In the shadow of Rolls-Royce

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I have just enjoyed a week in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II. It was indeed a very pleasant experience. Nevertheless, I do not intend to be drawn into discussing whether or not, in my opinion, this fine £24,148 6.7-litre V8 motor-car from Crewe is the fineg car in the World. Either you think so, or you buy a Mercedes or a moped.

Nor do I propose to inflict on you a full road-test report on this Rolls-Royce, for the very good reason that it is not a new model. It represents a worthwhile development of the original Silver Shadow, in the manner in which Rolls-Royce engineers like to incorporate improvements as and when these are thought desirable; and I dealt rather comprehensively with that Rolls-Royce in Motor Sport for May, 1968. Also, the Assistant Editor told you about the Shadow II in the issue of Motor Sport dated April, 1977.

Writing about the Shadow I, I headed my report “Not So Much a Motor-Car, More A Way of Life”. That impression remains, after experiencing this Model in its latest form. It is so different from anything one normally drives, dignified, luxurious, yet reasonably unpretentious. It hurries, up to around 120 m.p.h., if you extend it. It will out-pace a lot of quite quick motor-cars, in the traffic-lights drag-race, if you drive it that way. But primarily it is a car to enjoy, rather than to fully open-up, a car to be driven with restraint and certainly not one to be skidded round corners. That way, it still melts those miles that can seem so tedious in lesser cars, because great hush, smooth-operating steering and controls, an automatic gearbox that alters the ratios scarcely perceptible, an air of top-quality all about you, and the sense of security that bulk and lofty seating conveys combine to do just that.

There still seems a small imptiession remaining at R-R that the back-compartment occupants should be even more comfortable than those in front, who might just, after all, be chauffeur and valet. This, though, only applies if you are very tall, or are exceptionally long in the legs, and it isn’t really valid once the electrical multi-range adjustment of the front seats, each with its own inner arm-rest, and sliding outer arm-rests, has been mastered. Then only the width of the rather flat seat backs can be criticised, as they do not always quite main small people on fast corners – if you must drive a Shadow in this fashion. Otherwise, criticism is encouraged only because this is such a splendid and prestigious car. Some of those who travelled in it thought the highly-polished facia and veneered door surrounds did not look quite like genuine tree-wood because of its shiny surface.

I was more interested in the power-steering. From having a far-too-finger-light action, just like that of the XJ12 Jaguar, this now operates with a much nicer feel, while still calling for only a fore-finger and thumb on the thin rim of the now smaller-diameter (15 1/ 2.) steering wheel, I was sorry to find a slight tremor, one could scarcely call it a vibration, at the steering wheel rim over some surfaces – the Dunlop tyres were fairly new and probably required re-balancing. The power disc brakes were most powerful and pleasantly progressive. The automatic choke made the engine run too fast for a time, after cold-starts. I was pleased to find an oil-gauge incorporated in the new four-needle communal-dial (this oil-gauge, and fuel-contents, engine-heat, and ammeter), even if the needle symmetry is spoilt because the oil-pressure one rises reassurringly higher than its opposite number, at speed. At idle the big engine really is inaudible, so that a tachometer would be useful. The important point to concentrate on is that there is little more sound at 100 m.p.h. than at, say, 60m.p.h. -never mind the clock.

I had been so very impressed with the ride of the first Silver Shadow, achieved by self-levelling the complex arrangements, that I think this has deteriorated very slightly on the Shadow II. There was some mild float over some road surfaces, you see. The car rolls quite a kit, too, if you corner it ambitiously but far off the limit – yet I must record that a passenger who felt car-sick in a fast-driven Rover 3500 was quite happy in the Rolls. Whether this was because I drove the latter more sedately than the tenaciously road-clinging car from Solihull, or is it a tribute to Rolls-Royce seats and suspension, I cannot say.

I have called the car a Rolls. But there are people, the late Laurence Pomeroy was one, who maintain that the real credit for these great British motor-cars is due to the Engineer and not to the Racing Driver, and thus refer to them as Royces. By the same token I suppose we should call the Shadow I a Grylls, the Silver Shadow II it John Hollings….

