Monday, November 10, 2014

Buying a Used Rolls Royce or Bentley

Many of the people who join the Rolls Royce or Bentley owner’s clubs come to this blog and the club forum with a dream of owning a Rolls Royce or Bentley.  Some already own one, or several.  Some remember a car from childhood, and imagine having a similar car of their own.  Maybe Dad had one, or perhaps an uncle or family friend.  Maybe you just saw them gliding by in New York and want one now that you are older . . .

My son Jack and I at an event, when these now-vintage cars were new (c) J E Robison Service

An early 1980s Rolls Royce Corniche on the show field

That is the thing about these cars . . . they are “the stuff of dreams” for many people, and they stand for a now-vanished era for others.  They are also one of the only symbols of that “lifestyle of the rich and famous” that ever becomes affordable to the average person.  Mansions don’t sell for pennies unless they are in the midst of urban blight, and require helicopter gunships for defense. Big yachts can get inexpensive to buy, but they usually need a million dollars in repairs when they reach that point.  And there is the other thing – neglected boats sink.

Rolls Royce and Bentley cars are different.  They start out at several hundred of today’s dollars, but good 20-year-old examples are often sold for 10% of the new value.  Maintenance on these cars can be steep, but it’s still within the means of many enthusiasts.  And most of the costs are for labor, so a person who does his own work has a major advantage.

As a car club, we should encourage those people, whatever their reason is for being interested in the car.  Ideally, we would do what we can to help them realize their dream in a good way, and not as a nightmare.

The best way to avoid a bad experience is to buy a good car.  If someone comes to the club forum with a car, that die is cast.  All we can do is give our best advice to get the most from whatever car they have.  If they do not have a car, we can offer advice on how to select a good vehicle.  We can steer them toward experts the club membership recognizes as qualified and suggest they inspect any potential acquisition carefully.

And we can encourage them to join the club, which anyone can do at this link.

Finally, we can offer some practical advice.  Here are a few of my thoughts.  Some of you may have different opinions. My perspective is that of a Rolls Royce/Bentley service manager though I have also been a RR/B owner for 20-some years and I too “got the dream” when my grandfather showed me a Silver Cloud, back in the 1960s.

Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II (c) J E Robison Service

RR/B changed corporate ownership in 2003, and almost all the vehicle technology changed on or around that date.  Since then, the majority of dealership service staff has turned over too. That means the service personnel in the dealer network can support post-2003 cars, but many dealers can't support the older vehicles because they lack staff that know the cars. And RR/B is not offering service training on the older vehicles anymore.  For all practical purposes, the “old” Rolls Royce Motors is gone.  For that reason you need to take a lot more care buying an older car, and you need to be sure you have someone to support it. 

As drivers of any kind of car, we get used to "bring it to the dealer" as a last resort.  Whether you drive a Chevrolet, a Toyota, or a Mercedes for your daily beast, that option is always there when your local mechanic is in over his head. Unfortunately that won't work in most places for a 1988 Rolls Royce.

That’s why – if you live in an area where Rolls Royce cars are rare – it’s important to figure out who will care for the car before it needs service.   But what if you want a newer car?

That is where the current dealer networks shine.  Corporate parents BMW and VW have made it easy to buy late model cars with sales incentives and extended warranty just like any other car (the old Rolls Royce never had those things!)  Also, the prevalence of new car lease programs ensures there is a steady supply of 3-6 year old used cars in the dealer network.  If you can afford the purchase price and the annual upkeep ($10k++ per year for service, taxes, fuel, etc.) this is an easy route to take.

Most people who come to this blog or the club forum, though, want older vehicles for a variety of reasons.  So what’s the lowdown on buying an older car?

