As far back as I can remember I have always held a strong admiration for Rolls-Royce motorcars. It was very much a dream come true when I took the plunge and bought my 1960 Silver Cloud II 151 GWY (Chassis No SWC322) a standard steel saloon in October 2001.
It was the culmination of a three-year search, which had taken me all over the country. When I first decided I wanted to buy a Rolls-Royce, my initial leaning was toward one of the pre war models, having owned and restored several vintage cars I was aware of the limitations of owning a pre war car. Slower performance coupled with a lack of a heater and effective windscreen wipers can make longer journeys seem daunting. Also for some time now I have been suffering from a spine condition, which makes it difficult for me to park a car with heavy steering. I came to the conclusion I would prefer a car more capable of keeping up with modern traffic. I wanted a car that I wouldn't think twice about driving on longer distances, at the same time it had to have the kind of style and traditional elegance not provided in my view by the post 1965 cars.
I had the good fortune to be able to examine and drive number of pre and post war Rolls-Royces whilst working for a wedding hire company. I developed a great liking for the later Silver Dawns especially if fitted with automatic transmission. Reasonably compact, but beautifully proportioned with excellent road manners a well set up Silver Dawn / Bentley R type is a pleasure to drive. One draw back for people with spine problems (as in my case) or a lack of physical strength is the weight of the steering at parking speeds. Due to the lack of power assistance I found the Silver Dawn a little heavy to park. One other minor irritation to me was the dashboard mounted clockwork trafficator switch, a fitting that I particularly dislike. I have always considered that switch beneath a company like Rolls-Royce. Especially when one bears in mind, manufacturers like Austin were able to produce cars fitted with a far superior self-cancelling mechanism from the mid 1930's.
The Silver Dawn's somewhat rudimentary heating and ventilation system was also not very appealing to me.
I tried all of the Silver Cloud range, though I should be the first to admit, none of which were particularly good examples I found the tatty Bentley SI that I drove on a number of occasions quite unpleasant to drive, again it had no power assisted steering, it had that awful trafficator switch and it handled like a blancmange. All of the Silver Cloud III's I had driven all seemed to suffer with pinking when they were accelerating on hills. Their power assisted steering was a welcome relief from straining to park an unassisted car. However their softer damper and spring settings made them too soft and wallowing for my taste. More objectionable to me was the altered frontal appearance. You either like it or you don't, personally I much prefer John Blatchley's original design. The only Bentley SII I had driven at that time had broke down and caused me some embarrassment. The experience had left me rather unimpressed. That particular car had led a hard life and really was not in a fit condition to be used. Looking back, it was not fair to judge the model based on experiencing that car alone. I had almost made up my mind to look for a long tail Silver Dawn when I was given the opportunity to drive a late 1962 Silver Cloud II. This car despite a somewhat lived in appearance was a revelation, and was simply delightful to drive. I loved its lofty imperial driving position and its smooth and effortless performance, and its pleasingly taut handling. The power steering seemed just right. On top of these attributes it had what was to my mind the nicest dashboard layout of all the cars. My mind had been made up. I wanted a Silver Cloud II. Little did I realise how hard it would prove to find a suitable car at a fair price.
My search for a car took me all over the country. What I found were basket cases, cars showing all the signs of total neglect at high prices. They were cars, which in all honesty were uneconomical to restore. It appeared no matter where I went, no matter how expensive the car; I could not find an unmolested that I could do something with. Just as I was about to give up the search I spotted an advert for a Silver Cloud II for sale at a classic car dealer in Chesterfield. A phone call to the proprietor assured me the car was in superb condition. He described it as a very impressive car needing nothing to be done to it, a car worthy of close inspection.
When I arrived in Chesterfield, the car was in the showroom shining under the spotlights. It looked beautiful. The photograph in the advertisement had not done the car justice, the bodywork and paint job looked very nice. It was finished in a colour scheme that I had never seen before. Smoke green over Pacific green with magnolia hide. After the cars I had previously inspected, this car looked a far better proposition.
The car had no MOT and had not been used for about eighteen months, it seemed reluctant to start at first but eventually it was persuaded to run. There seemed a fair amount of clatter from the valve gear and some smoke from the exhaust. I drove the car around the ring road in Chesterfield. The engine pulled well, had good oil pressure, and apart from the valve noise showed no other symptoms of impending trouble. The brakes seemed poor by normal standards for a Silver Cloud; the gearbox seemed very smooth although I thought I could detect slightly more noise in third gear than was usual.