I used none of those names when I went by firm-appointment to collect the test car from Hythe Road (the famous R-R Service Depot) one very wet Wednesday night and found that it wasn’t available! On reflection, it was interesting to know that even the makers of “The Best Car in the World” sometimes slip-up….

The next morning all was well. I was asked, quite rightly, to identify myself, in view of the “considerable value of the car you are taking away”. I have been surprised, on the thousand or more occasions in the past when I have collected Press cars, how seldom this precaution is taken. But in this case, as I was leaving behind it brand-new Rover 3500 Editoral car (British at last!), I felt that 2/3rds. identity should have sufficed….

Anyway, we were away at last and soon discovered that to all the well-known features which put a Hollings in a class of its own, can be added the new high and low air-conditioning system, controlled by outside sensors, the clever speed-hold control, the deliberate time-lag on the interior lamps after it door has been closed (giving the Duchess time to adjust her skirt), the moveable foot-rests in the back, just like those found in Edwardian drawing-rooms, the outside-temperature gauge and ice-warning lamp, and so on. Surprises were that there is but one key, that the doors lack a central external locking arrangement (although they can be thus-secured from within), that the horn-button is still in the steering-wheel centre, and that the fuel-filler flap cannot be released by the facia button unless the ignition switch is “fully-off”, although the electric windows function without the ignition switch being “on”. The quality of the stereo, for which only it test-cassette was provided, was approved of, as was the smooth elettrical-selection of the ratios in the automatic gearbox and, later, the power of the 27o/75 four-lamp lighting set, foot-dipped, by the way.

There might well be more fore-and-aft adjustment the front seats and the sill-buttons for locking the back doors are so far back, as to be difficult to reach from the front seats. The luggage boot has plenty of capacity and all the locks function commendably smoothly.

As the RREC was having a rally to Monmouth to unveil a plaque on the town-square statue of the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls, BA, FRGS, AMIME, on the centenary of the birth of the famous motoring and aviating aristocrat, that is where I directed the Silver Shadow on August Bank Holiday Saturday. At the assembly on the playing fields of Monmouth Secondary Modern School the present-day Grylls and Hollings were segregated from the pre-war Royces. I found myself next to Dennis Miller-Williams, the popular R-R PRO, who was engaged in washing down (oh; these chauffeur-less days!) the Camargue in which he had driven from London with his wife and daughters. A friend borrowed his bucket, to rinse the Shadow. A stately drive with Police escort took us non-stop past the statue, through the grounds of Rockfield House, residence of Lt. Col. Harding-Rolls, MC, DL, JP, and on to the Hendre, where Charlie Rolls was brought up (although born in London) this being the mansion of his parents, Lord and Lady Llangattock.

Here we enjoyed an excellent lunch, and visited a most interesting museum of pictures, documents and other items relating to Rolls, Rolls-Royce and the Hendre (some of the items on display are normally housed in Monmouth Museum, which those interested would do well to visit). After watching an unsuccessful attempt, in the gusting wind, to launch a hot-air balloon, (intended to commemorate Rolls’ great activity in this field, before he went on to aeroplanes and was killed at the 1910 Bournemouth Flying Meeting, the intrepid balloonists received applause for their brave efforts, although their craft remained tethered to a tree) we excused ourselves from a wine-party and left, being due at the VSCC race meeting at Cadwell Park on the following day. Incidentally, one of the exhibits in the aforesaid museum is a notebook kept by Rolls of work done on his aeroplane and it shows that about the only item not checked before the fatal Bournemouth flight was the tail-plane, which collapsed. With their present love of plaqueities, the RREC has discovered the spot where Rolls fell and has duly marked it for posterity….

The usual splendid cavalcade of Rolls-Royces attended this rally but not, alas, the replica of the Rolls balloon-carrying 40/50.

