Local couple helps preserve memories of 1907 Silver Ghosts

Published Sep 9, 2018 at 9:00am

Sal and Sue Comito of Rome are donating their materials related to two classic Rolls-Royce cars to the Rome Historical Society. The cars are 1907 Silver Ghosts, and of the three known to still survive, two can trace their roots back to Rome.

A chance encounter

The Comitos first crossed paths with the cars in 1985, Sal says, while on their yearly visit to Florida. The pair were in the offices of their insurance salesman and friend, Rick Carroll.

“We’re in the waiting room about 20 minutes, half an hour, and I see a gentleman come through who I recognized,” he recalls.

“So Rick comes out, and he goes ‘Sal, Sue, come into my office. You’re not going to believe what I just bought,’” he remembers. “I said, ‘let me guess — you bought a 1907 Rolls-Royce (Silver Ghost) number 553.’”

The man he had recognized on his way in was a classic car collector, known to other auto enthusiasts for his impressive collection. “I saw Millard Newman walk by,” Sal recalls, “and I knew who he was, because he had 553.”

Each Silver Ghost produced during the model’s debut year, 1907, is marked with a serial number on its chassis. One of the surviving 1907 models, the one long owned and used by Rolls-Royce as a brand ambassador, is marked number 551. The only other two known to still exist are numbered 553 and 565.

“He said there was a consortium in New York that had another Rolls-Royce 1907,” Sal recalls. “I said, ‘well that’s got to be number 565.’”

“And I told him,” Sal adds, “both of those cars come from my hometown.”

“Rome’s Millionaire Sportsman”

The 1907 Silver Ghosts numbered 553 and 565 were originally owned by early auto enthusiast and native Roman, Samuel B. Stevens.

Dubbed by the Sentinel “Rome’s Millionaire Sportsman,” Stevens was borderline nocturnal and a known eccentric. From the garage in rear of his mansion at 315 N. Washington St., today the VFW building, Steven would tinker and adjust his cars for competition and for hobby.

In his lifetime, he would break the world record for fastest transcontinental auto travel (1916) and win races and derbies internationally.

Stevens ordered his first Silver Ghost, numbered 553, in early 1907, and the Sentinel reported its arrival in Rome on May 2 of that year. He ordered the second, 565, as a gift for his mother, Sarah, and it arrived before the year’s end. Number 553 was seen often on Rome streets,
according to archival Sentinel accounts, and was used by Stevens in his motorsport exploits. His mother’s, number 565, appears to have been used more gently and less usually.

It’s unclear for how long Stevens used the cars — contemporaneous sources mention that he bought new vehicles frequently — but only 565 was in the Stevens’ garage at the time of his death in 1935, its sister’s whereabouts unknown.

Number 565 would keep its status as a prestige car, passing into the hands of Nelson Rockefeller before becoming the property of the consortium from which Rick Carroll purchased it the 1980s.

Number 553 resurfaced in New Hampshire in 1931. “Rescued” by Kirkland Gibson, the 553 saw regular road use before being retired a few years later. In 1960, collector and classic Rolls-Royce enthusiast Millard Newman of Tampa, Fla., purchased the car.

Reunited At Last

“He ends up buying both cars,” Sal recalled. “So, now he knows he’s got the oldest Rolls-Royce, no matter which it is.”

Stablemates once again, the Silver Ghosts were united and restored in Florida. Rick’s interest in the cars’ history remained, Sal says, and in 1990, the men arranged for Rick and his family to visit the Comitos in Rome.

“I was going to take him to the VFW home,” Sal says, “and I was going to take him to the Rome Historical Society to show him what other things they had pertaining to the Stevens.”

Tragically, Rick and his daughter were killed in an accident on the trip to Rome.

In the years since, Sal and Sue have compiled materials related to the cars’ history which they now plan to donate to the Rome Historical Society.

“We appreciate all the work Sal has put into this beautiful donation of prints celebrating the unique story of these two cars, and the men who owned them,” said Historical Society executive director Art Simmons.

“So, my wife and I had decided that we were going to do something,” Sal says of his donation, “not only in testimony to the Stevens cars and Sam Stevens, but also to Mr. Rick Carroll.”