Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Making of a Rolls-Royce, circa 1972

While sifting through records on a snowy afternoon I found this paper trail for a 1972 Rolls-Royce.

It begins with the order for the car, which was initiated by Rolls-Royce of America.  They ordered this two-tone green long wheelbase sedan "for stock," meaning there was no customer for it when the order was placed.

As was the case with most "for stock: cars, no options were specified.  Rolls-Royce was unique at that time in that they sold their cars fully equipped, at one price.  They did not have a base model car and pile on options like Cadillac or Lincoln.  When a customer ordered a Rolls-Royce (as opposed to buying from stock) he might request things like cocktail glasses and decanters built into a door panel, or custom coloring to match a favorite piece of clothing.  Other than that, they were built the way Rolls-Royce designed them, which still varied quite a bit from car to car as the manufacturer substituted wood veneers, headliners, switches, etc.  There was no such thing as a "production line Rolls."  Every motorcar was unique, even if nothing special was specified on the order.

I've looked at cars that went down the production line right after each other and seen subtle differences in what should be two identical cars.  One will have a vinyl headliner, while another car has wool - little changes like that set the cars apart from each other.  These long wheelbase cars were "more full" of little differences and eccentricities than their standard brothers.  The dash of a standard Rolls was framed in steel, but these long cars were custom so the dash frame was cut by hand from wood.  That extra hand work alone ensured these cars would be unique.

The door panels, window trim, and rear carpets were also special. Interior sets on these cars tended to be made up in a different area of the factory from the short wheelbase cars.  The interior parts would be produced in batches, and the long wheelbase ones were always different.

Rolls-Royce Motors accepted the order for this car May 15, 1972.  The car was given the chassis number LRA-14159, and was identified as the 133rd long wheelbase car to be ordered that year.  Long wheelbase Shadows are fairly rare, with only 2,780 examples built between 1969 and 1976.   For comparison, in that same time period Roll-Royce produced some 17,000 standard wheelbase sedans.

Rolls Royce was always a small volume carmaker.  That year they would build 2,473 cars, of which 629 were bound for the United States.  Perhaps 75 of them were long wheelbase sedans.  That made these cars about as rare as convertibles, and they are actually rarer today as fewer sedans survive whereas almost all convertibles have been preserved.



Most Rolls Royce dealers sold cars from the catalog, as opposed to selling them off a lot like ordinary cars.  This particular car was purchased by a Connecticut businessman in early September, shortly before it was completed.  This Telex shows the status of several cars, and identifies 14159 as "no longer available for sale."

Back then cars were typically secured with a 5-10% down payment with the balance to be paid when the car arrived.  Few Rolls-Royce dealers offered financing, so the deals were almost all cash.   Leasing of luxury cars was still quite a long way into the future.


A few days later the car was invoiced out by the factory.  You'll note the invoice was in British pounds, which at the time were each worth 2.45 US dollars.  At the September 1972 exchange rate, Rolls-Royce America paid the parent company $17,762 for the car.


This next paper shows that the car was consigned to Claridge Holt, Ltd for shipping to America.  They put it in a container and loaded the car on a Seatrain container ship bound for the Port of Newark.  The car left for America in late October.




Those of you who are interested in ships will note this car probably rode to America aboard Seatrain Euroliner, a nearly new (launched 1971) high speed gas turbine container ship.  Euroliner was one of the first large purpose-built container ships.  She carried almost 900 full sized containers at full capacity, and was just under 800 feet in length.  Her two turbines drove her at 26 knots - a brisk pace now or then.  In fact, for many years, Euroliner held the cross-Atlantic speed record for a freighter at 31+ knots.

For purposes of comparison, the cruise speed of Euroliner was the same as the cruise speed of Queen Mary 2 today.

At the time, these ships were  acclaimed as revolutionary but they always operated at a loss.  Modern large container ships have roughly three times the capacity, and somewhat less horsepower and a lower cruise speed from a single diesel engine.  Air freight has taken the place of fast ocean freight, and bulk capacity has replaced speed as a top design goal.




When it arrived there was some slight damage . . . oil spots on a fender and damage beside the trunk. That was fixed in New Jersey.




Shipping and preparation took a bit more than a month.  On November 27, Rolls-Royce of America shipped the car to their dealer, Hoffman Motors of Hartford, Connecticut; invoicing them for $23,255.  Looking close, you'll see that the payment terms are "sight draft."  This was a common method of paying for vehicles in the pre-Internet era.  A sight draft looked like a check, but it was only cashable once the maker had notified the bank that certain conditions had been met.

In this case, the draft would have been cashable once the car and certificate of origin were delivered intact to Hoffman.  The sight draft number is shown on the invoice, and it was probably deposited a few days after the invoice was written.  Today, carmakers simply charge the bank accounts of their dealers through the Federal Reserve clearing system but that provision didn't exist in 1972.


The car had a suggested list price of $28,715, but Rolls-Royce did not believe in windows stickers.  This was the retail price sheet for the car, which was kept in the vehicle's file at the dealership and possibly given to the buyer:

Hoffman's Rolls-Royce operation is long gone, though they remain in business at the same location in East Hartford with a Porsche-Audi dealership.


In any case, no window sticker was needed as the car was (like most others of its kind) presold.  This vehicle was destined for Matthew Saczawa of Wethersfield, Connecticut.  He received the vehicle in early 1973, and registered the car at his winter home in Boca Raton, Florida.

Looking at the timetable you can see that 8 months passed between acceptance of the order and delivery of the car to its new owner.  Where most car companies changed model years in September, Rolls-Royce often continued their model years till the following spring!

That was a result of the long time it took them to build the cars.  They accepted orders for the current model year right into summer, which meant the last of the 72s were not delivered till the spring of '73, under the best of circumstances.


Mr. Saczawa - the car's first owner - owned the Atlantic Machine Tool Works in Newington, Connecticut.  He was 52 years old when he bought this car.  He kept the car for 25 years, only selling it in 1997 because he was too infirm to drive.  During that time, the car covered 36,000 miles.  That seems like a low number but these cars are often driven sparingly, especially when they are bought by older people who tend to keep them as pets.

The second owner kept the car on Cape Cod for 12 years, at which time it was purchased by the present owner.  Here's the car as it appears today, still remarkably clean and original:


Reading through this paper trail, I am reminded that we are not just owners of these vehicles; we are caretakers - keepers for whomever will follow us.  Ordinary cars are driven for 15 years and scrapped.  Nicer cars - Mercedes, BMW, or Jaguar - have longer lives but they are still finite.  Rolls-Royce cars, in contrast, are seldom ever scrapped.  More than 70% of all Rolls-Royce motorcars ever built are still roadworthy today.  That's a remarkable thing, but you can see why looking at this example.

The Silver Shadow series was the most maintenance intensive Rolls ever made.  At the same time, it is one of the least valuable in the used car market because it is the most common.  The result is that many of these fine cars are neglected and abused, and quite a few will be broken up for parts.

I hope the surviving examples get better care as they become rarer, because they are really quite nice to drive.  One day, we'll look back and wonder where all the Shadows went.  When that happens, I've no doubt this one will be a survivor.


John Elder Robison

John is the owner of J E Robison Service, Rolls-Royce and Bentley service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a technical consultant for the Rolls-Royce Owner's Club on Silver Shadow and other modern cars.  He's been around Rolls-Royce motorcars since the vehicle in this story was new.









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