A Market Appreciation: A selective purchaser of one of these beautiful pre-war British quality cars describes his method of finding an example at a fair price, at the same time eliminating the duds.
Photo: The collector’s aim is to discover a carefully-used one-owner Phantom lll in an immaculate state of preservation — like this example, which has covered a mere 6,000 miles in the service of a lady living in one of the English shires.
In the course of his witty and informative ( … I don’t live at Chew Stoke!) review of the 30 or so cars that he drove in 1958, the Editor rated the Rolls-Royce Phantom lll as “the most impressive.” In this judgment he is backed, if only by implication, by Laurence Pomeroy, who, in his resumé, wrote of the Silver Cloud that it was “probably the best Rolls-Royce built so far, but before being certain of this I should like to renew my acquaintance with the Phantom Ill.”
Well, what is the peculiar charm of the Phantom III ? To my mind it can be summarised as a combination of the durability and resilience of the Silver Ghost with a refinement and delicacy of operation that have never been equalled except, perhaps, in the early, “small” H.J. Mulliner Continental Bentleys. It was, if one may borrow from another product’s American advertising copy, “the most” of all the Rolls-Royces. The most carefully constructed, the most silent, the most big, the most effortless, the most durable, the most good-looking. Above all, it was the most regardless-of-cost of all Rolls; if one were to be built up out of parts in stock today the cost would be over £14,000.
Those of us who would like to own one scan the appropriate columns of the motor journals. Sometimes they look absurdly cheap, at others, ludicrously expensive. The prices vary through a range of 1:8 — wider than any other used car on the market. This diversity, and the jungle-like conditions of the back-street used-car market, are a deterrent. The purpose of this article is to give an approximate guide to values, a warning as to what to look for and what to guard against, and a few basic leads to follow.
Readers will be familiar with the technical specification of the cars. The magnificent 7-1/2-litre o.h.v. vee-twelve engine was, of course, the heart of the entire series, but there were certain chassis changes that date the cars and are of importance in so far as they affect the value. For example, the 1936 cars and all chassis up to the BT series (first deliveries in approximately mid-1937) had very odd brakes indeed: the front suspension was strengthened on the BTs also and models prior to this should be surveyed with a pretty beady eye and are not worth, under any circumstances, more than £200. The chief fault of the “B ” series was the positioning of the petrol pumps on the bulkhead, which gave rise to vapour locks when under-bonnet temperatures rose. This was the subject of a circular by Rolls-Royce to all registered owners at the time and has been corrected on most cars. Watch out for it, though; if the pumps haven’t been moved it’s a sign that neglect, or casual maintenance, set in early in the car’s life. From 1937 the specification remained more or less unchanged until the DL series of 1939. These had solid tappets, Hall metal big-ends and a four-port cylinder head giving better exhaust scavenging. Very, very few (12 in England) had the celebrated overdrive gearbox that gave 26 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. as compared with 21 m.p.h. with the standard gearbox.
Great, and in my view exaggerated, importance has been attributed to the question of tappets on the P.lll. The conversion from hydraulic to solid, on pre-DL series cars, costs £295 at the Rolls-Royce service station at Hythe Road—or rather more than a great many P.llls are worth. It was introduced as an optional modification by the Company, who, in the ordinary way, refuse to “modify chassis retrospectively” because a number of elderly owners who disliked speed, and used their cars in London a lot found that they seldom built up enough pressure in the hollow rocker shafts, so that sediment collected and the valves would stick, giving rise to an unseemly clatter. Other owners, harder-driving, perhaps, but forgetful, omitted to clean the all-important filter that lies forward on the off side of the crankcase (a secondary filter, this, concerned solely with feed to the valve mechanism, and should be washed in paraffin every 1,000 miles), with the same result.
But, in fact, the “hydraulic” system is, if in good condition — this is simply a question of conscientious maintenance — the most perfect devised and achieves a degree of silence and smoothness which the “solid” system would lose within a few hundred miles after periodic adjustment. Anyway, “hydraulic” engines are, from this point of view, easier for us to “vet” because if the system is not working properly an obtrusive clacking and clicking is audible. Don’t be too alarmed by this; it is curable with care and patience without going to the expense of a solid conversion. If the remainder of the car is in good condition good use can be made of these symptoms to beat down the seller’s price!
This question of maintenance is absolutely fundamental and the history of a car (preferably in the Rolls-Royce file at Hythe Road, although any other form of documentation is worth something) is all-important in determining its value. As the years have gone by, so, in many cases, the P.llls have undergone a three-stage decline in their service history. At the top there are the one-or-two-owner cars, chauffeur-maintained and still enjoying periodic attention at Hythe Road. Here wear is simply a function of mileage; the cars should have plenty of life left in them in the first hundred thousand and are, in every way, “excellent buys”. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these “genuine” P.Ill’s left and each year a proportion of them that find their way onto the market are siphoned off to America, where the leading collectors have, besides taste and discrimination, longer purses than the majority of enthusiasts in this country. Another reason for their ranks thinning is the very high charges at Hythe Road, where everything has to be 100 per cent. before being passed out, and the reluctance of second owners, not in the chauffeur-employing classes, to submit their cars to the ruthless dissection of the Rolls-Royce testers. Thus the cars slip down to a lower level, where they change hands more often and where work on them is less frequent and less thorough — usually “at our own works, Old Boy” by whichever dealer is offering it at that particular time. After some years, several owners, and some tens of thousands of miles in this belt, the cars reach a stage is a “test and report” by Rolls-Royce would probably lead to an estimate for two or three thousand pounds (a complete engine overhaul at Hythe Road costs £1,100 by the way), and if anything goes really seriously wrong with them it is cheaper by now simply to throw the car away. By now it’s a case of Radweld in the header tank, Piston-seal squeezed through the plug holes, sawdust in the gearbox, and waiting for the “sucker ” to come along. Such cars, need it be said, should be avoided at any price.