There are several distinct series of vehicles:
  • The Rolls Royce Seraph/Bentley Arnage series was introduced in 1999 and built through the corporate transition.  These are fine cars but support for them may evaporate as they age. 
  • The Silver Spur/Bentley Turbo and Mulsanne series was made from 1981 to 1999.  These are the most common used RR/B cars in the market.  Good examples – depending on age – sell for $25-40,000 today.
  • The Silver Shadow series was built from 1966-1980 and is also common.  These were fine cars when new but most of the examples in the used car marketplace are in very rough shape.  Costs to make the cars safe to drive often exceed cash value.  Good examples – rare as they are – are excellent driving vehicles and possessed of a more classic style than the newer series.
  • The Bentley Azure/final Corniche cars were made from 1996 through the transition, and are popular because of their price and look.  Good examples are often sold in the $70-100,000 range.  Be careful though – hydraulic problems in the tops are common, and repair can run $20,000.  Tops themselves are costly as well.
  • The Corniche convertibles were made from the 1960s through 1995.  The older convertible cars are the vehicles with the most potential to rise in value over the next decade.  They are the most expensive to buy, but service costs tend to be similar to the others cars and there is more potential for positive return
  • You will also see the occasional Camargue coupe offered for sale. These cars are rare, and have some potential for appreciation, but they have never been really popular.

Once you have settled on a series, the next step is fining a good car.  That’s often a real challenge.  There are lots of rough cars on the market, and it’s easy to be misled because a beautiful exterior can conceal a ton of mechanical neglect.  And a car with cosmetic problems can fool you when the cosmetic repairs turn out vastly more expensive than you anticipated.

Many – indeed most – of the pre-2003 Rolls Royce and Bentley cars that are offered for sale, are offered because they have problems the present owner does not want to address.  They may not say that to you – they may deny it vehemently – but it is true.  Why else would the car be offered for sale?

The worst cars – when it comes to condition – seem to be those on ebay with carfax reports showing 8-10-15 owners.  When you see that kind of ownership profile you have to be vary careful.  Most often, it’s a car that’s been passed from one short-term owner to the next with the condition sliding a little more each transfer.  Cars like that can be horrors.  Be really careful looking at any car like this.  Always ask for service records and owner history.

Talk to the owner and ask yourself if you would want to take over a car that person has cared for.  But know that's a hard call to make. I cannot tell you how many motorists have come to our company and boasted of the loving care they have given to a car that is obviously seriously neglected. All I can say is, their idea of care is different from mine.  Yet there are other owners whose love for machinery show and those are the ones to buy from, if you can find such a person.

Where to find a good car? I know what you are thinking – death, divorce, things like that.  Those things happen, but if the car is really great, there is someone in the wings to take it.  Most of the time.  Incredible deals do pop up, but it’s rare.  When a dealer has the car you have an additional problem because there is now a middleman in the equation who has added to the price and detracted from the available first person knowledge of the vehicle.  The usual dealer advantages – warranty and the backing of a good service department – don’t generally apply to those who sell vintage RR/B cars.

The exception to that - and another seller to seek out -  is the qualified service person who is selling a client's car. For example, John Palma is a recognized Rolls Royce expert in New Jersey. I would not hesitate to buy a car he was selling on behalf of a service client because I'd know he knows what is being offered and I'd presume he could answer my questions. Albers in Zionsville, Indiana is another such organization. Buying from a reputable seller like that will not make the car trouble free, but it will at least be truthfully described and not butchered by hack repairmen.

When a car is sold by someone who’s become unable to drive, or sold out of an estate, it has often been neglected for years.  The finest gentleman in the world can still sell a very rough car, if it’s sat in his summer home garage untouched for 20 years.  There are some wealthy people with a lot of cars who just let them sit.  Those cars can be really nice cosmetically, but need everything when you start driving them.  Of course, if you want the car to sit and admire in your home, that may be a perfect fit for you.

The fact is, any car you buy is going to need work if you want to use it regularly and expect it to be properly functional.  I advise anyone who buys a 1980-1999 Rolls or Bentley to be prepared to put $10,000 into it shortly after purchase, maybe $20,000, and don’t be surprised if it takes more.  If it will strain your budget to spend that money, don’t buy the car in the first place because that is the price of entry most times.

