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.

Bentley archives

Land Rovers

This past week I attended the annual meet of the Rolls Royce and Bentley Club at Seven Springs resort in southwestern Pennsylvania.  I’d been invited to give a talk on care and feeding of what the club calls Modern Cars (principally the vehicles made from 1965-1999.)   Other technical people did presentations on older cars, and there were additional sessions on Modern Cars too.  Factory personnel were there to show off the current product lines, and vendors were on hand with books, parts, and obscure restoration materials you never knew you needed, and could never find outside an event such as this one.

Silver Clouds parked at Seven Springs Resort for the RROC 2014 Annual Meet

Behind it all was Pennsylvania’s version of a ski mountain, which turned out to be significantly steeper and higher than it looked as soon as I set out to walk to the top.  When I finally attained the summit I was disappointed to discover the event organizers had cancelled the vintage car hill climb I’d come to see. I had been looking forward to the sight of antique Silver Ghosts racing up the ski trails, throwing great gouts of mud and debris in their wake.  Maybe next year’s meet in Orlando can feature a good old southern Swamp Run instead.

A view of the slopes at Seven Springs

With organized mayhem cancelled I found myself wandering the parking lot, admiring the attendee’s vehicles and wondering what might have been.  There were cars of every era on hand, from the earliest Rolls Royce models to the latest Bentley sportsters.  Over one hundred years of automotive history was there on the grounds.

The cars were parked by rough order of age, which made walking across the lot roughly akin to taking a journey back in time, from the present day to the first decade of the 20th century.  I wondered who had owned the grand tourers of the twenties, and where they had been.  I wondered where I will be, when I am their age.  I’ll be doing very well to be sitting on tarmac like them, and not buried beneath it.

As I wandered, I realized the groups of cars provided an interesting window into how restoration affects a vehicle population, both in terms of condition and value.

Cars built in the last decade were almost all original, and many remained in near-new condition.  These cars were not really “collectibles;” they were simply expensive used vehicles. Unlike their older siblings, no curation or restoration was needed to keep them nice.  A cool shady garage and regular maintenance will do the trick to preserve these specimens for quite a few years.  None of these cars were restored, as far as I could tell, though some had significant refurbishing.

There were some very fine examples on the show field. You could not miss the enormous effort some owners have put into keeping their late model cars in stunning condition.  That surely has costs, both in time and service expenses.  But those costs are far less that one would pay to put, say, a 1920s Ghost into similar shape.

With care, Bentley and Rolls Royce cars can last 20+ years in original condition

Most of the cars from the 90s were showing some wear, and some refinishing, but many were still in nice original shape.  Quite a few of these cars had been painted, and some had new interior trim.  Many of these cars had received significant mechanical service, while others were obviously badly in need of the same.  Once again, I did not see a single restoration though I did see plenty of well cared for cars.  With continued good care some of these cars may remain nice for a good many more years.

With so many good mostly original examples to choose from, few people will choose to restore these cars at this time.  If your goal is to "get a good one" that can be done by careful shopping.  Those who want to restore grandpa's Bentley will not care about finances and are unaffected by this tradeoff.

Cars from the 80s still showed a lot of originality, which meant many examples were looking somewhat long in the tooth.  There were quite a few “fixed up” cars – vehicles with good repaint jobs, redone woodwork, and the like.  These cars were not restored, but they had received significant repairs – mostly to paint and body. If this sample is an indicator, true restoration of 1980s cars has yet to begin on a wide scale. 

70s cars - the transition zone
Silver Shadow cars from the previous decade (the 70s) were the roughest of the bunch.  There were some very nice examples, but even the nicer looking cars showed heavy signs of aging under the hood, and many showed body and interior wear too.  Clearly, these cars are at or close to the Decision Point age.

