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

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Buying a Used Rolls Royce or Bentley on a Budget - Champagne Value for Beer Prices

You’ve looked at those magical cars from Crewe for years, and often dreamed of buying one of your own.  Perhaps you see yourself as a latter-day Bentley Boy, or you seek the elegance of Rolls-Royce.  Now the time has come.  You’ve decided to do it.  What should you buy?  This article focuses on sedans that can be had for under $20,000 and convertibles that can be bought under $50,000.  If your budget is bigger, your range of choice is somewhat broader.  

When we talk about Rolls-Royce and Bentley from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s, we often use the term Crewe-built.  This refers to the fact that both Bentley and Rolls were built under a single corporate ownership at the plant in Crewe, England.  In 1998 the two brands were put up for sale,  and in 2003 the went their separate ways.  Bentley is now owned by VW and is still built in the Crewe plant.  Crewe also retains parts and service support for the older cars.  BMW bought the Rolls-Royce name and builds cars at a brand new facility in Goodwood, England.

Moving back to the Crewe era, and the cars from the 1960s-1990s . . .

Sedans are more practical, and cost less to buy.   There are many more sedans in existence, so it may be easier to find one in good shape for a good price.  If you are a social person, it’s much easier to take another couple in a sedan.  If you have kids, three of them will fit in the back seat of a sedan, with no need to use the trunk.  If you do use the trunk, it’s carpeted, warm, and inviting.  Most people buy sedans as their entry car into this market.

Prior to 1990 or so, sedans from Bentley and Rolls-Royce were virtually the same.  After that date they diverged with the Bentley cars becoming sportier (stiffer suspension, floor shift vs. column shift, more supportive seats, etc.)  Another difference came in the back seat.  In the 1980s most Rolls-Royce sedans sold in America were long wheelbase, whereas most Bentley were short wheelbase.  The SWB cars are better handling and more responsive; the LWB cars are roomier.  Take your pick.

This Silver Spur was a winner at Newport
This Bentley Brooklands features the sportier look Bentley defined in the 80s (c) J E Robison

Convertibles are always the stars of the collector car world, followed by limited production coupes.  Convertibles of the 1970-1990 era often cost two or three times as much as comparable sedans.  They are much more dear to buy, but have correspondingly greater potential for appreciation.  With a higher value, it’s easier to justify major investments if and when they are needed.  With their shorter wheelbases the coupes and convertibles may be a sportier drive, but the offset is a noticeably harsher ride.

In most cases a Bentley will fetch more money that a comparable Rolls-Royce.  This is due to their relative rarity when new, and the fact that they are quite a lot more popular among new car buyers today.  If possible I suggest you be guided by condition more than logo, though.

A very clean original 1983 Corniche
A nice 1987 Bentley Continental dropped (c) J E Robison

How to decide?  If you are looking for a car to match a memory, your mind already contains the answer.  Perhaps it’s a blue sedan like your uncle Bob drove.  Or maybe it’s a red convertible like you saw in a movie.  If you are looking for practicality and utility – to the extent any Bentley or Rolls Royce can be said to possess those attributes – a sedan is your best bet.  If you have lots of money and want the best chance of a good return a convertible is likely your best option.  If you don’t want to be in the sun, and still want a shot at better appreciation, check out the coupes.

For 1991, Bentley announced a new coupe - the Continental R.  This car shared the mechanicals of the revolutionary Turbo R sedan of the late 1980s in Italian-styled two door form.  These cars are definitely collectible and are starting to rise in value.

Whatever you decide, the condition of the specific car is of paramount importance.  These cars are often sold with thousands of dollars in deferred maintenance waiting to trap the unwary.  Cosmetically run down cars will cost thousands more to bring back.  A car that needs both is probably a vehicle to be avoided.  Even a good car is going to need some work.  I always tell people to plan for $5,000 in needed work, and maybe $10,000 even if the car checked out good.  There are always unseen issues.  