Paying more for a better car will get you a better car, but it will still need work.  That is how these cars are.

You may think of buying a 1965-1980 Shadow-era car.  Those cars may cost less, but they are often run down, and you may double the initial service investment. And I should point out, it’s not an investment in a financial sense.  If you buy a car for $15,000 and put $10,000 into it, it’s still a $15,000 car.  It’s just in better condition and fit for use, where it was not before.  And a Shadow of that vintage can soak up all that mechanical upkeep money while still needing paint, wood, leather.  All that will costs tens of thousands to make right in any Rolls.

The Shadow series cars are great drivers, they look good, and they are the first series of RR/B to be capable of modern highway driving (when they are in good shape)

The older Cloud cars may take less upkeep (but they may also need far more) and they are more valuable.  But they drive like antiques.  If you want a vintage Rolls and know how they drive, go for it.  But don’t expect a 1958 Cloud to drive anything like a modern car.

Cloud era cars are a lot more variable.  Common examples (like the early 50s Bentley) can be cheap to buy and relatively inexpensive to keep on the road.  Really desirable examples – the rare dropheads – are fetching mid-six-figure prices.  So you need to know what you are looking at there.

Older cars (pre-World War II) are even more specialized, and I’d encourage you to learn what you are getting into before buying your first car of this era.  They are nothing like modern vehicles, but they can be a lot of fun.

Before you buy a car, consider who will work on it for you.  The biggest mistake some new owners make is choosing a “service provider” who is not qualified to work on the cars.  All too many mechanics say “sure I can work on those” when in fact they will cause more problems than they fix.  But there are some truly outstanding technicians working the field, and you may be lucky enough to live 10 miles from one.  The best advice there is to ask the members and see where others near you go for service.

I’ve written some more specific advice about what to look for on modern cars, which you can find at this blog  and my website ( ) under service > Rolls Royce/Bentley > advice

Good luck

John Elder Robison

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for Rolls Royce and Bentley owners all over New England for over 25 years. Founder John Robison is a long time technical consultant for the Rolls Royce and Bentley Owners Club. Our company is an authorized Bosch Car Service Center. We also service Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and MINI motorcars. We have flatbed transport throughout the northeast region, and we work with Intercity and other transporters for greater distances. We also offer pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Blown Head Gaskets in Bentley Turbo R and Azure

“My Bentley overheated, and now the engine is smoking.” As the cars age, I hear that more and more from Turbo R and Azure owners.  As the story unfolds, the narrative often runs something like this:

“I pulled out of my driveway and went down to the ramp for I-95.  I gunned it to move up the ramp, and accelerated to 80 in the left lane.  I looked down a moment later and the temperature gauge was all the way to the right.  I started to pull over, and the engine stalled.  When I started it back up, smoke came pouring out from under the hood.  You’ll have to send a wrecker for it.”

Steam comes out of the head bolt holes on a Turbo R with blown gaskets
Coolant leaking from head bolts is a sure sign of head gasket failure, and maybe more damage

People describe the problem as head gasket failure, but it’s often quite a bit more involved.  And it’s happening more and more as these fine cars age.

When you look at the motor on one of these cars you may actually see coolant coming out around the head studs as shown in the photos above.  Most times, though, you don't see anything but steam from the radiator and bubbles in the expansion tank. What’s that tell us? It means the head gasket has blown out, and the motor has to come apart.

A Bentley engine with heads removed (c) J E Robison Service
An assembled Bentley Turbo motor, vintage 1996 (c) J E Robison Service
How far apart, you ask?  It depends on how much damage the engine has sustained.  It's hard to know that until it's taken apart, and even then you may not be able to tell. The only sure cure for overheating damage if a full rebuild, which few people want to do.  So we take apart the top and see what we can see . . . 

