Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficiionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

We are independent restoration, repair, sales and service for Audi, BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Rolls-Royce automobiles.

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Earlier this month I began a series of stories chronicling the restoration of a 1970s-era Rolls-Royce engine compartment.  This second installment takes us a bit farther down the road to restoration.

Looks good at a distance but you see the age up close

We talked about removing the engine, and all the associated pipes, plumbing, and wiring.  A Rolls-Royce is like any other car in this regard, only more complex.  The owner of this car wants to restore it to new (only better) so we are following the original Rolls Royce conventions as close as we can, when it comes to refinishing parts.  We’re using modern techniques like powder coating but we are doing our best to stick to factory color and look. 

You'd follow the same steps to properly restore a V8 Cadillac, Gran Torino, or Mercedes 450SL.

With that in mind, once the engine came out of the car, and got torn down, we sorted everything into several piles.  Each pile got indexed and photographed.  Here’s what we ended up with:
  • One pile had parts that get cad plated (nuts and bolts, linkage rods, and some of the pipes)
  • Parts that get painted silver. (much of the cast metal on the engine, and some of the brackets) went into another pile. This pile has small parts like the alternator bracket and big pieces like the intake manifolds and the brake reservoir.

  • Parts that get painted black were sorted out. This includes the cylinder heads, calve covers, and most of the engine parts that are not silver or cad plate.

Then there were some smaller piles
  • Exhaust manifolds got finished in black ceramic, which is not original but is in keeping with the design and an improvement over rusty iron.  When you restore a car you have to decide what to do with parts that were originally unfinished metal.  You can blast them clean and just return them to that state, but they will start rusting immediately and most owners don't want that.  You can coat them in a clear finish or you can choose a color.  We are doing some formerly bare parts in clear ceramic, and others like the manifolds in matte black.
The aged exhaust manifolds will be finished in black ceramic
  • These Rolls Royce brake pipes were originally finished in zinc chromate primer.  That surprised me but I discovered the original finish on some segments of like-new line on the subframe.
  • We had a few pieces that were finished in zinc (galvanize.)

Rolls Royce brake lines finished in zinc chromate

The piles get sent out to several refinishers who will sandblast, walnut shell blast, tank clean, and otherwise prepare the various pieces. Then they will apply whatever finish was selected and send them back to us, renewed.

In some cases the parts are then ready to put back on the car.  Other pieces go from refinishing to the machine shop.  Heads and block are examples of that.  The lead times on refinishing vary quite a bit, and we want to coordinate the jobs so the work progresses smoothly.  Project management is a big part of any restoration

Then there are the internal parts of the engine that do not get refinished at all; they get renewed by the machinist. The image below shows this engine's tappet gallery where we are starting to get wear on the cam and lifters.  You won't see repairs in this ares but you will certainly notice them if you drive the car!  This engine didn't have any failures inside but it was starting to age.

In total, we are sending out over 400 large and small parts, and a similar number of nuts, bolts and clips.  Why would we send out nuts and bolts?  Because some have a distinct look, one that is not easily matched with the hardware available today in America.

This is a big task.  But it’s the only way to restore an engine right.  The more common technique – cover it all in glossy wet paint – is not a restoration.  It’s a concealment of problems.  It may look good till it starts, but things will go bad quickly and you’ll wish you’d never made the painted mess.   A truly restored engine is a joy to behold – every part individually restored and then assembled into a complex whole that runs with precision, for many, many years.

Now that the metal of the engine has been dealt with we have the rest of the engine bay.  Looking in we can see cracking flat black paint on both fenderwells.  Unfortunately, they are covered in pipes and wires, so we have more removal before we can address the paint problems.

Rolls Royce engine bay, less engine

The firewall area is a mix of rubber, gloss black, and parts. Once again we have a disassembly job ahead.   Looking down to the ground we see a dirty, greasy subframe.  We know it should be clean glossy black, and the only way to get it to look that way, is to remove it from the car and clean it up in pieces. 

That was our next task on this Rolls.  Here it is, dropped out below the nose.

Front subframe dropped out of a Shadow/Corniche series Rolls Royce
Here you see the whole assembly, on a trolley.  It weighs 2-300 pounds.  The engine and transmission were bolted into the subframe with rubber mounts, and the subframe itself was bolted into the unibody with more rubber mounts.  That is how they got such good isolation of vibration back in the 60s.  It's common today but unheard of then. 

In the image below you are looking at the top of the subframe after we used a power washer to remove 40 years of grime.  See all the yellow spots?  Those are critical fasteners that the subframe assembler painted yellow to show he checked them for tightness, because they cannot be seen once the subframe is in the car.  These parts have not seen daylight in 40 years.
Power washed subframe showing yellow inspector paint marks
When we put this back together we will replicate those yellow marks on a glossy black background.

Here's the subframe turned upside down, which is how you see it looking at the car from below  It's uniformly black because we treated it with Waxoyl several years ago.

This is a better view of the top of the subframe.  The bottom center is the front of the subframe.  The three yellow bolts hold the front of the main suspension arms.

The yellow paint is broken off the compliance mount nuts, because they were replaced:

The front lower suspension arm mounts are rusty but appear original:

Here's one of the broken rubber couplers in the steering column.  This part is also invisible and as you can see it was at the end of its days

Note the original yellow paint on all safety-related bolts that would be concealed once the subframe was installed.

This looks like the assembly code for the subframe.  It's painted on in back, under where the engine would sit

These brake pipes were painted in light green primer, some of which is still visible.  The clamp was white zinc.

Here you can see that the suspension was all painted gloss black. They don't do that anymore. That kind of detailing is lost on newer cars.  Even new Bentleys use bare metal on their suspensions today.

As the car's owner observed, a job like this is like an archaeological dig, on a car.  We take pride in doing work like this, knowing it’s the best it can be.  The finished product is not a repair; it’s a work of functional automotive art.

Stay tuned for the next steps . . .

John Elder Robison is an independent Rolls Royce and Bentley specialist in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Find him online at and on the phone at (413) 785-1665

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