Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Inspecting a 1980-1999 Rolls Royce or Bentley - what to look for

Things to look for in a Rolls Royce or Bentley
1981-2000 4-door sedan models – Silver Spirit, Silver Dawn, Silver Spur and 2 door models – Corniche, Continental, Azure
(c) 2014 John Elder Robison - www.robisonservice.com



In this essay I'd like to show you a few things to look for in 1981-2000 Rolls Royce and Bentley motorcars. I hope you'll be able to use this information to inspect your own car or avoid unexpected surprises when buying a car. In addition to studying this article, I strongly suggest you retain the services of an expert to inspect any Rolls Royce car prior to purchase.

To find a Bentley or Rolls Royce workshop near you, look under the "services" tab on the home page of the Rolls Royce Owner's Club, I recommend joining the club if you plan to acquire a car.  The Rolls-Royce and Bentley brands were built under common ownership from 1931-1998.  At that point the companies went into a process of sale that culminated with VW taking the Bentley name, the Crewe factory, and support for all over cars.  BMW took the Rolls-Royce name, designed a totally new car, and now builds it at a plant in Goodwood.  Some Bentley dealers retain staff who were trained on these older cars, which are now referred to as "Crewe built vehicles."  Most dealer staff are trained on the new cars, which are VW/Audi designs from a mechanical perspective.

Prices quoted here are for general guidance only and are current as of spring 2014.  Complete restoration of a 1980s or 1990s Rolls Royce or Bentley motorcar will run well over $100,000.  These were expensive cars when new, and they remain costly to keep in top form.  As they get older more and more owners are facing extensive repairs.  Keep that number in mind for perspective as you read the costs of some system repairs described below. 

Remember that owners have varying standards.  Work that’s done to a show-willing level will cost more than work that “just gets the job done.”  Terms like “engine rebuild” mean different things to different people.  One shop sells a rebuild for $7,000 and it has new rings, bearings, and gaskets – nothing more.  Another shop does a rebuild for $40,000 and every part is both refinished better than new and mechanically restored to as-new or better condition.  There’s a buyer for both engines, but don’t buy the first and expect the second.

These are collectible cars, and you always have to consider the appearance of systems when they are serviced.  If you paint or replace chassis assemblies when they come apart for service the time and cost will rise, but that sort of work is what separates repair from restoration.  Think about your goals – which do you want to be doing? 

The worst problem with 1980s-1990s Bentley and Rolls Royce cars is owner neglect.  These are expensive cars to maintain, and they depreciated very quickly in their early years.  By the time these cars turned 20 years old most had lost 70-90% of their value.  That caused people to decide it was not worth putting money into them, and it led to cars being sold to people who lacked the resources to care for them no matter how they felt.

How do you tell if a car has been neglected or kept up?  The first sign of a neglected car is its cosmetic appearance.  How is the paint and brightwork?  These cars have a mix of stainless steel, chrome, nickel plate, and anodize trim.  Trim parts are getting scarce and repair costs can be high.

If you have access to a paint gauge, see how thick the finish is on the panels.  Readings over 12 thousandths suggest future trouble, and big differences between adjacent panels suggest repairs.  Most of these cars have been repainted – some more than once.  Quality varies widely.  Can you live with the finish you see?  Think carefully because painting one of these cars properly is costly. 

A “budget” paint job will approach $10,000 and a top quality job – with all the trim removed, the car stripped to bare metal, and all new rubbers and seals – can easily cost $40,000.

1996 Bentley stripped for refinishing

If you are looking at a convertible pay close attention to the condition of the top, and the tightness of the attachments where the top meets the rear body.  Tears or gaps mean it’s time for a new top.  The top consists of an outer cover, inner padding, and a wood headliner.  The rear bows and tack strips on pre-95 cars are wood, and subject to rot.  A complete new top will cost over $10,000.


Pre-1995 convertibles had simple top hydraulics.  The 1996-newer Bentley Azure and Rolls Royce Corniche had much more complex systems with multiple lines, valves, and rams.  Those systems are now aging and we see cars needing new lines and rams throughout. Such a job will run into five figures so beware of that possibility on later dropheads.  An Azure that needs top hydraulic lines and actuators and has worn canvas or a bad back window is a car that needs $25k in work.

How about the interior?  Faded and split leather, cracked and peeling woodwork, perforated or worn carpets and faded and damaged paint are all signs of a car that's been allowed to run down.   You can dye faded leather but leather that is cracked and broken may need to be replaced.  A good dye job can run $3,000.  A new leather interior can cost ten times that.