Rolls-Royce Bentley V8 with 20 head studs on each side (c) J E Robison Service

To begin, all the turbo and intake piping comes off, and the valve covers are exposed.  The covers come off, as do the rocker shafts and exhaust manifolds.  The head bolts are now exposed, 20 of them on each side.  The first clue to the extent of damage is how tight those bolts are.  If they are still torqued that’s a good sign.  If they are loose you should expect some trouble and possibly a number of pulled studs.

Once the head is off you can often see the blowout.  In my experience the cylinders that are physically closest to the turbocharger are the most likely to fail.  The next photo shows a blown head gasket.

Bentley Turbo motor with head removed - front two cylinders have blown out
When the fire ring fails (that’s the part of the head gasket that seals the combustion chamber) the combustion gases burn through the inner gasket material and pour into the cooling passages.  Check out the closeups in the photos below.  The hot combustion gas fills the cooling system with bubbles, which reduces the efficiency of the coolant.  It also pushes coolant out the radiator overflow as the system is over pressurized.

Bentley Turbo - head gasket blown at the bottom on both cylinders (c) J E Robison Service

That is the means by which head gasket blowout translates into an overheating failure.  But that’s just the first step . . .

Closeup of burnt Bentley head gasket - blown into water jacket. The red band is part of the head gasket - it's extra sealing around a cooling water jacket area. As you see, the gasket is burned through from there into the combustion chamber seal (c) 2014 J E Robison Service

When the engine overheats the metals expand.  The aluminum block expands more than the steel studs, so the tension on the studs rises as the motor heats up.  That’s good to a point, because it makes the head gasket clamp tighter at normal temperatures.  But when the motor overheats – particularly when an area near a stud gets really hot – problems develop.

When the aluminum expands the stud stretches, and the gasket compresses . . . to a point.  Beyond that point, the studs pull out of the block, taking the threads with them.

Here’s a pulled stud, with strands of aluminum block clinging to it.

Bentley head stud with threads pulled (c) 2014 J E Robison Service

I used to think these Bentley head gasket jobs were simple.  Not anymore!  It seems like every one we've seen in the past few years has had more complications than the one before.  Most of these engines have one or more pulled studs and some have other damage.

Head stud and insert (c) J E Robison Service

A repaired head stud (c) 2014 J E Robison Service

The most common stud failures are on the top and bottom rows.  That's lucky, because the center rows studs can't be fixed without stripping the block.  If you fix studs, it's absolutely critical that you drill the repair holes straight.  If the studs are even a little bit crooked the head won't go on!  The photo below shows the alignment fixture we use to drill straight holes.

One engine this summer got hot enough in the front cylinder to melt the injector tip.  What do you do then?  A wise person would change all 8 injectors on a 20-year-old car, but that is several thousand dollars of parts.  When the fuel rail is apart don't forget the other o-rings that you can't get at when the motor is together.  Repair of these motors can get expensive fast.  You don't want to ask how bad it can get because the answer is over $50,000 as of 2014.

Before you dismiss that number as crazy, consider these costs if you drive your Turbo Bentley until the engine overheats and seizes

  • Rebuild long block engine after major failure - $35,000
  • Replace melted injectors and rail parts - $3,000
  • Replace water pump, radiator, coolant hoses and thermostat - $3,000
  • Replace other heat-damaged parts - turbo, pipes, possibly catalyst - $3-6,000
  • Labor for all this work - $10,000+
All you can do is shut the motor off the moment you see it's overheated, and hope your case is not the worst case.

When an engine has gotten hot enough to pull studs you have to look for other issues.  The first is warpage.  The heads are almost certainly going to be warped, and we would surface them as a matter of course.  The mating surface on the block – called the deck – may also be warped, but it’s not so easy to fix that.  The only way to true a warped deck is to remove the motor, strip it completely – including stud removal - and then machine it flat. It's very common for people to skip this step - "just throw some new gaskets in and per er together" - but that really just sets you up for later failures, often worse than the first one.

