Monday, November 10, 2014

Buying a Used Rolls Royce or Bentley

Many of the people who join the Rolls Royce or Bentley owner’s clubs come to this blog and the club forum with a dream of owning a Rolls Royce or Bentley.  Some already own one, or several.  Some remember a car from childhood, and imagine having a similar car of their own.  Maybe Dad had one, or perhaps an uncle or family friend.  Maybe you just saw them gliding by in New York and want one now that you are older . . .

My son Jack and I at an event, when these now-vintage cars were new (c) J E Robison Service

An early 1980s Rolls Royce Corniche on the show field

That is the thing about these cars . . . they are “the stuff of dreams” for many people, and they stand for a now-vanished era for others.  They are also one of the only symbols of that “lifestyle of the rich and famous” that ever becomes affordable to the average person.  Mansions don’t sell for pennies unless they are in the midst of urban blight, and require helicopter gunships for defense. Big yachts can get inexpensive to buy, but they usually need a million dollars in repairs when they reach that point.  And there is the other thing – neglected boats sink.

Rolls Royce and Bentley cars are different.  They start out at several hundred of today’s dollars, but good 20-year-old examples are often sold for 10% of the new value.  Maintenance on these cars can be steep, but it’s still within the means of many enthusiasts.  And most of the costs are for labor, so a person who does his own work has a major advantage.

As a car club, we should encourage those people, whatever their reason is for being interested in the car.  Ideally, we would do what we can to help them realize their dream in a good way, and not as a nightmare.

The best way to avoid a bad experience is to buy a good car.  If someone comes to the club forum with a car, that die is cast.  All we can do is give our best advice to get the most from whatever car they have.  If they do not have a car, we can offer advice on how to select a good vehicle.  We can steer them toward experts the club membership recognizes as qualified and suggest they inspect any potential acquisition carefully.

And we can encourage them to join the club, which anyone can do at this link.

Finally, we can offer some practical advice.  Here are a few of my thoughts.  Some of you may have different opinions. My perspective is that of a Rolls Royce/Bentley service manager though I have also been a RR/B owner for 20-some years and I too “got the dream” when my grandfather showed me a Silver Cloud, back in the 1960s.

Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II (c) J E Robison Service

RR/B changed corporate ownership in 2003, and almost all the vehicle technology changed on or around that date.  Since then, the majority of dealership service staff has turned over too. That means the service personnel in the dealer network can support post-2003 cars, but many dealers can't support the older vehicles because they lack staff that know the cars. And RR/B is not offering service training on the older vehicles anymore.  For all practical purposes, the “old” Rolls Royce Motors is gone.  For that reason you need to take a lot more care buying an older car, and you need to be sure you have someone to support it. 

As drivers of any kind of car, we get used to "bring it to the dealer" as a last resort.  Whether you drive a Chevrolet, a Toyota, or a Mercedes for your daily beast, that option is always there when your local mechanic is in over his head. Unfortunately that won't work in most places for a 1988 Rolls Royce.

That’s why – if you live in an area where Rolls Royce cars are rare – it’s important to figure out who will care for the car before it needs service.   But what if you want a newer car?

That is where the current dealer networks shine.  Corporate parents BMW and VW have made it easy to buy late model cars with sales incentives and extended warranty just like any other car (the old Rolls Royce never had those things!)  Also, the prevalence of new car lease programs ensures there is a steady supply of 3-6 year old used cars in the dealer network.  If you can afford the purchase price and the annual upkeep ($10k++ per year for service, taxes, fuel, etc.) this is an easy route to take.

Most people who come to this blog or the club forum, though, want older vehicles for a variety of reasons.  So what’s the lowdown on buying an older car?

There are several distinct series of vehicles:
  • The Rolls Royce Seraph/Bentley Arnage series was introduced in 1999 and built through the corporate transition.  These are fine cars but support for them may evaporate as they age. 
  • The Silver Spur/Bentley Turbo and Mulsanne series was made from 1981 to 1999.  These are the most common used RR/B cars in the market.  Good examples – depending on age – sell for $25-40,000 today.
  • The Silver Shadow series was built from 1966-1980 and is also common.  These were fine cars when new but most of the examples in the used car marketplace are in very rough shape.  Costs to make the cars safe to drive often exceed cash value.  Good examples – rare as they are – are excellent driving vehicles and possessed of a more classic style than the newer series.
  • The Bentley Azure/final Corniche cars were made from 1996 through the transition, and are popular because of their price and look.  Good examples are often sold in the $70-100,000 range.  Be careful though – hydraulic problems in the tops are common, and repair can run $20,000.  Tops themselves are costly as well.
  • The Corniche convertibles were made from the 1960s through 1995.  The older convertible cars are the vehicles with the most potential to rise in value over the next decade.  They are the most expensive to buy, but service costs tend to be similar to the others cars and there is more potential for positive return
  • You will also see the occasional Camargue coupe offered for sale. These cars are rare, and have some potential for appreciation, but they have never been really popular.

Once you have settled on a series, the next step is fining a good car.  That’s often a real challenge.  There are lots of rough cars on the market, and it’s easy to be misled because a beautiful exterior can conceal a ton of mechanical neglect.  And a car with cosmetic problems can fool you when the cosmetic repairs turn out vastly more expensive than you anticipated.

Many – indeed most – of the pre-2003 Rolls Royce and Bentley cars that are offered for sale, are offered because they have problems the present owner does not want to address.  They may not say that to you – they may deny it vehemently – but it is true.  Why else would the car be offered for sale?