Before buying any Rolls Royce or Bentley I suggest you have it checked out by a qualified expert.  These cars are very different from your rank and file motorcars, and you need specialized skills to check them out  The best way to find an inspector is to ask other Rolls Royce drivers. If you don’t know any drivers, join the club – - and check out their list of technical experts.  Also check out the advice on the forums. Long time club member Gerry Acquiliano is an expert on these cars, as are Richard Vaughn and others.  There are many members with much to offer on the club forums.

What year car should you buy?  With some cars, the answer is simple – buy the newest one you can afford.  The newer the car, the higher the price.  In the Rolls Royce world things do not work that way.  Good examples of pre-1965 Bentley or Rolls Royce are markedly more expensive than cars of the 70s and 80s.  Why is that, you ask? Older cars have aged to the point where the good examples are almost all restored, and restoration of these cars is costly.  The price of good examples reflects that substantial additional investment.  It’s still possible to buy mostly original cars from the 80s and 90s, which makes these cars much more affordable.

A 20,000 Series Silver Spur
In my opinion, there are two modern Rolls Royce cars with good investment potential.  The pre-1974 Shadow cars are desirable because of their clean and pretty lines, and their timeless style.  The 74-80 Shadows are a close second.  Unfortunately, time has not been kind to most of these vehicles.  They are often run down beyond practical repair, and it’s very hard to find well-kept examples. 

A limited edition version of the LWB Turbo from 1998 (c) J E Robison
1970s Bentley cars are quite a lot rarer in America and I'd say any Bentley from that period will be more collectible and hence more valuable than the comparable RR example.

1980 Silver Shadow
The Silver Spur replaced the Silver Shadow in 1981. In Bentley this car came to America as the Mulsanne.  The first few years of this new car were problematic, but the issues were mostly sorted out by the first face lifting of these cars, for the 1988 model year.  These newer vehicles – distinguished by series numbers in the range of 20,000 to 28,000 – were among the most trouble free Bentley and Rolls Royce cars ever.  They have the benefit of affordability too, with good examples selling under $20,000 as of this writing.   

Bentley followed the Mulsanne with the Eight at a lower price point.  Rolls Royce matched the Eight with the Silver Dawn.  Bentley really turned the motor world on ear with the introduction of a true supercar in the late 1980s - the Turbo R.  Those are surely the best driving four door models from Crewe.  In the 1990s the Turbo R was their "super" sedan, while the new Brooklands delivered the same look and ride but without the powerful turbo.

With a production life from 1981 to 1999, the Spur/Mulsanne/Spirit/Brooklands is the car that comes to mind when most 30-40 year olds think of a Rolls Royce.  It's the model they grew up with, whereas my generation grew up with the Shadows.  You'd think newer is better with, but that's not necessarily the case. Newer cars were burdened with more and more electronics which was great when new, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to support as the vehicles age and parts become unavailable or costly.

Should you buy a Rolls Royce or a Bentley?  That is an individual decision; in the year range we are discussing the cars are equal in terms of quality and appointment.  The Bentley cars tend to be more sporting, and the Turbo cars are markedly more powerful.  The Rolls Royce cars are more stately and luxurious.  The two brands were very similar in the Shadow era but developed distinct identities in the 1980s.

What about the sub-models and limited editions?  There’s not enough space to describe them all here.  I suggest the Rolls Royce Club websites, both the American and the Australian, and the online guidebook as references.

In closing, what would be the ideal starter Rolls Royce or Bentley for someone with a $20k budget?  If it were me, I’d put the money into a 1988 Bentley Eight, or a 1989 Silver Spur.  If I had twice that money, I’d buy a nice mid to late 1980s Corniche.  But my #1 criteria in choosing a Rolls on a budget would be condition.

Those are my choices, at least on paper.  What are yours?  That remains to be seen . . .

If you liked this story, please leave a comment.  And if you want more . . . here are some of my other RR/B essays

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 Bosch Authorized Car Service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

1 comment:

VinAudit said...

Have a mechanic inspect the vehicle to identify any problem areas, and to check if its wear and tear is in line with the mileage. You can ask for the vehicle history service records of the car, specifically for any major job.

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