A TERRIBLE BEAUTY 5PP, 1919 ROLLS-ROYCE SILVER GHOST (THE MOON CAR)
More than any other project, this one has the most fascinating and at the same time, horrific history. It was a fine evening on the 21st March 1924 and the people of Cobh [in English pronounced Cove] in the County of Cork were going about their every day business, couples walking hand in hand, children playing in the street, a normal spring evening.
Cobh at that time, also known as Queenstown was a small seaside town close to Cork city, This town like every other town in Ireland had seen its fair share of political turbulence, a protracted political and military campaign had been waged by the those seeking an Irish Republic, first in a war against the British, which led to a twenty six county Irish Free State and a six county Northern Irish State the latter retaining its position within the United Kingdom.
This new Irish Free State fell short of the aspirations of some in the Irish Republican movement, who sought an Irish Republic comprising a thirty-two county state. They felt that the agreement which had been signed, was a betrayal of their Republican principles and were prepared to go to war against their former comrades in the new Irish Free State army and continue their fight against the British, amongst other things, over and above the fact that the northern six counties where to remain firmly British, they were incensed that part of the agreement left small garrisons of British troops at some of the strategic ports, Cobh being one of them. There had been many political killings prior to this balmy evening in March 1924, not least the killing of General Michael Collins two years earlier. Four rebels, two machine guns and a yellow Rolls Royce were about to add to them.
Part of the agreement was that British troops would be garrisoned on Spike Island a British military barracks just offshore. Shortly before 7 o’clock a large yellow Rolls-Royce touring car pulled up opposite the pier head in Cobh, just at the time unarmed of duty British troops were landing for a night’s entertainment in the town.
The occupants of the Rolls-Royce trained two .303 Lewis light machine guns on the soldiers alighting from a War Department launch, some fifty men were on the vessel and in the sustained fire one eighteen year old soldier was killed, with eighteen others injured, five civilians were also hit including two ladies, after the carnage the car immediately raced away into the evening leaving a scene of chaos stopping only to fire a final few bursts at the royal navy for good measure The big Rolls Royce disappeared into history and was not to be seen again for many, many years.
Rolls-Royce chassis number 5PP was ordered and was to be delivered in 1916. The order was suspended due to the war as all production at this stage was turned over to the manufacture of the 40/50hp-armoured car, the armoured tender and various military staff vehicles. The chassis wasn’t finally built until early 1919 and was not supplied to the original man who placed the order, there is no evidence of this but it could be assumed he did not survive the conflict.
The car was eventually supplied to Mr Adamson of Galway and must have been quite a sight when new. It was specified to have a D rake steering, which is the lowest type consistent with a sports type vehicle, a low-sided touring body with a low radiator was specified. Likewise it was also to be finished with brass fittings, which was relatively unusual post war as by this stage most cars were finished in nickel silver. The car was ordered to be finished with bright primrose coachwork, which would have contrasted well with the brass Rolls-Royce radiator, lamps and mascot.
The car found its way to Ireland in late 1920 and right into the midst of the Irish War of Independence. We know that the Adamson family in Galway were of old Anglo Irish stock and like many people in their position became a prime target for Irish Republican violence. We know that the family home in Galway was burnt down and it may be speculated that the big yellow Rolls-Royce fell into the hands of the rebels at this time.
It is known that the rebel forces all round Ireland acquired many cars, light trucks and even motorcycles at this time.
Anyway by whatever means chassis number 5PP fell into the hands of the rebel army. The car was lightly armoured using boilerplate down the back of the rear seats and is recorded having been used in hit and run attacked on British army establishments and Royal Irish Constabulary barracks.
The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was already extensively used by British forces in Ireland however these were the legendary armoured cars, previously used in World War I most noticeable by T E Lawrence and the Duke of Westminster, obviously the rebel command realised the potency of the Rolls-Royce chassis and it is known that some of the rebels, having previously served in the Irish regiments of the British army had gained experience in driving and maintaining the Rolls-Royce chassis.
5PP was a particularly potent and fast military vehicle, so fast and deadly that they didn’t even bother to change the bright yellow paintwork to a more marshal grey or green. The car achieved an almost legendary status and was referred to in whispered tones as “The moon Car” referring to its bright yellow colour and the fact that it only appeared at night. During the day it was hidden away in some remote farm building deep in Republican held countryside.
After the Anglo Irish treaty was signed, the Free State Army was formed and those previous Irish Republican Army volunteers who disagreed strongly with then treaty terms left the negotiating table and the civil war in Ireland began, and former comrades fought a vicious and brutal war against each other. The Moon Car, which had been parked up in its lair during the treaty negotiations, was immediately snapped up by those opposed to the treaty, a mighty prize indeed.
The big yellow Rolls Royce was used in various forays by the rebels over a year or so but little was heard of it from mid 1923 until its reappearance on that fateful spring night at Cobh. As a Rolls-Royce enthusiast with an interest in Irish and military history, I had always known of the Moon Car and the part it played in the troubles of the 1920s, many, many years ago I even followed what turned out to be false lead when a large chassis had been pulled out of a lake in Co Mayo. This turned out to be truck chassis from the twenties and not the fabled Moon Car as reported widely.
