I wrote this article for the magazine of the Rolls-Royce Owners' Club (NSW Branch) in February, 1997.
Published in March 1997, in November it won the 1997 Club Literary Award for "Best Owner's Report on a Rolls-Royce or Bentley Vehicle".
I grew up with Rolls-Royce cars in the family. They were for much of that time used as daily vehicles. In those days (mid-sixties) having old cars was considered eccentric (if a bit cheap) but to the fifth of six children it provoked just that extra bit of interest - and therefore admiration - from friends. That alone made them worth having.
As I grew up we went through a succession of unusual vehicles for the time. We had a Dodge Plymouth, two Buick Straight-Eights, a 4¼ litre Mk VI, an S2 Bentley and a VW Kombivan with a memorable paintjob. Teenagers obtained their driving licences on whatever car was the household hack at the time (translation: Margaret's car), eventually graduating to the Ghost and Phantom that quietly tolerated the other vehicular comings and goings.
Ambivalence Sets In
Apart from my pride in the fact that "my Dad owned better cars than any other kid's Dad", I developed no great interest in cars. In fact I believe that I became quite blasé about Rolls-Royces and expressed not the least interest in them. I was also notorious in the family for not ever wanting to get my hands dirty and I actively avoided becoming involved in household car mechanics (Rolls-Royce of course - there was no serious attention to other makes).
My Belated Driving Career
Eventually at age twenty-two my mother forced me to learn to drive. I subsequently bought a relatively cheap, small car. I found it was not quite the car I thought it should be so I 'fiddled' with it incessantly until it was running more or less as I felt it should. Then one night I exceeded the limits of my driving ability and the car was no more ("but it was magnificent" shortly before, poor thing).
I bought a bigger car that turned out to be a D-Class-prepared racing car (in disguise as an ordinary 1978 Celica). With this car I taught myself more about driving and engine mechanics and got my hands more dirty than ever before in my life. I worked a lot on the Celica, once rebuilding the engine myself from the ground up after a piston ring failure. I was still not terribly interested in Rolls-Royces even though my parents still had the Ghost and the Phantom and I was starting to help with their maintenance.
The Wholly Ghost Tour
Keith and Kerry Wherry were organising the first Australian Wholly Ghost Tour. When they heard that Margaret and Barrie were going to be overseas at the time they asked - as SG.1492 is a significant car, could someone else take it on the Tour? Pa suggested to me that my brother Andy and I take it which, after the initial surprise and some trepidation we did. The car (and the Tour) was truly magnificent. I had never before driven a Rolls-Royce more than twenty miles or so and the joy of driving a Silver Ghost hundreds of miles at a time - sometimes at quite surprising speed - was something I realised I had been missing for far too long.
I Get The Bug
After the tour I found I was having these conversations in my head: "I must have a Rolls-Royce. There is no way around it. Driving my parents' cars is not enough. I want a Ghost of my very own. Don't be stupid Chris, you can't afford one. What Rolls-Royce can I afford that's not a Shadow? It would be nice if I could use it daily - the Celica's not going to last much longer. A Mark VI Bentley is the car for you!"
The Word Goes Out
Whenever I bumped into someone who had the remotest association with Rolls-Royces I told them I was in the market for a Mk VI. Each would nod sagely and say "Yes: a very good car." My father was quite different in his response: "Have you ever driven one?" (I hadn't.) "Then how do you know if you'd like one?" (I knew I would - Pa, it's a Rolls-Royce, you know?) "Well I think it's the height of stupidity to want to own a car you've never driven." Being one to not take my father's advice too seriously, I simply ignored him and pressed on.
A Car Appears
One sunny November Saturday morning Tony Ward phoned to tell me of a Mk.VI for sale by auction at Goodmans at Double Bay. I went down to inspect it, armed with my copy of the "Classic Cars" buyer's guide on the Mk.VI, and came away trying not to feel too excited about this car - Chassis No. B290MD, Engine No. B145M. It appeared to be complete, running and sufficiently rust-free; it even smelt right.
