High Rollers: A tale of two Rolls-Royce classics, one with a bargain price
Oh, how the mighty can fall. And when they do, it can be an opportunity to pick up a genuine classic at a laughably low price. Of course, you might have to sift through numerous rust-ravaged hulks before finding “the one,” because even when a mighty car falls on hard times, drops in value, and finds no love, neglect and Mother Nature can quickly take their toll.
In the late 1970s–80s, such was the case of the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, the storied marque’s iconic and aristocratic 1955–66 sedan (“saloon”). But times and collector tastes change, and today a good Cloud can bring $100,000-plus. While this Cloud may have risen above the affordability zone for many, another of the company’s most prized models, the 1971–95 Corniche convertible—once a Hollywood favorite—seems like a bargain at half that price (service costs aside).
Is there a classic Rolls in your future?
Cut the mustard jokes already
Many know the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud as the star of a 1980s mustard commercial. One Silver Cloud pulls astride another, and its chauffeured passenger rolls down the window and asks his counterpart in the other Rolls, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”
As much as those old Rollers seemed to epitomize the one-percenter lifestyle when that commercial first aired in 1981, the truth is that you could buy one for not too many pounds sterling. That’s why you started seeing so many repainted white (often badly) and used as wedding rentals. Even 10 years ago, $25,000 could have put you in a decent, non-rusted Silver Cloud.
Rust on “the best car in the world?” Some historical perspective is required. The Silver Cloud looked elegant yet dated when it debuted in 1955, its exterior a pastiche of pre-war cues such as the “double bow” fender profile and the archaic and impractical split side-opening hood. The standard Cloud body was built mostly of steel by Britain’s Pressed Steel Company, so banish visions of old-time panel beaters shaping those flowing fenders. (That was the case with the coachbuilt coupe, sedan, and convertible bodies built on about 550 Cloud chassis, but we’re not talking about those here.)
As “old money” as the Silver Cloud might have looked, it began attracting a lot of new money to the brand, perhaps to the chagrin of loyal Rolls owners who chaffed at seeing pop and rock stars and, even worse, comedians, tooling around in them. You might recall the Gypsy wagon-inspired paint job that John Lennon commissioned for his Phantom V (essentially a Silver Cloud limo). God save the queen!
The Silver Cloud appeared the same year that Citroen upended the fundamentals of car design and engineering with its landmark DS. Rolls-Royce, however, stuck with tried-and-true engineering, design, and construction methods—a.k.a. pre-war methods.
The heavy welded steel frame and leaf-sprung solid axle rear suspension gave the Cloud a steady and quiet foundation for a cloud-like ride. A famous print ad for the car touted, “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest sound in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” (It wasn’t the world’s quietest clock.)
The Cloud debuted with the pre-war inline-six and then, in 1958, became the Series II with the introduction of an aluminum V-8, which was hitched to a General Motors Hydra-Matic transmission. Like Rolls models before it, the Cloud used drum brakes with a mechanical booster. Based on a pre-war Hispano-Suiza design, it used torque from the transmission to apply pressure to hydraulic master cylinders.
The Cloud’s paneled and padded interior was the height of grand British luxury, boasting 12 square feet of wood, three entire cowhides, and 56 yards of leather piping. The cabin, however, was not as roomy as the car’s puffy exterior dimensions suggested, and the big, thin-rim steering wheel and shallow dashboard looked fresh out of 1938.
Rolls built about 6,700 regular Silver Cloud sedans, plus another 640 or so long-wheelbase versions, spread over three series ending in 1966 (not including the Cloud’s Bentley-badged twin, the S Type.)
If the astonishing Mercedes-Benz 600 that was introduced in 1964 left Rolls customers dazed, the crew from Crewe had just the thing to keep them in the fold: the Silver Shadow, introduced in 1965. With a slab-sided body not unlike the Lincoln Continental, the Shadow was also fully modern underneath, with independent rear suspension and a Citroen-licensed hydraulic system for the brakes and self-leveling suspension. (Note: Don’t even think about buying a Silver Shadow or any of its derivatives before first educating yourself on its brake system maintenance and costs.)
Two-door coupe and convertible models appeared in 1966, taking on the Corniche name in 1971, after La Grand Corniche, the cliff-hugging road above the Mediterranean between Nice, France, and Monte Carlo. You may have seen it in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and the 1995 James Bond thriller Goldeneye.
The Corniche coupe was gone by 1981, but the convertible lasted until 1995 and was also sold as a Bentley. Certainly one of the most elegant automobiles ever made, each one took more than a month to build. Not surprisingly, the Corniche convertible appealed to the entertainment set, with Liberace, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dean Martin, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, and Tom Jones counted as owners.
The “drophead” offered ample proof that a convertible roof, a memorable design and hand-built craftsmanship could compensate for obsolescence—real or perceived—in the chassis, cabin, or under the hood. The Corniche kept its sedan sibling’s 120-inch wheelbase and offered a balanced look with its top up. When lowered, however, the top collected into a rather clumsy stack—and it didn’t even get a glass rear window until 1993.
The one, the only
The Rolls Corniche, which never had a true direct competitor, exemplified the pillow-soft comfort end of the luxury car spectrum. Rolls-Royce advertised horsepower for the 6.75-liter V-8 as “sufficient”—it was about 200 net hp. The Corniche was, and remains, an ideal automobile for slowing down to enjoy life.
As improvements came, the Corniche took on “II,” “III,” and “IV” series designators. Bolstered sport seats? A burbling exhaust note? Sport suspension? Surely, you jest. By 1989, the price started at $205,000 (about $410,000 in today’s dollars).
All told, Rolls-Royce made only about 5,150 Corniche convertibles. The last 25 built were called Corniche S and used a turbocharged version of the V-8 (shared with the Bentley version, by then called Continental). All S models were sold in the U.S.; not surprisingly, they are highly sought after and the most expensive.
Nothing else looks like a Rolls-Royce Corniche or has its unique presence. How long they will remain “affordable” is anyone’s guess.