn’t too shocking, either.
Now, I can’t say the gearbox feels modern in this car, that’d be pushing it a bit. But it does feel very intuitive, and fairly easy to use.
The gear lever is on your right, even though the car is RHD. Which is awesome for me!
It’s a long stick that looks just like the handbrake that’s just next to it. So step one is not confuse the two.
First and second gears are non-synchro, but because the gearing is very very short, you won’t be needing them out of town. So that’s good, because rev-matching can be difficult, especially between second and first because there’s a big gap there.
That also counts for upshifts from first to second. You have to push the revs a bit in first and then let them fall all the way down before engaging second.
Other than that, that gearbox is a delight to use. Throw is very long from front to back, but sideways it’s very, very short. So to go from second to third you push it all the way to the front, but then only move the lever about a centimeter on the right. You just need to push it with your thumb to make sure it clicks into place.
And it does click with a very satisfying mechanical feel and noise. Almost like a gated shifter! All in all, it feels smoother than in my Clio, that has admitedly aged synchros.
Overall a real pleasure to use, and not the grinding nightmare I feared it would be. The main limitation is its four short gears that are the real limiting factor to the car’s cruising speed. But my dad plans on installing an overdrive that should make the car cruise at about 65mph. In a pre-war car!
It’s understandable to be slightly scared of the brakes on such a heavy car that can cruise at 65mph, knowing it’s equipped with 80+ years old drum brakes. But you would be amazed at how well it stops.
The first half of the pedal travel doesn’t have much influence on the car’s speed, but my dad told me not to worry. And indeed, you soon meet some resistance, and with a firm foot the braking force is actually remarkable. Now, you’re not gonna make emergency stops anytime soon (especially with thin bias ply tires and no ABS), but for normal use it is plenty enough to be reassuring. A big surprise there!
It’s a very comfortable car, for its age. Seats are amazingly comfy, there’s ample room for feet and heads both front and back, and the car rides pretty well. As I said before, it’s not very loud either. There’s even a little air just in front of the windshield that you can open when it gets hot. It blows air on your feet and should stay dry if it’s not raining too much.
So that’s comfort. Usability is were it gets a bit more complicated. The boot is quite smaller than it looks. Me and my dad filled it completely on our 5-day trip. So if you’re traveling with three or four other people, either do it for short weekends or be prepared to put some stuff at your feet.
Maneuvers are the dark horse of this car. C-pillars are massive so you can’t see much out the back. The mirrors are very small and quite fare away from you, so they don’t help much. The car is also quite big.
We had to reverse out of a parking a couple of times to get out of our hotel, and let me tell you I wouldn’t want to be the one doing this. I was quite happy to be outside, yelling instructions at my dad.
Before I recap and tell you again how amazing this car is, let’s talk a bit about the elephant in the room: costs.
A decent example, in a nice state with a pretty body (that means also coachbuilder) can be had for around $45,000 from what I see in the classifieds right now. My dad paid a little less than that 8 years ago.
So that’s not too bad for such a monument of automotive history. But of course, there’s a but.
I mentioned that the body’s structure was made of wood. Well, newsflash, wood doesn’t last 80+ years. So my dad had to have it all redone. It took years of stripping the car down, replacing rotten wood, putting it up again, painting the body, redoing the interior. In 8 years of ownership, my dad was only able to drive it for 3. It was in our garage for about 4. That’s not much. And that’s of course without talking about the price of such works.
There’s good news, though. The structure will not need to be redone in the forseeable future, and there’s not rust. Also, these cars are surprisingly reliable, mechanically. Again, our 800-miles, heatwave roadtrip went without so much as a drip of oil on the floor.
Although when something goes wrong, you better be a very good wrench. You’ll be dealing with Lucas electrics, different systems of measurements that don’t exist anymore throughout the car, and plain old weird technical solutions. For example, because all manner of instruments and tubes go through the steering column to be used from the center of the steering wheel, you can’t change the steering wheel itself if the roof is on the car at all. Because you would have to pull the whole steering column out through the dash, and that’s too long to fit inside the car.
But parts exist and are being recreated by cometent shops, because there’s a market for these. Again though, prices on parts can be prohibitive. But if you’re careful, do your maintenance regularly and yourself, this shouldn’t be worse than say a ‘90s Audi.
I’ll admit that I was never very into pre-war cars, and that I’m more of a Bentley boy than a Rolls-Royce kind of guy. Also that I was quite scared to drive it.
But this car amazed me, completely. It feels utterly modern for the most part, and the simple fact that you can absolutely roadtrip this 83 years old car with not much concern is mind blowing. I got used to driving it in about 5 minutes, which is outstanding. It took me longer to learn how to drive a Tesla.
Of course, the costs of ownership and the pain that is parking this car will bring you back to were this car came from. But the overall drving experience is probably the best argument anyone would need to explain Rolls-Royce’s undisputed legendary status in the luxury car world.