The next day I went back to do more looking and dreaming and fell into conversation with an older couple who were looking at the Mk.VI. I was clambering about the car, not knowing exactly what I was looking for and it must have showed. They volunteered information about the various instruments and fittings for my benefit. They observed that the car was a 4½ litre (by the twin exhaust pipes) and thus had a full-flow oil filter which their 4¼ litre back at home didn't have. Would I like to come and see it?
Don't Wrap It, I'll Eat It Here
I followed their little Japanese-made station-wagon through the maze of streets above Double Bay to their home. There I was ushered into a 'period' garage in which resided a drop-dead-beautiful two-tone Moss Green Mk.VI. I was touched by the obvious devotion the couple paid to this pristine car. They started it for me to listen to, told me about it and them and opened the bonnet to show me how it differed from the car at the auction yard. Suddenly the man said "There was an ad for a Mk.VI in the paper a few weeks ago which I cut and kept. I'll get it for you. You might follow it up if you miss out on this one." Shortly after he returned with the newspaper cutting I left and I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't take proper note of the address or their name.
I phoned Jim Kelso to seek his help in finding someone experienced to inspect the car for me. He volunteered, as he was in the area on Monday and had an hour or so to kill before a lunch engagement. On Monday afternoon he phoned me to say that he had had a good look and could report that he thought it 'an honest car' that would probably make reserve.
I Become A Proud Rolls-Royce/Bentley Owner
The auction went smoothly and I bought the car at its reserve. My handwriting was not so smooth making out the deposit cheque - the largest cheque I had ever written for the most expensive object I had ever bought. After a surprisingly brief and bloodless encounter with my bank manager the next day, I went to pick up my 'new' car. It had to be jump-started because someone had left the ignition on the day before (uh-oh, I think it was me). I may have disregarded my father's opinions, but he was right in one respect: I had never driven a Mk.VI before I drove out the gates, so I duly stalled five minutes later at the lights on the hill at Edgecliff. Luckily the car started again (with me waving frantically and as jovially as I could to inconvenienced motorists). I drove gingerly north through the Harbour Tunnel to St.Leonards, thinking at every stop that the engine had stalled again - since it couldn't be that quiet.
"You Bought a 1951 Bentley?!"
The response at work was a mixture of amazement and bemusement, enthusiasm and indifference. One colleague was truly bewildered when he learnt that my 'new' car was not only older than he was but that I had actually paid for it. Others were struck by the incredible difference between this and my previous car. I explained this with the aphorism "A sign of encroaching middle-age in a man is when he no longer cares how fast his car will go, but how long it will last."
Barrie Eats His Words
I took the car that evening to my parents' place to show it off and take them for a ride. Pa was sitting next to me in the front seat. "You're very quiet.", I said. "Yes ... I'm just taking it all in." He replied slowly as Ma winked at me from the back seat. It is now hard to stop him singing the car's praises loudly whenever he drives or rides in it. For a short time he entertained the idea of getting one for himself.
Some Pleasant Surprises
B290MD came with a fairly complete set of papers and log books, two car manuals (one a bound photocopy), the correct toolkits (missing only the distributor spanner), an original tax disc "Barnacle" and a workshop manual. The workshop manual is marked "Black Bess" in Letraset and examination of the papers shows that "Black Bess" has been B290MD's name since at least 1958. Something clicked and I remembered the newspaper cutting given to me by the owners of the 4¼ l. It was still in my wallet and, sure enough, it was an advertisement for "Black Bess" a few months earlier at over one-and-a-half times the price I paid!
A Little History
Bess went through a number of owners in England before being shipped to Australia in 1982. A few Australian owners in fairly quick succession saw her to the auction yard where I acquired her. The table shows my best guess at the names and places of previous owners, as gleaned from Bess' papers.