The Decision Point age is when you realize the “fix it later” issues cannot be put off any longer.  The car has worn down to the point that it's worn out.  Often the point is reached after a major breakdown, perhaps stemming from deferred upkeep or outright neglect.  What then? Do you fix the car up properly, scrap it, sell it, or put it in storage for a decision another day?

At least one of the Shadows at the National Meet was beyond the Decision Point, with a very nice restoration.  We have another such car in our shop now, which we hope to show at an upcoming meet. Shadows in that range remain rare.

Many of the older, rougher cars would be described charitably as “twenty-footers” while more direct critics would call them rats.  In talking to the owners the problem is apparent.  Book values are low.  Restoration costs are high – way above book.  And many owners lack the means (either money or mechanical ability) to really improve their vehicles.  Just staying even on these cars is a challenge as reliability has gotten so poor. 

Then we step back a decade and everything changes.  We move into the Cloud era and cars of the late fifties and early sixties. Many of those cars had been beautifully and lovingly restored, and it showed.  It was also apparent in values.  Edgy 1970s cars are lucky to fetch $10,000 while magnificent Clouds – just a few years older – bring solid six-figure prices at every classic car auction.

Cars like this Cloud III drop head have skyrocketed in value this past decade

What happened?  We found the transition point in vintage Rolls Royces – the 1965-80 range.   Good examples that are newer will be mostly original.  Rarity isn’t a big factor in cars of that age. Consequently, prices will be based on depreciation from new, and the cars are almost 100% depreciated. The situation is totally different for older cars.  Prior scrappage and lower production in earlier years has made these cars a lot rarer.  For the most part, they are too old to be driven in totally original form.  The best cars are show-quality restorations, and it is these vehicles that set the prices for the class.  If it costs six figures to restore the cars that raises the former $20k "good" used car prices through the roof, seemingly overnight. 

Even the “low value” cars in this age range are getting quality restorations, and that is lifting all values significantly. The question now is when that will happen with the Shadow and newer series.  If a restored 1964 convertible is $300,000, an unrestored 1968 convertible starts looking pretty good at 1/10th the price.

But unless that happens on a wide scale, cars in the transition zone are at risk.  Most are in need of significant repair as resale values have sunk to a fraction of repair cost.  Any major repair – paint job, engine overhaul, new interior – is likely to exceed book value.  A few owners are making the investment anyway, because they happen to like these cars.  The question now is which way the trend will go.  Will owners (either current owners or new owners) restore these cars, or will they end up recycled?

Owner demographics come into play.  The owner who stretched to realize their dream of buying a $10,000 Shadow is not likely to undertake a $150,000 restoration of the same car.  Yet a project of that scope would be far less costly than restoring a blower Bentley car from the 1920s, and those owners routinely do such jobs.

Silver Ghost chassis in mid-restoration, at RROC Ghost University

A Rolls Royce Silver Ghost engine

What it takes to restore a chassis - Silver Ghost or Silver Shadow, the job is the same
A run-down and mostly original 1960s sedan fetches $10,000 at auction. As noted earlier, a restored Cloud convertible may bring $300,000 or more at the same sale.  Restoration of these older cars is justifiable and increasingly common as values continue to rise.   Cars of the fifties and sixties are today’s target for high end restoration, but the 70s cars will have their turn any day now.

If I were betting on a future collector market for Rolls Royce, I’d put my money in the seventies.  The older cars have already made a dramatic ascent.  Newer cars are still falling in price.  The 1968-1983 range may be just right.  Buy good ones at these prices while you can!

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 Rolls Royce Owner's Club and other car 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


Emdee said...

My brother had a Shadow. Driving it, I never "got" it until a Mercedes waved me through an intersection, and the owner of the grocery store came out with my brothers groceries. Not a drivers car tho.

Emdee said...

John, the 911 is running beautifully with no sign of overheating on a trip to the Finger Lakes.

John Elder Robison said...

Glad to hear the Porsche is running well. We're getting call to restore those too, with three 356 cars in the shop right now, and one 1972 911

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