What one wants to do is pick up a bargain in the first category or spot one that hasn’t gone too far downhill in the second. To help in this I have drawn up certain rules of thumb equating the facts of a car’s life in terms of money. If you keep within these limits you won’t come to much harm, and the table drawn up below makes a useful chart against which to check offers.
The most important thing really, and worth £250 on its own, is that a car should have had only one owner. Second, and worth another “two and a half,” is that it should have an absolutely comprehensive history with the manufacturers, from the date of delivery. Then I reckon you should take 50,000 miles as par, make that worth another £250, and subtract £50 for every ten thousand over that or, conversely, add £50 for every ten thousand under it.
To give an example, if you could find a one-owner car with an absolutely authentic R-R. history that had done 30,000 miles it would be worth up to £850, i.e., £250 + £250 + £250 + £100. If it had done 70,000 miles, (only £650, and so on. (incidentally, a very good way of checking the likelihood of the distance recorder showing the true mileage is to measure the depth of the grooves on the accelerator pedal. These gradually get worn away, but in mint condition should be about 2.1 mm. If you think that the allowance on the first two counts is over-generous, don’t worry; these two attributes are by now so rare that they are hardly ever encountered! Then, again, you should allow about £100 for a DL Series car, and £200 if you are lucky enough to dig up one with an overdrive gearbox. Finally, you should allow whatever sum you think appropriate from £10 to £200 as a makeweight, depending on the condition of the bodywork, leather, wood, etc.
Thus it can be seen that if you should be clever enough to find a one-owner P.III with a complete history at Hythe Road, an authentic mileage of 20,000, that is a DL series chassis with overdrive and bodywork in spotless condition, you would be doing well to get it for up to £1,400 — and even this has not fully taken into account the inflationary pressure of American collectors, for one like this (illustrated) was sold last autumn for the record sum of £1,850.
Conversely, you should also stick firmly to the chart when dealing with rubbish. Holding the table firmly in your hand, you question the dealers and make a tick where appropriate:
“How many owners has this car had? “
“Three, sir, there’s three in the book, like.”
” Oh yes, I see. But this book only starts in 1954?”
“Yes, that’s right, but this car is the personal property of our managing director; he’s only selling it because…”
“Have you a documented service record?”
“Receipts, invoices and so forth.”
“Let me tell you, sir, this car has been right through our works, every little thing: our managing director, he’s an absolute finnick …”
“Thank you. I see that the indicated mileage is 24,000, but from the condition of the bodywork and interior I should say it was higher than that ?”
“Yes. Yes, sir, I think you’ve got a point there. No, we don’t make any claims as to mileage. Personally I should put it nearer 40,000 myself; even so, these cars, you know, they’re hardly run-in ’till they’ve done…”
“Thank you.” (Clearly the car has done 124,000 miles and £50 subtracted seven times from £250 doesn’t leave much change.)
“I see that it is a DL chassis but of course it hasn’t got the overdrive gearbox.”
“No, you don’t want…”
“Let me see, now. Yes, allowing £85 for the general condition of the paint and interior, I see that the most I can offer for the car is £185.”
“‘Ere, what do you mean? We’re asking £495 for this. Our managing director…” (In point of fact, though, he probably didn’t pay more than £185 for it.)
In fact, of course, it is much more fun, and there is always the possibility of running a really good car to earth, if you can dig them up on their home ground. Last autumn I actually saw one that had an odometer reading of 5,800 miles! (Illustrated.) Not for sale, naturally, but the elderly owner won’t live for ever. There must still be a good many sitting in their original owner’s garages, waiting to start a new life with an attentive enthusiast. The only trouble here is that they don’t really care whether they sell or not, and they often ask prices pretty near the market ceiling, with that intuitive gift that rich people frequently enjoy. It’s not so easy to beat someone down when you’re standing in the middle of a Georgian stable-yard surrounded by the well-kept snout of a Silver Cloud, a Land Rover and a Ford station wagon protruding discreetly from their separate hutches, and when the sound of one’s entreaties is almost drowned by the gobbling of cock pheasants.
In the last resort, of course, estimate of a car’s worth must be based on what it means to you, and your own judgement must be called to play its part. The P.lll is big game, hunting it can be great fun but you must have patience and take pains. There is always the consolation that a really good trophy will keep, and may even increase its value, and will be a constant source of pleasure and satisfaction. — A.C.
ROLLS-ROYCE PHANTOM lll BUYING-GUIDE TABLE
(1) One-owner — £250
(2) R-R- history — £250 (a)
(3) Mileage 50,000 — £250 (b)
(4) DL series — £100
(5) Overdrive gearbox — £100
(6) General condition of body and interior — ? (c)
(a) Reduce in proportion as comprehensive quality diminishes.
(b) Reduce or increase in multiples of £50 per 10,000 miles.
(c) Maximum £200, could be exceeded in exceptional circumstances. Complete on your own estimation.