Here’s a cylinder head after it’s been surfaced.  The surface is uniform and smooth but we had to shave off .008 to achieve that.  If we had skipped that step the head gasket would have been overstressed in the high spots and under stressed in the low ones.  That's why surfacing is important.  

We also do a full valve job, to ensure the car runs as smooth as possible.  I often see shops skip this step too, but why?  If you can spend a few more hours here and get a smoother car, why would you not do that?

Bentley cylinder head ready to install (c) J E Robison Service
When studs pull out of the block you have two choices.  Mild damage can be fixed with a Heli-coil insert.  More major damage calls for a solid insert.  In both cases the fitment of larger inserts between the stud and the block makes for a stronger joint than original. That means we can assemble with 110% of the original torque, which reduces odds of failure even more.  Strong studs - strong engines.

What's the typical repair consist of now?
  • Remove heads, clean all parts, and check for damage. Always pull both heads, even if only one is blown.  If you don't, the other side will fail soon after.  We have learned that the hard way.
  • Check the heads for cracks and warping, and do a full valve job with guides and seals.
  • Check all the injectors and replace all fuel injection o rings.
  • Replace the thermostat, belts, and other consumable parts.
  • Use a fixture to test torque the head studs 20% tighter than stock and ensure they do not begin to give way when left overnight.  Repair any that are marginal.
  • Use a gauge to check block flatness and consider full overhaul if the warpage is more than .004
  • Replace all the hard rubber hoses in the center engine area - this is your time to get at them easily.
When you do all this work, you always wonder . . . is this as deep as the damage goes?  Unfortunately, there is no way to know, short of total engine disassembly.  It’s possible the pistons have seize damage, and it’s possible the liner seals are damaged.  There are other possibilities too, but they are less likely.  You can look for evidence, but if there's nothing to see you have to put it together and hope for the best.  

What can you do to check for other damage?
  •        Look at the cylinder walls for signs of scraping.  That could be evidence of piston damage.  If you see this, the engine should be removed and the pistons pulled.
  •        Look at the oil, and sniff it. Is it burnt?  Burnt oil is a very bad sign because it means the core of the motor got very hot.
  •        Look at the amount of warpage in the deck.  If you have .003-.005 of warping (measured with a good straight edge) that’s probably ok.  .010 of warping and you may have bigger problems that will necessitate engine removal.  When the metal is warped at the top it may be warped at the bottom, and if the crank journals are out of true the engine will eventually fail.

 Why do these engines fail?

That's an excellent question.  Here's my theory.  When the car is new the head bolts are torqued to around 50 foot-pounds.  With 20 bolts per side, this adds up to many tons of clamping force on the gasket surface. This force is increased every time the engine gets hot, and it's relaxed when the motor cools down. When the motor is overheated the pressures skyrocket.

After a few such cycles the gasket gets squeezed a tiny bit thinner, and the torque on the bolts starts to drop.  The result - lower clamping force on a cold engine.   When the motor heats up, all is still well because the thermal expansion tightens everything up.  But on a cold engine we have an incipient disaster.  When the low clamping forces of a cold engine with relaxed torque come up against the high cylinder pressures of a turbo engine under throttle the result may be a blowout.

That is why Bentley Turbo head gaskets blow out on cold engines.  Hot motors are much less at risk. It's one more good reason to warm your Turbo up thoroughly before you get into the throttle.

Bentley engine - always check the desk surface for warpage (c) J E Robison Service
We use Copper-Cote to help seal the head gasket after a blowout.  Reassembly of a Turbo R (c) Robison Service
Applicability of this article:

The information in this article applies to all Bentley Turbo R, Continental R, Continental T, and Azure cars, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.  It's also mostly applicable to newer Bentley cars (Arnage, etc) with the 6.75L twin-turbo motor, though the teardown and reassembly of those engines may be more complicated and they are likely to have additional damage.