My wife and I had arranged to break our long journey half-way, in Derby. We found that, in spite of much traffic on the M50 and M5, so that the overtaking-lane was transformed into a commuter-stream, we had reached our destination in a couple of hours. But then, 70 m.p.h. in the silent majesty of a Silver Shadow tends to make the driver wonder why everyone in front of his is crawling…. At the Midland Hotel by the Station, in Derby, formerly the Rolls-Royce headquarters and also where the Auto Union team, including Nuvolari, stayed for the 1938 Donington G.P., we had to park the Rolls in an open yard, in company with but one other car, resident W. E. Harker’s Alfasud. At dinner he regaled us with tales of his Austin Ulster and his V8 Harker Special and the next morning he came with us to the site of the statue to Sir Henry Royce, remarking that, although a R-R apprentice in the 1920s, it was years since he had ridden in a Rolls-Royce. This statue to the great Engineer was originally unveiled at the Arboretum in Derby, in 1923 on the occasion of a VIP visit to the Rolls-Royce factory. It was removed to this present, pleasant site on the river bank in 1972, being re-unveiled, as it were, by The Worshipful The Mayor Councillor, J.J. Carty.

Once upon a time a Rolls-Royce would have presumably been sacrosanct in Derby. Not so, today. We had parked the Silver Shadow in the deserted ‘bus-station, while we photographed the Royce Memorial. Returning some five minutes later, we found an enormous red ‘bus parked right up against the Silver Shadow’s boot, to hem us in, and a little man in a brown dust-coat leaping up and down at our audacity in invading the Premises of his public-service vehicles. Brushing off his suggestion that we pay a £1 parking-fee, we returned Harker to the Midland and set off on our long Sunday morning haul to Cadwell Park. In the attractive town of Louth I again filled the Petrol tank with 4-star, enabling a fuel-consumption check to be made. The traffic conditions had prevented me from driving hard, and the figure came out at exactly 15 m.p.g. Previously I had looked at the sump oil-level, using the very long, rapier-like dip-stick, to discover that Mr. Grylls’ engine certainly doesn’t suffer a craving for lubricant. You can get a rough idea of sump-level on a dashboard button, which reminds me that the switch-panel, ignition-key, dashboard-switches and so on, are reminiscent of those on former Rolls-Royce and Derby Bentley cars.

And that a young, Ford-owning Son-in-Law was impressed by the detail finish, the under-bonnet accessibility (except perhaps for some of the sparking-plugs), the under-scaling, and the overall air of quality about the Silver Shadow II – which Punch would, I suppose, have dismissed as a blinding glimpse of the obvious, yet is something which few writers about the Rolls-Royce can leave out.

All in all, then, it was no hardship to drive back to Wales from Lincolnshire that evening, after my wife had presented the Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Trophy to Bernard Kain. We did it sans Motorways, via Shrewsbury, in five hours, without hurrying. That we were nearly back in “dry” Wales became evident when, diverted along remote country lanes near Clun, due to a bridge being under repair, we came upon slighted village pub, with many many inmates drinking therein. “Let’s have one” I said, not realising that it was a little after closing-time. The publican said a firm “no,” refusing us even non-alcoholic drinks, which the driver had intended to have anyway. And he hadn’t even seen the Rolls. On Bank Holiday evening, going out to dinner with friends, it was necessary to drive down some exceedingly narrow Radnorshire lanes, in which the big car felt as at home as it had on the Motorways. That about sums it up! Getting out of a Silver Shadow for the first time after a fast journey its size surprises you and you marvel that you pushed it at speed through such narrow gaps – and that surely is the mark of a good big car, whether 1920 Hispano-Suiza or 1977 Rolls-Royce? The cubby hold lid shuts nicely on the Rolls, too (and it will hold a Rolleiflex!).

I must confess that immediately after I had returned this Shadow and got into the Rover 3500, the latter felt dreadful, for the first few miles – actually, when I have done a decent mileage in it, I propose to tell you why it is really a very good car – the Car of the Year, I am informed. – W.B.