The somewhat badly refinished and adjusted door garnish rails were squeaking loudly as they rubbed against the dashboard capping rail. The head cloth had started to blacken and the front carpets seemed due for replacement. The bulkhead carpet was missing.
Inside the boot the original hair cord carpet had been replaced with a cheap dark grey substitute. The toolkit was missing, as were the trim pads that sit either side of the rear seat inside the boot. Also missing was the cover for the fuel filler pipe. The whole of the inside of the boot had been painted matt black and looked pretty horrid. There was overspray on the boot upper finisher, which should have been black wrinkle finish. The battery carrier was in excellent condition showing no corrosion. Unfortunately the battery retainer and cover were missing.
Fortunately I was able to examine the underside of the car on a ramp. I was very surprised to find the chassis, sills and all the vulnerable metalwork in superb condition with no trace of rust anywhere. The only area of concern was a corroded front body mounting on the near side. Adjacent to this I found further corrosion in the front wing closing panel between the wing and the" A" Post. On close inspection of the brakes I found leaking master cylinders and corroded pipe work.
I said I wanted to see car that needed nothing doing to it! The dealer said that all the faults would be dealt with, and the car given a new MOT before being sold. I thought the proposition over for a while. This car needed a large amount of work but was in amazingly good condition bodily, and was very original and unmolested. I returned to the dealer with a very low offer for the car as it stood. I told him I wanted to buy the car as it was and have the car transported to my home where I would embark on an extensive restoration if we could come to an agreement. He seemed unimpressed, I said I would leave him to think it over, but after a while and a couple of phone calls he agreed I could have the car for the sum I had offered.
A few weeks later the car arrived, looking fairly smart cosmetically on a trailer. The unloading process soon drew the attention of various neighbours who came out of their houses for a better view. When the man who had delivered the car had gone I stood there admiring the beautiful colour scheme and flawless lines of my new purchase. One of our neighbours is particularly nosey. I had spotted him itching to give the Cloud the once over. Before long his curiosity got the better of him. He came right up to me and said "What a beautiful car, is it yours?" I answered "yes". "How can you afford a thing like that" was his retort. A little irritated, I replied with a smile, "It was the first prize in a mind your own business contest" He sucked in his cheeks and walked around the car muttering about money. I suppose I just had not expected the car to provoke a reaction from people other than the fond smile many people seem to wear when a well kept elderly vehicle comes into view. In the weeks following the arrival of the Cloud, I had to become accustomed to predictions of a rise in status. It was a surprise to me that Rolls-Royce's image was still capable of provoking such optimistic thinking in the 21st century, especially as status and posing were of no interest to me. I wanted the car because I have always thought John Blatchley's original design for the Silver Cloud produced one of the most beautiful cars of all time. Further more, as a keen vintage and classic car restorer of some experience. I needed something a bit special to re-energise my interest in restoration.
I was used to driving Rolls-Royce cars, but I had always been wearing a chauffeurs uniform when doing so. I soon noticed a different reaction from people when I drove my own car in my normal attire. I soon started to find it amusing to watch the often bizarre reactions of the general public toward the car. I had one old gentleman take off his hat and bow as I parked the car. Other people spot the car, and feel the need to make obscene gestures to the driver. Whilst on the road some drivers move out of the way as if a head of state was driving past, others want to overtake for no reason, some feel the need to cut in front of a Rolls-Royce just to cause the driver some irritation. Whatever the reaction, I wonder, can any other make of car claim to have such an impact on people?
My own view on owning an elderly Rolls-Royce holds to my seeing myself as a tempory custodian, responsible for the conservation of a special piece of motoring history. A preserver of the past to ensure future generations get to see and understand why Rolls-Royce cars were so admired and revered.
Since I bought my car, I have spent a great deal of time working on it. I have fully re-built the engine, gearbox, power steering system, brakes, and front suspension. I have made a new headlining and carpets from original materials. I have restored the interior woodwork and leatherwork, overhauled nearly all the electrical components and completely re-trimmed the boot. I doubt my work will ever be done. I have future plans for the overhaul of the rear axle and suspension. I have designed, but have yet to build and install, an air-conditioning system similar to the optional under wing system available when the cars were new. I also have plans to carry out a bare metal repaint of the entire body. I suppose it is a little like painting the Fourth Bridge, never ending!
Ownership of this car has brought me great satisfaction. It has also being the catalyst for my making several interesting new friends, learning many new skills, and gaining an insight into a British institution admired the world over. Would I recommend Silver Cloud ownership?