Bentley Continental T (c) J E Robison Service

Bentley Azure (c) J E Robison Service

Bentley Turbo R (c) J E Robison Service, Springfield, MA, USA
Give us a call at 413-785-1665 if you'd like to talk about a Rolls Royce or Bentley engine repair.  We handle all aspects of engine service and rebuilding.

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for Rolls Royce and Bentley owners all over New England for over 25 years. Our company is an authorized Bosch Car Service Center. We also service Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and MINI motorcars. We have flatbed transport throughout the region. We also offer pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Is a Software Bug Setting MINI Coopers on Fire?

In the summer of 2013, we got a call from the owner of a 2008 MINI Cooper S, an R56 model. She’d gotten in her car to go to work, and her power steering wasn’t working.  We got the car in, and found a burnt steering motor (EPS) and a damaged high power electrical connector.  We replaced the parts, checked the coding, verified that the steering worked, and sent her on her way.  We’ve replaced quite a few steering motors so this one didn’t raise any eyebrows.

A year later the pump failed again.  This time the connector actually melted enough to separate from the steering motor.  When the owner tried to plug it back in the sparks told him to back off.  MINI supplied a new motor and connector under parts warranty, and we changed them.  Once again the steering worked.  We thought it strange that the motor we changed a year ago would fail.

A month later the owner drove the car to dinner and parked it for the night at 8PM.  Twelve hours later – at 8 on a Sunday morning – a neighbor spotted smoke coming from the MINI’s cowl.  The owner opened the hood to find a fire above the new EPS steering motor.  It seemed like it had gotten hot enough to start a fire.  What was going on?

The car was examined by two forensic investigators, each representing insurance companies that might be involved in settling the claim.  The first investigator’s job was to learn whether the EPS started the fire, and if so, if there was a workmanship error in its fitment. There was no error found.  Installation of the motor is simple and straightforward.  

The second investigator built on the first investigator’s findings, in an effort to further understand the cause of the fire.  Both investigators agreed that the fire was started by an overheated EPS unit.  The question was, why would the EPS overheat and start a fire after sitting overnight?  There is no circumstance where the power steering motor should activate in a parked and locked car, 11 hours after it was parked for the night.

The EPS just sits there when the car is parked.  It draws no power at rest, and should have been at ambient temperature by late that night.

A conversation with the owner revealed that this was a pattern of failure.  The steering never failed when the car was in use.  Instead, the motors burned out while the car was parked.  The complaint was, “no steering when I got in the car,” as opposed to, “the power steering quit while I was driving.”

We began to wonder how many other MINI owners had experienced similar failures.  We searched our own service database and realized most MINI power steering failures we’d seen were “in the morning” as opposed to “while driving.” An Internet search raised quite a few more possibilities.  And we read of some troubling and unexplained fires in parked cars.

The investigation has ended – for now at least – with no definite answer.  The car’s insurance will pay off, and the owner will get a new car.  We were never able to determine what woke the car’s electronics up and caused it to start steering till it caught fire.

We were able to determine that the car slept most of the night undisturbed.  An analysis of the charge in the battery told us how much energy the steering motor had absorbed.  A calculation told us how rapidly that had to occur, to build enough heat to start a fire.  Another calculation told us how fast the steering could heat up, given the limitations of fuses and wiring.  We determined that it woke up and started trying to steer 30 minutes to an hour before catching fire.

That raised an interesting possibility.  Could the car have been woken up by radio signals, and come to life in an unexpected and destructive way?  We know the pushbutton entry system can do more than unlock the car.  So can the radio link that the BMW/MINI service and concierge people use.  Might something have come into the car through those channels?  We don’t know.  It’s an idea, but without more evidence we are stumped.

What’s your experience?  Do you know of a MINI that caught fire while parked, with no good explanation?

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for BMW and MINI owners all over New England for over 25 years. Our company is an authorized Bosch Car Service Center. We also service Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce and Bentley motorcars. We have flatbed transport throughout the region. We also offer pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.