Shopping for a Rolls-Royce

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The purpose of this feature is to give those who wish to do their motoring in the “Best Car in the World” some idea of what they will be asked to pay for used Rolls-Royce cars of different conditions, ages and types, and the sort of satisfaction they can expect to derive from such a purchase. In order to compile it we approached various well-known sources of supply, asking for a trial run of a representative model. So far as the Phantom III is concerned, shoppers are referred to the erudite guide which appeared in Motor Sport dated April 1959.

The very appropriate Introduction is reprinted from a 1958 copy of Punch. – Ed.]

Introduction,

being an extract from “The Size of the Car Is No Guide,” by Rebecca West, reprinted by permission of Punch.

In 1937 we decided we had to buy a car, and I mentioned this at a party, adding that neither my husband nor I knew one kind of car from another. A total stranger then offered me a 1934 25/30-h.p. Rolls-Royce for four hundred pounds. I accepted this offer, because it seemed an easy way of buying a car. My friends were startled and suggested that he had been a gate-crasher and the car had been stolen, but actually he was an executor pressed by the heirs to wind up an estate quickly, and the car was a beautiful specimen of its beautiful kind. It also had the power of changing my husband and myself into inhabitants of other people’s dreams, figures of fantasy quite unrelated to our real selves.

Other Rolls-Royce owners drew no conclusions from the fact that we owned one; and they were right. At that time second-hand Rolls-Royces could be bought fairly cheap, because the shadow of Hitler was lengthening over Europe. But people who did not own Rolls-Royces never grasped this fact, though it should have been easy to deduce it, and they wove fairy tales about us. Many of them concluded that we were enormously rich, particularly if they were engaged in the hotel and restaurant business. When they saw us drive up to their establishment we were to them what the day being at the morn, the snail being on the thorn, meant to Pippa—a proof that God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. This was often enjoyable, but sometimes tiresome. They would put it to us as our duty to dine on grouse on the night of the Twelfth, and I came to understand what often appears the fatuous credulity of the rich. Such shocked disappointment darkened their faces when I betrayed knowledge of how rarely grouse served for dinner on that date had been flown down from the moors, how much more often it had spent the better part of a year lying Lenin-wise in an icy tomb. Two people the maitre d’hotel had trusted (thanks to the car) to be pillars of the world were showing signs of buckling, the gilded ceiling might yet come down on us all. Had I been a kindly millionaire I would have eaten their aged bird just not to spoil their fun.

When we stayed at hotels the other guests (always provided they were not themselves Rolls-Royce owners) also had illusions about us. They took it for granted that we must be Conservatives of an unbending type, though even then that cannot have been a safe bet, and must be much less safe now. Today a really magnificent car may well belong to a bright young industrialist who thinks Nye Bevan our only hope. Our fellow-guests vainly expected us to play bridge and golf; and they also asked us about our plans for going to Ascot, the Grand National, the Eton and Harrow match, the Dublin Horse Show, the Grand Prix, to Cowes. The life ascribed to us assumed that we had the appetite for spectacles manifested by the citizens of ancient Rome and Constantinople, a considerable capacity for staff-work and much more leisure than either of us had ever had since we left kindergarten. Obviously people do play bridge and golf, and people do go to Ascot and the other festivities, but I doubt if many people were living a life so exclusively devoted to the higher junketing as our fellow-guests supposed. My impression is that even then there were very few Rolls-Royce owners who lived the life that those who did not own Rolls-Royces imagined; and I believe that some of the extreme fantasies were based on the opulence of Victorian days, before the Rolls-Royce had been invented.

Our car grew old. It had its own war, bringing back calves from sales on waterproof sheets, and chicks in the boot; and it was run into by a lorry full of carolling Allies insufficiently discouraged by a fog. It stayed with us for fifteen years, when we sold it for exactly the same sum as we had given for it. It always served us superbly, but there is no use pretending that it did not show signs of age. It was still splendid, but not contemporary; it looked as alien from our age as a corseted woman wearing a net collar stiffened with whalebones and a skirt touching the ground. The only conclusion that sensible people could have drawn from our continued possession of this car was that we were hanging on to it because we did not feel like spending money on a new one. But it still kept its magic power to make strangers dream dreams about us. Indeed it enhanced our social value in the eyes of restaurants and hotels and their clients, who now decided that we must be too grand to care for appearances and treated us with a peculiar muffled respect. At Torquay I was asked what news I had about Queen Mary’s health. And at the same time the darker aspect of the illusion we created remained just as dark.