A few years back during a Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club Ireland section dinner in Cork I was asked by a member of the club Mr Andrew Daly would I be knowledgeable enough to find a chassis number on a rusting Silver Ghost chassis, after a very few moments I was informed that he had the chassis of The Moon car in his yard at home.
Trying to conceal my excitement I said I could and an agreement was made that I would inspect the chassis early the next morning, which I did. The chassis I was to see was in the most deplorable state but undeniably a Silver Ghost of the early post war period. It had the remains of the low rake steering column and even remains of some of the brass plating; it had the unmistakeable cantilever springs, with square sectioned leaves which are unique to the PP series cars and everything pointed towards it being the almost mythical Moon Car. No chassis number could be found were it should be on the front cross member, due to the very, very heavy corrosion. A deal was done and I acquired the remains, I went home immediately, collected a lorry with a hi-ab crane on it and returned back to Cork that same day to recover my prize. Over the next few weeks I was able to identify the chassis as 5PP, a friend within the police forensic science laboratories use a special forensic technique to bring up the number and photograph it.
So we had proof of the chassis number and were able to acquire the chassis history from the excellent archives that were complied by Rolls-Royce, which are in the custody of The Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club. It was from these records that we were able to procure the history aforementioned.
The history of the car between that fateful night in 1924 and the morning when I first saw it at the premises of Mr Andrew Daly more than seventy years later is probably the most fascinating part of the story.
On the night of the Cobh shooting the occupants of the car proceeded at high speed to escape the scene of their dastardly deeds. They raced up the road away from the scene of the attack, however on noticing HMS Scythe, a royal naval ship at anchor in the harbour, they slowed and again fired their machine guns over the side of the car. The two bursts of rounds, hitting HMS Scythe, however inflicting no casualties. The car then sped away into the gathering dusk, leaving behind in its wake a scene or murder, mayhem and confusion. The authorities were quick to react, tending the wounded and sending out a search party after the Rolls-Royce car, however it was not to be found.
In the days, weeks and months following the Cobh shooting all of Cork and beyond was scarred to find The Moon Car and its occupants. The British and Free State governments were equally horrified, the latter offering a £10,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the culprits. After fruitless searched by the military and civil forces, questions were asked in the House of Commons such as (“just how many yellow Rolls-Royce touring cars can there be in Co Cork “) As time went on and other events took precedence the outrage faded in the minds of authorities and public alike. The final outcome was eighteen wounded, some very seriously requiring amputations, one young soldier dead and five civilians injured including two women.
On that evening The Moon Car eventually reached it lair in the depths of the Cork mountains, this was near the hamlet of Donoughmore, were the car was unceremoniously burnt and the remains buried in a turf hole. Such was the fear by the local populous of Republican reprisal that no word was ever spoken of it for decades. However in 1981 an amateur historian in the area Mr Liam O’Callaghan, fascinated with the story was able to trace the whereabouts of the grave of the once great car and after several weeks of excavations the chassis saw sunlight once again after nearly six decades. Mr O’Callaghan had the remains removed to a yard in Cork and there it lay for approximately twenty years before being acquired as a historical curiosity By Mr Andrew Daly and from thence to myself.
And so began the momentous task of restoration, a car that I felt needed to be rebuilt due to its historical significance. On close inspection the remains of this car were not as bad as initially thought, it must be remembered that as a driving vehicle this car was only on the road for approximately three and a half years. It was amazing to me that both sets of front wheel bearings, beautifully made Hoffman brass caged affairs, were still in perfect condition, due to well-packed and greased hubs; they had survived all those years underground and in fact are still in the car to this day. Likewise the crown wheel and pinion in the back axle bathed as it was in heavy gear oil survived perfectly and shows absolutely no wear.
The restoration took approximately two and a half years and the finished chassis when driven with my test rig body was one of the most nimblest and liveliest Silver Ghosts I had driven to that date.
When I acquired chassis number 2358 from its resting place in Barcelona it had a handsome open touring body built by Henri Chaprone of Paris, probably in the 1919/1920 period. This had been a replacement body on chassis number 2358 and was not suitable for this chassis, however from the witness descriptions of The Moon Car it was clear it was an almost perfect match for chassis 5PP and so the body was refurbished and fitted to the chassis. It was interesting that we were able to find a fragment of the yellow paint still surviving on The Moon Car chassis, this we had analyzed by a pigment expert at Queens University Belfast and had a company mix the correct yellow paint in which the car is now livered.
All who see the finished car admire it, and although it has a dark history, one hopes it has a brighter future. The car was used in the 2013 Alpine Centenary Trial and was driven out from Belfast to St Moritz, completed the trial faultlessly and drove back without incident. This car is now back in Co Cork in the ownership of the notable Irish Silver Ghost collector Mr Patrick McSweeney, I think it is very appropriate it has returned to Co Cork.
The Moon Car has gone from being a spectacular, state of the art sports car to a greatly feared machine of war and to back to being a much loved and appreciated historic vehicle, from a reality to a myth and back to a to a reality, and could rightly be described as a terrible beauty.