A clean interior 
A damaged interior

Wood is also fragile in these cars, and it too is costly to restore.  If you see a lot of cracking in the wood door caps, or on the dash, plan on $5-10k for that repair, and more if you need new veneers.  Will Rau and others make wood steering wheels and shifters for these cars if you are willing to pay for them.

Most of these cars came with sheepskin floor overlays.  New overlays are about $1,200.  Look at the underlying carpet – are they faded, worn, or damaged?  New carpets will run into the middle four figures.

When I evaluate cars I try to distinguish between natural wear of original finishes and materials, quality restoration or repair, and shoddy re-dos.  I also distinguish between wear that is appropriate and wear that signals neglect or abuse.

Whenever you see cosmetic neglect you can be virtually certain there is mechanical neglect also. It's just harder to see. Visible tip offs are enough to make me steer clear of 75% of the examples in today’s used car marketplace.

What do we look for mechanically?

I start by looking at the tires. Every modern Bentley or Rolls Royce was originally fitted with tires carrying a V or higher speed rating. Speed rated tires have stiff sidewalls, and those stiff sidewalls are what make heavy cars like this nimble. Non-speed-rated tires will give a mushy ride and mushy handling.

However, proper tires are expensive and they are becoming hard to find for some models.  Avon and Goodyear made most of the tires fitted to US market RR/B cars.  Avon tires are still available but they can cost $2,500 a set for some models.  Good tires are a sign of a cared-for car.  Crummy tires may indicate indifferent care, or they may mean the owner could not find anything better.

Open the hood and see how things look.  Is it clean? Is the paint peeling or does it look intact?  Peeling paint can be a sign of overheating and high under hood temps.  Does it look clean and cared for, or is it a mess?

A well cared for car may have a dusty motor, but it should not be oily or filthy. Look for signs of oil leakage around the valve covers and in the center of the engine. Look under the car for signs of leakage, too. There should not be any substantial fluid leakage, but all older cars do seep some oil. Fluids should be reasonably clean and the levels should be correct. Belts and hoses should not show signs of deterioration.

Open the oil filler and check for sludge, foam, or gunk. The cork gasket should be reasonably clean as shown in the photo. If the car passes the cosmetic inspection and it has decent tires we can move on to the other areas. We'll start by checking the braking system.

Some turbocharged cars have seen hard use.  If you are looking at one of them pay close attention to the motor.

Before starting the vehicle from cold, turn the key on and make sure BRAKE 1 and BRAKE 2 warning indicators light up. These lights have had different names through the years but there are always two of them, and they should both light if the vehicle has been sitting more than a day. If they don't light up when you switch the key on, give the brake pedal 10-20 quick pumps. If that puts them on, fine. If not, you have a problem with the warning lights. They are either broken or disconnected. I advise you not to drive any Rolls Royce whose brake pressure lights are inoperative since the brakes could completely fail without any warning.

The brake pressure lights should not be on in a warm car or one that has been run recently. Once you start the car, both lights should go out within 30 seconds. Lights that stay on indicate weak accumulator valve blocks, a $1,000+ repair. You should be able to shut the key off on a warm car, turn it on again without cranking the engine, and pump the brakes at least 20 times before the BRAKE lights illuminate. If the lights come on in less than 20 pumps, that's a sign of weak accumulators.

A car whose brake pressure lights come on within 10 pumps may be unsafe to drive. A car whose brake pressure light flashes when you jab the brakes once of twice as the engine idles is definitely unsafe to drive.

Having passed this test, start the car and let it warm up. Do you hear any exhaust leaks? Are there any tapping noises from the engine? And strange smells? Take note of anything out of the ordinary. The car should start and run smoothly, with no smoke from the exhaust.

How does the engine idle, especially with the air conditioner and all accessories off, when fully warmed up? Roughness can signal clogged injectors or other engine management problems. You should see the check engine lamp illuminate when cranking the car and it should go out when the car starts. If you do not see a check engine lamp at all it may have been disconnected (a sign of concealed trouble.)

1993 and newer cars seem especially prone to injector problems. To address any of these engine running problems I recommend finding a shop with the old Rolls Royce Mastercheck test system or the new Bentley Omitec legacy tool as the cars are not compatible with generic OBD II test gear.  These same cars are prone to failure of the o rings in the fuel injection system; leaks create fire hazards.  This has become more of a problem with the proliferation of ethanol fuel.

Bentley and Rolls Royce used an electric gearshift system. The shift level in the car is not connected mechanically to the transmission. Instead, it's connected to a group of switches that operate a motor on the side of the transmission that does the gear shifting. With your foot on the brake shift the car through the gears and make sure they all engage. The contacts in the shift mechanism can become flaky and the car will fail to change gears if this happens. If the engine is running well and the gear change is working normally you're ready to drive off.

