First Class Travel
Brian Palmer takes a light-hearted refresher of four very different Rolls-Royce models
Some view new Roll-Royce models as somewhat brash and vulgar. Old Royces, though, never die - they just become acceptably grand. Like a good Claret, perhaps, their underlying substance shows through, revealing a complex character, while a pleasing underlying refinement satiates the tastebuds of the soul.
So you may well imagine that back in 1993 my soul was rather well satiated when I sampled four very different postwar vintages courtesy of the Frank Dale & Stepsons unrivalled cellar.
1955 Silver Dawn
Only 760 Silver Dawns were built, while fewer still were endowed with special coachwork and Hooper’s Empress Line signature. The postwar Silver Dawn was slated to be the first Rolls-Royce sold complete with standardised pressed-steel bodywork but at the last minute they chickened out and sold only a Bentley version.
Which was a problem, because when they showed the car in the USA with exports very much in mind, the Yanks didn’t know what the hell it was. So the Silver Dawn finally went Stateside complete with a column gear change in 1949. In 1953 GM’s Hydramatic auto-change was standardised and the model appeared on the home market for the first time.
You progress in rather than drive this doughty dowager and with Hooper’s Empress Line coachwork you certainly feel like the monarch of all that you survey. Even the mascot is doing a quick curtsey. You sit Range Rover high above the crowd on your leather padded throne.
Whether it’s the magic of a name or not I do not know, but the Silver Dawn feels so much more aristocratic than the contemporary Bentley. By this time they were barely any different but a hushed less sporty state of engine tune set the Silver Dawn apart.
Rolls-Royce called the GM box an automatically assisted gear change and they are not as imperceptible as these units later became. The steering is unassisted but has a beautifully fluid motion on the move albeit that you require some shuffling and a keen sense of judgement when out on manoeuvres.
Nor is the 4566cc inlet over exhaust six-cylinder engine anything like as remote as you might expect today but it was more than adequately refined for the period. There’s ample power too - yards of torque at low speed - and the old girl will lift her skirts and perform in a rather surprising way when required. The chassis is excellent, too, and firm enough to encourage some entertaining cross-country travel. Just beware the heavy front end on tight bends and adopt a slow-in fast-out technique on long sweeping corners.
I must have enjoyed the experience because later on I bought a Silver Dawn with standard bodywork.
1964 Silver Cloud III
When the Silver Cloud replaced the Silver Dawn in 1955, they enlarged the bodywork, used the same drive-train but with the engine bored out to 4.9-litres while softening the suspension considerably with an eye on sales in America. In 1959 a brand new 6230cc V8 engine appeared for the Silver Cloud 11 - not without its critics or reliability issues it must be said.
The Silver Cloud 111 arrived, with a companion Bentley S3 in 1962, with trademark quad headlamps. In reality this was a debugged interim model before the groundbreaking Silver Shadow arrived. For many enthusiasts, though, this splendiferous hybrid remains the last real Rolls-Royce.
They actually lowered the bonnet and radiator in a frenetic burst of modernity so that the Silver Lady actually appears to be whooshing down some alpine ski-slope. But then the Silver Cloud 111 has an unexpected turn of speed courtesy of that torquey humping great V8 engine. Should you wish to indulge in such antics you can blow away modern day boy racers at the traffic light Grand Prix with the bonnet lifting like a Boeing 747 on take-off.
Like others of the breed, most of the time, you will prefer to maintain an effortless dignity and this has a most beneficial and relaxing effect on you as a driver. In this mode other drivers welcome this big and friendly West End Whale in their midst, flash their lights or offer a cheery waive. You feel like royalty and anyone lurking in the rear compartment is often the object of intense interest.
Head room definitely suffers over the Silver Dawn and given the auto box I prefer a larger brake pedal - but I suspect RR engineers probably frowned on anything as radical as left foot braking. The suspension is far softer than the earlier model but bad bumps do still register - like some large ocean liner lightly grazing its bottom on a submerged reef. The idea that this model has marshmallow springs, though, is very wide of the mark.
Cross country, this model certainly Rolls more than it Royces and you are very aware of its bulk. Yet there’s a great combination of old world charm and luxury combined with the sheer sophistication of its modern climate control system that weaves a lasting spell and makes you feel that this was the apogee of the line’s development. You could enjoy a long and lasting relationship with this car.
1972 Corniche Convertible
It is hard now to recall just how revolutionary the Silver Shadow of 1965 was, or just how important. The Crewe factory simply had to shed its marginal aristocratic image to appeal to a whole new world order. At the same time they had to make a far more modern car, without a separate chassis, seem ultra exclusive and plain desirable. Quite a trick.
Fortunately they pulled it off. Yet for those diehards who felt the new car looked like a large and expensive Fiat 124 help was at hand. Bucking a trend, a two door convertible arrived just a year later, and proved a popular option for those whose seaside haunts were generally Cannes rather than Cleethorpes.
This is not a car for shy retiring types who, like Greta Garbo, wish to be left alone. Everybody will want to be your friend when driving around in such an ostentatious glamour-wagon.
It is the nearest mechanical equivalent to a magic carpet as the engine wafts you along in the airstream with barely a murmur and the suspension conceals road irregularities like a mobile water-bed. The steering is two-finger light, so that guiding this luxury barge along the Queen’s Highway can scarcely be called driving.
As a massager of damaged egos, a decent one of these should be made available on the National Health Service - it would lift spirits far better than any amount of dodgy pills.
Now here’s a funny thing - as Cheeky Chappy Max Miller was won’t to say - just what do you say about the Rolls-Royce Carmague? Even by the marque’s considerable standards this car stands out from the pack.
A curiosity from the word go - it probably should have been a new Bentley Continental which at least had a history of marketing such fast and idiosyncratic conveyances. But Bentley was in the slow-lane at this period of the marque’s history while the sharply-folded Pininfarina origami-like profile better suited the Royce’s Palladian prow.
It bristled with novelty including an automatic split level heating and ventilating system that took eight years to develop and cost the equivalent of a small car to make at the time. It has none of the shrink-wrapped chumminess of the Corniche and it’s hard to know where its natural habitat really is - some deep space equivalent of its river delta name-tag I suspect.
The cars were always remote and hideously expensive. Just 531 were ever assembled. Tthat’s rarer even than my beloved Silver Dawn. Somehow, though, I doubt that my pockets would ever stretch to encompass the Carmargue’s epic running costs.