Many people who envied us the possession of our Rolls-Royce carried their envy pleasantly; but quite a number felt a special and bitter animosity against us, which was always ridiculous in view of the financial facts of its purchase, and became blithering idiocy as it grew older. In 1947, in Knightsbridge, a brand-new car which must have cost five times what we had paid for the Rolls ten years before, skidded into our boot. A little man ran out of a bus queue and offered the driver of the new and blameworthy car (who was shocked and embarrassed) testimony on his behalf that we had been at fault. I could have killed him. I could pardon him for hating us simply as motorists, for it must be infuriating to stand in a bus queue at the end of a day’s work and watch people drive past in their own comfortable cars. But I could not pardon him for failing to see which of the cars, if either, belonged to one given to grinding down the faces of the poor, just because he had learned at his mother’s knee that Rolls-Royces were posh. That man might lead a revolution tomorrow because of the Tranby Croft card-scandal.

I have met this obsolete fury on the Continent. In Italy when we halted in a village, pleased and amiable because we were on our way to see the Piero della Francesca at Borgo San Sepolcro, a glorious girl came out of a house just to scowl at us as if she were Medea and the poor old car was Jason. But the most imbecile example was in France. Two young people, who had been lying in the long grass, abandoned what they were doing, though their occupation is universally considered absorbing, in order to approach us, give the Communist salute, and spit with ritual solemnity on our Rolls-Royce. Could the young asses not see that the car was older than they were, and that no Commissar would have been seen dead in it?

Today my husband and I ought to be loved and hated by strangers just three times as much as we were before because we now own a car which cost three times the sum we paid for the Rolls-Royce; but we are now not loved or hated at all, as motorists we are as invisible as clouds, simply because there is no popular myth about the name of this particular brand of car.

__________________________

The first car we looked at was advertised in a motoring paper. A drive into the country and a detour along an unmade lane so rough that we wondered that any vintage car’s spring could survive its passage, led us, past new bungalows springing up like overnight toadstools where formerly unkept shacks had mingled with the dense woods, to a miniature scrap yard, into which ill-fated moderns had been towed behind a beefy Bedford. There the Rolls-Royce stood, a 1931 20/25, with Maythorn limousine body. The wheels possessed alloy wheel discs, radiator filler cap and Silver Lady were missing, as was the R.-R. coil. One wing was crushed; the body shabby and unkempt. But the engine sprang to life on the button, its willingness proclaimed through a corroded exhaust system. A pretty extensive rebuild was obviously necessary. The price asked was £115.

* * * * *

The second car belonged to Dudley Steynor (Lane End 254), an enthusiast for these cars, which he finds for favoured clients from time to time.

This Rolls-Royce was a 1927 Series K Twenty with 1936 Southern Motor Co. Replica 4-door saloon body. The wheels, except the spare, had discs, and were shod with three 6.00/6.50 x 20 Dunlops, one with 6PR Regent Trunkway Remould, and a 6.50/7.00 x 20 Dunlop on the n/s. rear. The spare had a smooth Regent remould. Lamps and fog-lamp were Lucas. The body, leather-upholstered, was reasonably clean inside but the roof was somewhat dirty, the wings were shabby, a running-board grazed, one sidelamp dented and there was a slight crack in the front o/s. door window, while the boot was a bit scruffy within.

The separate driving seat was very comfortable, its squab adjustable by winding a floor-located handle. Both front seats had Leveroll adjustment, but the usual r.h. levers, the gear-lever gaitered, impeded the driver’s entry and exit. Instrumentation embraced the usual R.-R. switch panel, starting-carburetter and mixture control, an A.T. speedometer reading to 80 m.p.h. with total and (inoperative) trip mileometers, Dewrance R.-R. oil gauge (normal reading, 27 lb./sq. in.), Elliot type-MR amperes meter, a Cambridge thermometer and an A.T. 8-day clock the ticking of which had given up competing with the body rattles. Self-cancelling semaphore direction-indicator arms were worked from a switch on the r.h. side of the facia sill, where soft and loud horn-pushes for the Lucas King of the Road trumpet horns resided. A vertical quadrant opened and closed the radiator shutters, enabling water temperature to be controlled. The radiator had a slight leak. A cubby-hole on the left locked with a large domestic-type key.