Pay close attention to the ride - a mushy, floating ride can cost several thousand dollars to correct, as can a hard bouncy ride. Cars built before 1990 get mushy when the shocks wear out or leak. Each shock costs several hundred dollars, and replacement of the front units requires a special Rolls Royce tool and takes half a day per side.  

In 1990, Bentley and Rolls Royce added electronic ride control which consisted of a control box in the dash that sent signals to electronic dampers. These electronic dampers are over $1,000 each to replace, and when the first systems failed they defaulted into a rock-hard ride mode. This system, called auto-ride, made its debut in Spur/Spirit serial numbers above 30,000. Corniche cars did not get auto ride till later.

For 1993 the electronic ride system was altered to default into soft mode if it fails. If either system fails you'll need a shop with the Rolls Royce or Bentley special tool for diagnosis. There is no way to fix auto-ride with generic shop tools.

Drive the car on a mildly rough road and listen for clunks in the front end. The most common source of clunking is worn out front shock bushings and compliance mounts. Replacement of these bushings is an all-day job that requires a special Rolls Royce spring compressor.

These cars are heavy and they tend to beat the front end bushes to pieces quickly. It's not unusual to need several bushings in a car that's only covered 20,000 miles.  A complete replacement of front end bushings will run over $10,000.

Try the brakes. Are they smooth? Try braking from highway speeds and watch for vibration or roughness. That's a sign of warped or rough brake rotors. When these cars sit for long periods in humid climates, it's common to get spots on the rotors where the pads were in contact. This results in rough braking when the car is used again. Replacement of brake rotors on the front of most models is a 4-6 hour job. Replacement of rear rotors requires a special hydraulic hub tool and takes two days of labor.

When you are moving on the highway step on the gas and feel how the car takes off. Shaking or shuddering can point to problems with the driveshaft or drive axles. Driveline problems are fairly common on older cars. Stumbles or lack of power may point to troubles in the engine. Make sure the gearshifts are smooth and there are no slips or bangs.

We always try to check these cars on a lift. Check for rust and corrosion, and any old collision damage. Look for evidence of repainting and body repair. Look carefully at any areas where fluid actually drips. Repair of leaks can be very costly on these cars because they are so time consuming to work on.

These cars are hard on batteries. Make sure the battery is less than three years old or it may fail without warning. A good shop should have a battery tester but we see plenty of "good" batteries drop dead at 4-5 years of age so I suggest timely replacement.

Look at the condition of brake rotors and pads. Grooving, ridges at the edges, or rust spotting on the rotors means it's time for new ones. Pads should have friction material that's thicker than the metal backing plate. Any less and you need new pads, too. The park brake pads in the rear are separate.

Look for leakage from the brake calipers.  If you see one leaking I suggests resealing them all.  If your car has see-though alloy wheels (as on a late 90s Bentley) consider refinishing the calipers in high temp powder or ceramic coat while they are apart for overhaul. 

Now that's a brake job!
All the rubber brake hoses should be replaced at least every 20 years, though Rolls recommends much more frequent service. Check yours.  Whole car hose replacement takes 2-3 days of labor and there are up to 22 hoses to be swapped.

Check the parking brake cables to make sure they're free. Check the motor mounts to make sure they are not flattened or broken. Check the rear sub frame mounts – the forward facing little shocks ahead of the back wheels – failed ones make a harsh ride.  On pre-1995 cars, check the spare tire carrier as I've seen them rust and drop the tire in the road.

While you're driving, try all the accessories. Is the air conditioner cold? Is the heater hot? Swing the dial from full hot to full cold and make sure the temperature actually adjusts. The system in these cars is slow to change, so be prepared for it to take up to a minute to swing from full cold to full hot. Make sure air blows from the correct places. Operate defrost and fascia vent buttons. All those functions are controlled by servo motors, each of which can cost several hundred dollars to buy and take several hours to replace. A special Rolls Royce climate control tester is required to work on these systems. Repairs to the automatic climate control can be costly.

Pay attention to the operation of windows and door locks. Open each door and make sure the interior lights come on. If they don't you should look for problems in the door latch, which contains the light switch. Window lift motors get tired and slow, and replacements run $500-1,500 plus installation. Power door lock solenoids are a common trouble spot - make sure all the door locks and windows work properly or discount your offer accordingly.

