Slumming It

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Rolls Royce is one of those companies that, like Goldman Sachs or Justin Timberlake’s acting career, divides its fans and its enemies along some pretty ethically questionable lines. No matter how technically saturated the market gets, or how fundamental any given trend becomes, every Rolls will always remain staid, posh, stuffy and whatever other shamelessly British words you can think of. Except, perhaps, for this one. This is a 1977 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II. 

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Most of the Rollers that preceded the Silver Shadow had names like “Silver Cloud” and “Silver Dawn” and were big, luxury barges, trimmed in gold and driven by men in suits and caps. Buying a Rolls meant that you had graduated from merely “rich,” to genuinely “wealthy.” You sat in the backseat, trading Russian gas or buying the Moon or whatever it is that the moneyed upper classes do while outside, past your ultra-quiet, sound deadened and double-glazed window panes, the worthless plebeians of the world fruitlessly toiled on with their meaningless existences. It was all very British. Not shouty, like American luxury, but from the outside looking in, the people, your subjects, knew who was in change. There’s an influence, a subtle one, that comes with owning a Rolls Royce that you just don’t get with other cars.

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Part of this came from the fact that Rolls Royce generally employed a great number of craftsmen to hand build each car, which meant two things. First, they were very expensive. Like, if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it levels of priceyness. Second and not un-coincidentally, on the whole, there weren’t a whole lot of Rolls Royces to go around. Here’s where the Silver Shadow strolls onto the scene. See, when it came time for Rolls to roll (zing) out a new car in 1965, the men in Crewe decided to let their impeccably sculpted hair down a bit. Out went the bustle back in favor the more popular three-box style. The Shadow got disc-brakes at all four corners, a self-leveling suspension, and, most significantly, a unibody construction. It may not look it now, but this was a thoroughly modern car back in 1965, and a radical departure for Rolls.

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Unibody, in contrast to body-on-frame construction, effectively means the body panels make up the  structure of the vehicle. This meant that even though the Shadow was smaller and lower than the car it replaced, it actually offered more legroom. Power, about 189 horsepower’s worth, came from a 6750cc, 16 valve V8 linked to a three speed automatic. All of this meant that suddenly Rolls Royce was attracting a decidedly new audience. Gone were the stuffy conglomerate owners and inbred aristocrats of old. New money was the name of the game now. Pop stars, Wall Street traders, entrepreneurs and artists all made the list of Silver Shadow owners. Andy Warhol had one. So did George Harrison.

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In an attempt to keep up with this newfound demand, Rolls Royce made far more cars than was necessary, which led to the automotive inevitability known as depreciation. So, for some relatively complex and boring economic reasons the Silver Shadow lost value at a faster rate than past Rolls Royces which, coupled with the posh image that Rolls had cultivated for so many years, attracted a decidedly unsavory crowd. Used car salesmen. “Family business” owners. Adult video producers. In other words, people with the attitude of the elite, but without the money to support it. The problem was that these people weren’t prepared for the upkeep and maintenance that an aging car like this demands, and as a result when the Shadows broke down or rusted out, they were left for scrap. The multitude of used Silver Shadows of the world were putting a serious dent in Rolls’ reputation.

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But, thankfully, there is a silver lining to the Silver Shadow’s story. As the years wore on, the neglected Shads were either crushed or gutted for parts. Parts which were, incidentally, used to keep the surviving Shadows- the ones owned by more caring, gentle folk- in solid, running condition. Which is a very good thing, because it allows an important piece of a 100 year old company to be enjoyed by all who see it. So from radical departure, to pop icon, to shady ownership, to junkyards, to finally the hands of genuine collectors. It’s a bumpy history, certainly. But it’s okay: the Silver Shadow has self leveling suspension.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Rolls Royce were actually about to call this car the “Silver Mist,” which is the logical progression from “Silver Cloud,” but they didn’t, because some very careful person in the office discovered that mist is actually the German word for manure.
  • This is a Series II car, which was introduced in 1977 and effectively entailed new bumpers, a thicker grille, and rack-and-pinion steering.
  • I mentioned earlier that the Shadow develops in the neighborhood of 189 horsepower, but don’t go thinking I got that information from Rolls Royce themselves. No, Rolls describes the power rating of all their cars, to this day, with one word: sufficient.
  • The suspension system that was the subject of that cringeworthy last line was sourced from Citroen, incidentally. And the transmission came from GM.
  • This is a personal note, but I love that the rearview mirrors are mounted way out on the the hood on this car. It’s just somehow luxurious-er.
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3 thoughts on “Slumming It

  1. Pingback: Tough To Pin Down | Forgotten metal

  2. Pingback: Forgotten Places: Bletchley Park | Forgotten metal

  3. Pingback: You’re Only Supposed To Blow The Bloody Doors Off! | Forgotten metal

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