The engine started promptly from cold on the foot pedal, the quiet starter motor inoperative until neutral had been selected. It was noisy if too far advanced and there was a rumbling sound on the over-run. When hot, a trace of fumes, was noticeable. The heavy body on the early chassis killed performance. The outstanding feature was 5-50 m.p.h. in top gear, the flexibility astonishing. The 4-spoke steering wheel called for just over two turns, lock-to-lock, and lightened up once on the move; it juddered but displayed no kick-back. Above it were the usual throttle and ignition levers (“Open-Closed “; “Early-Late”).

There was no heater and the sliding roof was draughty. The Replica body looked rather unwieldly on the early chassis; it had a single-pane screen, with vizors, and a shallow recess behind the back seat, as well as a useful boot. The fuel gauge, reading to 14 gallons, was concealed beneath a plate in the floor of the boot. There was a dumb-iron apron. Incongruous but usual on these cars, was the quick-action -petrol filler cap. The doors, all with pockets, were all hinged at their trailing edges, but shut securely. Roof-net, “pulls,” companions, etc., were in place. The “modern” bonnet lacked rivets and joined a new scuttle built over the R.-R. cast-alloy dash. The upright “Silver Lady” had to pirouette to prevent the bonnet clouting her bottom. The “R.-R.” insignia had worn off the clutch pedal but was discernible on the brake pedal.

This particular Rolls-Royce handled conveniently, roll being evident only when coming out of tight corners; the brakes were adequate. It would wind up to 45 m.p.h. in 3rd speed, 55 in top. There was some play as the clutch took up, but no slip. With the roof attended to, and a better o/s. front tyre, this one was valued at £350.

* * * * *

The third car I sampled was lent by Phantom Motors of Crondall, Surrey. It was a mid-1939 Series-B Wraith with H. J. Mulliner divisionless sedanca body, the roof over the front compartment opening, and the back parlour being lavishly equipped with floor rug, built-in companions, corner lamps and mirrors, picnic tables, etc. The condition was reasonable, although the back bumper was very rusty, there was a dent in the o/s. front mudguard, the facia sill was a bit shabby, one wheel-disc beading was torn, and the paintwork was not exactly immaculate. One wiper blade and the o/s. external mirror were missing, the wipers didn’t function but could be hand-operated, both rear lamps and one brake lamp had failed, and the ratchet of the cranked r.h. brake lever was awaiting renewal. The rear number-plate lights offered reasonable illumination but the headlamps were adjusted to a state of permanent dip.

Nevertheless, I felt I was now much closer to my hoped-for conception of what an old Rolls-Royce should be. The car was reasonably quiet, apart from mild rumbling while accelerating, some road noise, and very subdued body rattles, although I could only hear the clock ticking when parked with the engine stationary. The gears were inaudible, the hum from the efficient drum-type heater the loudest intrusion within the car.

The heavy body, with neat built-in trunk, excused an unexciting mode of progression, but it was possible to get just about 25, 40 and 55 m.p.h. in the gears, 50 m.p.h. was a sensible cruising gait, but 60/65 m.p.h. and more was there if a little of the dignity was sacrificed. Performance, however, is not the main criterion of this kind of car. This pre-war 4-1/4-litre Wraith hadn’t quite the top-gear flexibility of the 1927/36 Twenty, but the highest ratio could be used down to 15 m.p.h. or a bit less, so there was little need to pine for automatic transmission, especially as the silken gear-change encouraged the driver to make considerable use of it. Typically, it was gaitered, sprung to the neutral section of the gate, was splendidly positioned, and had to be pressed down to engage reverse. Bottom gear occasionally baulked unless 2nd was engaged beforehand, or the smooth clutch was momentarily eased.