Power seat motors are another source of trouble on these cars. Try each range of motion as they use separate motors. Availability of replacement motors has been spotty as of 2006. If you are looking at a car with power rear seats don't forget to check them, too.  Try all the little gadgets - power seats, map lights, radio, trip meter, and anything else you see. Make sure it all works. Try the lighters.

If you are looking at a 1990 or newer car make sure the electronic multi function instrument panel unit is fully functional.  If it’s not a new one will set you back over $3,000 – if you can find one.

The electronics are increasingly problematic in 1990 and newer cars.  Parts are no longer available for many of the pushbutton entry systems.  Fobs are long gone.  Memory seat controllers are no longer available but we do have repro units without memory.  Alarm controllers are getting scarce as are the other controllers in the car.

Check the stereo – these cars are old enough that most have replacement speakers, which may be very good or not so good at all.  Most cars came with Delco, Pioneer, or Alpine stereo gear from new, and most cars have been updated with highly variable results, both from a cosmetic and functional standpoint. 

When you come to a stop it's time to walk around back and bounce the rear suspension. If it feels rock-hard you probably need gas springs in the rear. That's several hundred dollars in parts and half a day's work on most sedans, a day or more for some convertible and coach built models.

I suggest you check to make sure the car includes all its little goodies. You'll be shocked what it costs to buy any that are missing. Here are some of the things that should be included with a Rolls Royce or Bentley:
  • Sheepskin overlay carpets for front and rear passengers;
  • Owner's manual, service booklet, and various other paperwork (varies by year);
  • Two sets of keys with remote entry fobs (after 1993);
  • Keys to unlock the wheel covers and wheels;
  • There should be a tool kit/jack in the compartment at the top front of the trunk;
  • There should be two bottles of mineral oil in a storage compartment in the trunk.
  • The spare tire should be under the car or under the trunk floor.



I hope this gives some perspective on evaluating these cars.  As always, I welcome comments, thoughts, and corrections.  Best wishes from New England!

And if you want more . . . here are some of my other RR/B essays

Things to look for in a Bentley Continental GT (the first VW era design)

Thoughts on buying a used Rolls Royce or Bentley - applies to Silver Cloud and newer series cars

More thoughts on Spur - Spirit - Turbo era car buying

Thoughts on restoration - applies to all cars

Evolution of the RR/B models - Silver Shadow through Arnage/Seraph - original article from the Robison Service website

Inspecting a Rolls Royce or Bentley - Applies to Corniche, Continental, Azure, Turbo R, Mulsanne, Eight, Turbo R, Silver Spur, Silver Dawn, Silver Spirit

More Things to Look For in a 1981-2000 Rolls Royce or Bentley - this is the original article from the Robison Service website

The last Crewe built Rolls Royce convertibles - applies to 2000-2002 final Series Corniche

Repairing convertible top hydraulics - Applies to 1996-2004 Rolls Royce and Bentley Corniche and Azure cars

Head gasket failures in Bentley Turbo cars - applies to Turbo R, Continental R and T, Azure, Arnage

Checking engines after head gasket failure - Applies to all cars

Checking and inspecting Rolls Royce hydraulic systems - all cars after Silver Cloud and print to Silver Seraph. Applies to all Shadow/Spur era vehicles

Case Study - brake failure in a Shadow - Silver Shadow era cars with RR363

Rear suspension gas springs - Applies to all 1981 - 1999 cars prior to Silver Seraph

Changing batteries in seat and ECUs, Applies to 1980s-1990s Silver Spirit / Silver Spur / Mulsanne /Eight / Turbo R

Changing alarm ECU batteries,  Applies to 1980s-1990s Silver Spirit / Silver Spur / Mulsanne /Eight / Turbo R

Servicing Shadow and Spur series brakes - applies to 1966 - 1999 cars after Silver Cloud and prior to Silver Seraph

Alcon racing brakes for Continental and Azure - Applies to all 1990s cars but most particularly to the final series Azure, which had these brakes fitted at the factory - a unique variant

Fixing Power Steering Leaks - applies to 90s cars with the reservoir above the alternator

Questions and answers on collector car storage - Applies to all cars

Evaluating paint - Applies to all cars


John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

1 comment:

NATE JAEGER said...

You are dramatic at times. I am a trained Rolls Royce mechanic from the early 60's and today's old cars are driven so little that most of what you say is correct but irrelevant. I have driven a 1980 RR SS II with badly worn fan belts for up to 20 years and they still sit in my garage in the same condition. No one is interested in rebuilding the car to drive it and wear it out over and over. You must keep up the function of the systems as you say, but that is simple. My 1986 and 1980 get 20 miles a week om them.