1920 Rolls-Royce Armoured car – ‘Sliabh na mBan’

Travel to any part of the world, from the depths of Siberia to the interior of Africa and mention the name Rolls-Royce and you can be certain that the name is recognised.

It conjures up all that is finest in mechanical engineering and luxury. The Rolls-Royce motor car has been the choice of kings and princes, film stars and gangsters, the cars of the vintage period epitomise the glamour and decadence of the roaring 1920s. What is less well known is the incredible story of The Rolls-Royce car at war.

Henry Royce’s masterpiece the 40/ 50hp Rolls-Royce chassis known as The Silver Ghost was already famous for its quality and endurance by the time war was declared in August 1914, up until this period the motor car had hardly ever been deployed in the military context and the horse was still supreme on the battlefield.

Mercifully by the end of the conflict in 1918 the horse had finally been replaced and the horrific scenes of wounded and dying animals as witnessed by correspondents at battlefields like Waterloo would never again be repeated.

The British War Office quickly recognised the Rolls-Royce chassis as the most appropriate basis for a light armoured vehicle, built for speed and endurance.

It should be remembered at this stage the tank was unknown and would not be seen until 1916.  The first Rolls-Royce armoured cars were actually built for The Royal Navy (for shore patrols) but the efficiency of the vehicle soon led to them being deployed in all theatres of war.

The most famous use of The Rolls- Royce armoured car was in the Middle East, when armoured car squadrons were used to support the Arab revolt against Turkish rule and indeed TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) once said “ A Rolls in the dessert is above rubies “

During The Rising of 1916 in Dublin armoured cars were quickly rushed to Ireland to quell the rebellion.

These cars were so effective that very soon Irish Republican forces were improvising there own armoured cars, even in one case acquiring and armouring a Rolls-Royce.

By the time of The Irish War of Independence and subsequent treaty between The British government and the fledgling Irish Republican government there were a large number of Rolls-Royce armoured cars, Crossley Tenders and Model T Fords garrisoned around the country by The British.

In an effort to assist the new Irish National Army, a large number of these vehicles and weapons were supplied to that force and their new commander General Michael Collins.

The vehicle inventory included thirteen 1920 pattern Rolls-Royce armoured cars, all fitted with the standard .303 Vickers water-cooled machine gun.

They were given the Irish military numbers ARR1 (Armoured Rolls-Royce) to ARR14, the number 13 was not issued. The National forces used their new armoured cars to great effect against the anti-treaty forces in the ensuing Irish Civil War.

On the 22nd August 1922 General Michael Collins was carrying out an inspection of West Cork, which was his own home territory, when he was shot dead during an ambush near the hamlet of Béal na mBláth.

In his motorcade that day was the armoured Rolls-Royce ARR2 named Sliabh na mBan which was used to transport General Collin’s mortally wounded body from the ambush site.

The death of Michael Collins dealt a heavy blow to the new Irish state and Sliabh na mBan was at the heart of this iconic moment in Irish history.

The Rolls-Royce armoured cars continued to be in service with The Irish Army all the way through The Emergency (World War Two) and on into the early 1950s when they were replaced in favour of more modern vehicles. Twelve of the cars were stripped of their armour and weapons and sold at auction in Dublin.

ARR2 was preserved becauseof the car’s link to General Michael Collins. This was due to the foresight of the staff of the Cavalry Corps based at The Curragh Camp in Kildare.

The Sliabh na mBan remained at The Curragh camp and was used for military parades during the 1960s and 1970s and as was inevitable the historical importance of this famous car became increasingly apparent as the years went on.

It is now recognised to be one of the most importance historical artefacts from the foundations of the modern Irish state.

It should also be recognised that this particular vehicle is one of only two or three surviving of its type and this is certainly the most original surviving example anywhere in the world.

Three years ago a decision was reached by The Irish Defence Forces to sympathetically restore the vehicle out of a sense of duty to ensure this living piece of Irish history is preserved for future generations.  I was delighted to be asked by the Defence Forces to assist on this restoration project.

I was invited by the senior commander of the Cavalry Workshops to inspect the Sliabh na mBan and give my opinion on its originality, condition and the feasibility of the restoration.

They are fortunate indeed to have some excellent craftsmen within the ranks and this coupled with state of the art workshop facilities, boded well for a fantastic restoration project.

Myself and my staff in close collaboration with Irish Defence Forces mechanics proceeded to dismantle, catalogue and photograph all the component parts, although heavy wear was found throughout the chassis, very little was missing from the original specification.

After the dismantling and cleaning of all the components we proceeded to restore each large piece as a separate entity i.e. engine, gearbox, back axle etc. The engine was entirely rebuilt including new pistons, valves, valve guides etc and finished to a high cosmetic standard.

We did have one research trip to The Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, which is home to the only other complete Rolls-Royce armoured car with any provenance.   We quickly realised that the Sliabh na mBan was a much superior vehicle to The British Army example both in originality and condition.

One cause for concern was a major break in the torque tube close to the back axle housing, however we were fortunate to have in stock a complete drive shaft assembly in good condition.

The carburettor was fully rebuilt with the air valve being resleeved and the jets being replaced. We also rebuilt the beautifully made Rolls-Royce distributor and had the magneto and coil rewound.

The finished chassis was painted in the original battleship grey favoured by the early Irish cavalry corp. Approximately a year after the commencement of the project the chassis was back in running and driving condition.

We next turned our attention to the armoured body and the staff at The Curragh Camp did the majority of this work, during this time we found the distinctive tell tale strike mark of a .303 bullet on the turret, a scar possibly obtained during the ambush at Béal na mBláth.

After the refit of the body, the turret and the restored but deactivated Vickers .303 machine gun, we had out first few test drives in this most evocative of motor cars.

We found her capable of 63mph on the motorway and approximately 40mph over the grassy plains that surround the Curragh Camp.

We as a company have been delighted and honoured to be involved in the restoration of this hugely important piece of motoring history.

We would also like to praise the excellent craftsmen and workshop staff at the cavalry workshops and I have no doubt at all that this vehicle will survive for another one hundred years in the care of these dedicated and able men.

Please click on link below to view the restoration team in action !

Chasing sheep at The Curragh

Rolls-Royce armoured car firing Vickers machine gun.

Rolls-Royce armoured car firing Vickers machine gun.

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