The steering kicked mildly on rough roads, but was accurate, and light except for parking, when you had to be a Tarzan. The very big 3-spoke wheel somewhat obscured one’s view of the magnificent radiator and mascot. The latter was of the Phantom type (valued at three times the price of my second daughter’s Austin 10/4!), swivelling to clear the raised bonnet. Here there was a small confidence trick which I disliked—when the filler cap was removed I was confronted, not by a filmy level of H2O, but by a metal plate, reminding me that the filler is a dummy and coolant is replenished elsewhere. Why then, in heaven’s name, is a valuable mascot made detachable when there is no purpose in detaching it? Fortunately the car’s cubby-hole had a good H. & V.T. lock, so the Spirit of Ecstasy could be safely left therein while the Rolls-Royce was parked, obviating the embarrassment of trying to conceal this piece of female sculpture in one’s trouser-pocket…

The centre of the wooden dashboard was occupied by a big 90-m.p.h. speedometer with trip and total odometers, its needle swinging badly, flanked by adjacent fuel gauge, ammeter, water temperature/oil pressure dials and matching (accurate) clock. The thermostatically-operated radiator shutters were set to maintain an efficient 80-90° C.; oil pressure varied from 25 to 35 lb./sq. in. according to engine speed. The petrol gauge was steady-reading, the tank holding, on this car, 18 gallons. The usual R.-R. lockable switch-panel with master-switch, switch-knobs for “A,” “B,” or both fuel pumps, wipers, two controls for the blinds (not working), and the carburation control also occupied the facia; there were ignition and low-fuel-level warning-lights, a neat ash-tray was sunk in the facia sill, and, front and back, plated handles were fitted to help the elderly from the very comfortable leather-upholstered seats. The back seat had a wide cushion, suited to those with Guards’ Officer legs. The Continental Correspondent, not having these, tried it for a while and then came up in front, as second-chauffeur.

Hydraulic jacking-points were concealed under the front carpet, the openable single-pane screen gave excellent visibility, although the n/s. front wing and lamp were almost invisible, and an unusual item was pull-down blinds instead of vizors behind the screen. There were self-cancelling semaphore turn-indicators, what appeared to be a quite unnecessary and inappropriate “exhaust-booster” on the end of the exhaust pipe, a small but adequate rear-view mirror, and separate front seats, the driver’s exceedingly comfortable, with adjustable squab.

This just pre-war Rolls-Royce had automatic ignition timing, so the steering-wheel boss merely accommodated a loud/soft horn button, hand-throttle and ride control. The front doors had pockets, with another in the driver’s side of the upholstered scuttle. The odometer registered 16,000 miles, which it would be charitable to read as 116,000 miles. There were 6.50 x 17 Dunlop Fort tyres all round, each possessing a decent amount of tread, the spare wheel had a metal cover, the instruments and enormous headlamps bore no identification beyond the magic initials “R.-R.”, and the bonnet opened easily to reveal the usual neat engine with a surprisingly small Stromberg carburetter on the o/s. The bonnet lacked the rivets of early Rolls-Royces. There was one-shot chassis lubrication, operated by foot every 100 miles.

When idling the engine vibrated slightly, due to lack of rubbers under its mountings, but I was favourably impressed with the dignity and quietness of this 26-year-old specimen, which I took to London twice, finding it easy to drive, and having no trouble in some 200 noble miles. I estimated its petrol thirst at around 15 m.p.g. of No. 1, and there were no fumes. The steering was pleasantly light and smooth at speed, the i.f.s. was evident by some moderate roll, the ride was good apart from very slight pitching, starting instantaneous, and the brakes quite adequate, although the car would roll unretarded for a foot or so if they were applied from walking pace; the hand-brake was effective, however. The asking price for this one was £750.

* * * * *

The fourth car came from the stock of Frank Dale and Stepsons, Harrow Road, W.2. This concern specialises in Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, keeping a stock of 20 or 30, from early models, like the P. I tourer I saw during my visit, to those of 1956/57 vintage. The Rolls-Royce they selected for me was a 1951 Series F Silver Wraith Freestone & Webb semi-razor-edge 4-door saloon, with trailing front doors.

It was a very well-equipped car, with a Webasto sliding roof possessing an ingenious wind deflector enabling all the occupants to enjoy fresh air when it was open devoid of draughts. In appearance, this was the “massive” type of Rolls-Royce, with built-in boot and spatted rear wheels, finished in blue with black mudguards, boot and roof, and dun-colour leather upholstery. The equipment embraced heater, screen de-mister, rear-window de-misting panel, headlamps flasher, 2-speed screen-wipers, screen-washers, flashing turn-indicators above the original semaphore arms, quick-lift driver’s window, tinted single-pane fixed screen, cigar-lighter, Yale locks for front doors, bonnet and concealed fuel filler, radio with front and rear speakers, under-bonnet torch, and even Lexington safety-belts for the front seats.