Registered Owners of B290MD 3-Oct-1951 Rolls-Royce Ltd Crewe, Cheshire 4-Jan-1952 L. Donn London W.1 6-Feb-1952 S & F London E.O.2 27-Feb-1958 Dr. Mathers Harrow, MDX 19-Jan-1963 Dr. Mathers Pinner, MDX 13-Jan-1969 E. Goddard Honiton, Devon 24-Feb-1972 A. Hutchins Prestbury, Cheshire 19-Oct-1982 P. Kenny NSW 14-Sep-1983 J. Ellsmore Sylvania, NSW 7-Jan-1987 R. Carr Oatley, NSW 7-Jan-1992 K. MacInnis Armidale, NSW early-1994 R. Mowat Paddington, NSW 30-Nov-1994 C. Gillings Lane Cove, NSW
Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
"Black Bess" (or very occasionally "Oh Black Betty, lam-ba-lam") had arrived. My 'racing' Celica was a thing of the past - a discarded toy - as I commenced that glorious therapy that is driving a Rolls-Royce every day. Bess is in remarkable condition mechanically, it being her minor dents and other slight cosmetic problems that made her unappealing to the auction crowd that night. Being a Gillings I feel I'm almost expected not to care unduly about the physical appearance of my car, so I'm somewhat proud to describe her as 'unrestored'.
Bess Shows Her Colours
Within two months of owning Bess she propelled my brother, a friend and me to Adelaide to the WOMAD music festival and back again. The only problems encountered were a flat tyre at Casula less than an hour into our trip and a blocked radiator climbing Mount Barker out of Adelaide on the way home. The trip from Ouyen in western Victoria to Sydney took fifteen hours (including meal breaks) without incident. I had done no prior work on the car nor had anyone made a truly detailed inspection of it other than for registration. Despite this and one slowly balding front tyre we managed a comfortable cruising speed of seventy miles per hour for much of the Hume Highway.
Because Bess is my daily car I usually can't afford the luxury of taking her off the road for more than a few days at a time. Maintenance work is currently limited to that which is necessary or routine. In the last three years the only repairs required have been a new set of exhaust gaskets and tyres, a few water hoses and a recent reseal of the windscreen - all of which I thoroughly enjoyed doing myself. As time has permitted I have restored several 'colonial' modifications to their original specifications.
No Worries, Mate
Last winter there were a number of mornings when Bess wouldn't start due to some electrical reason - as yet unresolved but currently quiescent. This caused me some anxiety until I realised that there is a starting handle stored under the bonnet. Starting handles don't frighten me, so the only concern I have when Bess won't start is that I won't have clearance at the front to insert the starting handle. It's features like this and the built-in toolkit and inspection light that contribute to making Rolls-Royce motoring a low-stress affair.
"But It's So Big!"
Because a Mk.VI is such a tall, 'slab-sided' car it looks much larger than it is (in fact shorter and less wide than a Holden Calais by some inches). This actually makes it easier to tell where your 'corners' are, so you can consistently amaze your friends and colleagues with what appears to be consummate skill at parking and manoeuvring in tight spaces. A Mk.VI's performance is more than adequate to keep pace with modern motoring. In traffic you have a forward vision far greater than the average motorist in his ground-hugging go-kart, so planning where you need to be on a multi-laned road is far easier. Being big, solid and apparently an expensive collision proposition also makes people less inclined to intimidate you in traffic.
A Car For Life...
I intend to hang on to Bess for as long as I can. People often ask about maintenance, insurance and fuel costs. I reply that fuel consumption is no worse than a racing Celica and insurance expenses are lower owing to the lower rate of accidents involving Rolls-Royces. Spare parts costs are no worse than for modern cars (often actually cheaper). Besides, the spare parts you do buy last twice as long! It's good to have a car in which you have a calm confidence.
...And One for Sundays?
It can't end there: I'm more involved in Silver Ghost activities and the bug is as strong as ever. I still lust after my very own Silver Ghost but I'm currently thinking of the closest thing that's still within a cooee of my budget. Anyone know where I can find a cheap, running 20-HP?