The usual R.-R. amenities with which I am becoming familiar, like the very comfortable driving seat with adjustable squab, throttle ride control (Open/Closed; Hard/Normal) and horn-push on the centre of the steering wheel and clear instrumentation were present. The 18 in. 3-spoke steering wheel felt very big, so that one tended to steer with one hand on a spoke, and it seemed slightly offset, the driving position not quite 100% in consequence. The facia and matching window sills were of polished veneer, the former having a big 100 m.p.h. R.-R. Smiths speedometer with steady-reading white needle, flanked by the four small dials—Smiths clock, Lucas ammeter, Smiths fuel gauge, calibrated 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, F and incorporating a sump-level reading, and combined oil gauge/water thermometer. The last-named indicated 8 to 28 lb./sq. in. oil pressure according to engine speed and 65° to 75° C. depending on outside temperature.

This car was thoroughly modern in its equipment, which also included adjustable side arm-rests, handle-operated front and back quarter-lights, four roof lamps controlled by two switches for front and back compartments and courtesy action, useful wing-mirrors, lockable cubby-hole, 12-in. R.-R. Lucas headlamps, Lucas central spot-lamp and Lucas fog-lamps, GB plaque, neatly concealed facia ash-tray, folding picnic tables, map light, plush rugs over the rear compartment carpets and plated pull-handles for all passengers.

The odometer read 92,800 miles, the car was shod with good 6.50 x 17 Dunlop Fort tyres, with a good spare, and it was in excellent condition, all the plating faultless, paintwork sound and the interior entirely presentable. The only noticeable wear was on the detachable rubber mats in the front compartment, a rubbed patch on the o/s. scuttle pocket and some peeling of the veneer on the front window sills where rain had, and did, come in. In heavy rain water ran off the n/s. of the screen sill. Generally, however, the preservation was excellent, – you get what you pay for!

On the road, too, this Silver Wraith went nicely. Indicated maxima in the gears were 34, 50 and 66 m.p.h., with effortless 70-m.p.h. cruising in top gear. The clutch was feather-light, the steering light in traffic, heavier on lock (3-turns, with 1/2-a-turn of sponge). There was no kick-back but some wheel sway, which adjustment should cure, useful castor return, some column judder on bad roads or over gulleys. Mechanically the car was notably quiet, the worst intrusion being wheel noise over road undulations. The chassis obviously flexed on rough surfaces, and there were very minor body rattles. The 4-1/2-itre i.o.e. engine would run down to 8 m.p.h. in top gear and pull away from 15 mph. without changing down. The gears were quiet but the short Bentley-like r.h. gear-lever (not spring-loaded) didn’t function quite so silkily as the longer lever of the earlier cars. There was a pull-out hand-brake under the facia, striking a too-modern note in the harmony of a R.-R. interior. The brakes were good, but pulled slightly to the right.

A centre arm-rest, when down, divided the rear compartment into two exceedingly luxurious seats, à la Rover 2000. The bonnet was extremely easy to open and shut, ignition was by twin Lucas coils and Delco-Remy distributor, and there was pedal-actuated one-shot chassis lubrication. Fuel was fed from the 18-gallon tank by pumps A, B. or both, selected by a knob protruding from the facia, which also contained the usual lockable R.-R. switch-panel. The heater, volume controlled by a turn-knob (H), was excellent, and powerful and quiet screen-de-misting was available by moving back the plated deflectors over the sill-vents and switching on a button labelled “M.” Neat little press-buttons looked after facia lighting (I), oil-level reading and the map light. There was a clean instruction book in its underfacia pocket and the body had its own identification number. The R.-R. insignia was clearly visible on clutch and brake pedals.

The heavy lockable boot-lid was self propping and the spare wheel lying flat in the boot had a protective cover. In a day’s driving nothing gave trouble except for the push-fit foot-dipper rubber cover falling off. This seemed a very covetable Rolls-Royce, of adequate if hardly exciting performance, although pick-up was quite useful. It would make a nice family car. The body rattles were due to be eradicated and Dale usually installs a new Speedwell battery. This one was valued at £1,250—W. B.

(To be continued)

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