The worst cars – when it comes to condition – seem to be those on ebay with carfax reports showing 8-10-15 owners.  When you see that kind of ownership profile you have to be vary careful.  Most often, it’s a car that’s been passed from one short-term owner to the next with the condition sliding a little more each transfer.  Cars like that can be horrors.  Be really careful looking at any car like this.  Always ask for service records and owner history.

Talk to the owner and ask yourself if you would want to take over a car that person has cared for.  But know that's a hard call to make. I cannot tell you how many motorists have come to our company and boasted of the loving care they have given to a car that is obviously seriously neglected. All I can say is, their idea of care is different from mine.  Yet there are other owners whose love for machinery show and those are the ones to buy from, if you can find such a person.

Where to find a good car? I know what you are thinking – death, divorce, things like that.  Those things happen, but if the car is really great, there is someone in the wings to take it.  Most of the time.  Incredible deals do pop up, but it’s rare.  When a dealer has the car you have an additional problem because there is now a middleman in the equation who has added to the price and detracted from the available first person knowledge of the vehicle.  The usual dealer advantages – warranty and the backing of a good service department – don’t generally apply to those who sell vintage RR/B cars.

The exception to that - and another seller to seek out -  is the qualified service person who is selling a client's car. For example, John Palma is a recognized Rolls Royce expert in New Jersey. I would not hesitate to buy a car he was selling on behalf of a service client because I'd know he knows what is being offered and I'd presume he could answer my questions. Albers in Zionsville, Indiana is another such organization. Buying from a reputable seller like that will not make the car trouble free, but it will at least be truthfully described and not butchered by hack repairmen.

When a car is sold by someone who’s become unable to drive, or sold out of an estate, it has often been neglected for years.  The finest gentleman in the world can still sell a very rough car, if it’s sat in his summer home garage untouched for 20 years.  There are some wealthy people with a lot of cars who just let them sit.  Those cars can be really nice cosmetically, but need everything when you start driving them.  Of course, if you want the car to sit and admire in your home, that may be a perfect fit for you.

The fact is, any car you buy is going to need work if you want to use it regularly and expect it to be properly functional.  I advise anyone who buys a 1980-1999 Rolls or Bentley to be prepared to put $10,000 into it shortly after purchase, maybe $20,000, and don’t be surprised if it takes more.  If it will strain your budget to spend that money, don’t buy the car in the first place because that is the price of entry most times.

Paying more for a better car will get you a better car, but it will still need work.  That is how these cars are.

You may think of buying a 1965-1980 Shadow-era car.  Those cars may cost less, but they are often run down, and you may double the initial service investment. And I should point out, it’s not an investment in a financial sense.  If you buy a car for $15,000 and put $10,000 into it, it’s still a $15,000 car.  It’s just in better condition and fit for use, where it was not before.  And a Shadow of that vintage can soak up all that mechanical upkeep money while still needing paint, wood, leather.  All that will costs tens of thousands to make right in any Rolls.

The Shadow series cars are great drivers, they look good, and they are the first series of RR/B to be capable of modern highway driving (when they are in good shape)

The older Cloud cars may take less upkeep (but they may also need far more) and they are more valuable.  But they drive like antiques.  If you want a vintage Rolls and know how they drive, go for it.  But don’t expect a 1958 Cloud to drive anything like a modern car.

Cloud era cars are a lot more variable.  Common examples (like the early 50s Bentley) can be cheap to buy and relatively inexpensive to keep on the road.  Really desirable examples – the rare dropheads – are fetching mid-six-figure prices.  So you need to know what you are looking at there.

Older cars (pre-World War II) are even more specialized, and I’d encourage you to learn what you are getting into before buying your first car of this era.  They are nothing like modern vehicles, but they can be a lot of fun.

Before you buy a car, consider who will work on it for you.  The biggest mistake some new owners make is choosing a “service provider” who is not qualified to work on the cars.  All too many mechanics say “sure I can work on those” when in fact they will cause more problems than they fix.  But there are some truly outstanding technicians working the field, and you may be lucky enough to live 10 miles from one.  The best advice there is to ask the members and see where others near you go for service.

I’ve written some more specific advice about what to look for on modern cars, which you can find at this blog  and my website ( www.robisonservice.com ) under service > Rolls Royce/Bentley > advice

Good luck

John Elder Robison

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for Rolls Royce and Bentley owners all over New England for over 25 years. Founder John Robison is a long time technical consultant for the Rolls Royce and Bentley Owners Club. Our company is an authorized Bosch Car Service Center. We also service Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and MINI motorcars. We have flatbed transport throughout the northeast region, and we work with Intercity and other transporters for greater distances. We also offer pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.

2 comments:

TERRY MURPHY said...

Wonderful article John.Lots of great information on all aspects of buying & keeping up our favorite cars.
My only disagreement is your mention of a 1958 Cloud being an antique.
My original 105000 mile Cloud can cruise comfortably @ 75-80 Miles an hour & with radial tires handle quite well.
This old girl can easily keep up with traffic & most passengers always remark on what a great ride it has.
JMHO :).
Other than that a great primer into RR & B Ownership.

D.A. said...

Great article . I am currently enjoying my 1st Rolls , a 1982 Silver Spur . You are right on the mark with your advise . I have a great collector/service provider and also seller of these fine automobiles in Rodd Sala Park Ward Motors in Cary Illinois . Not only is he an expert , he is also a great guy !! He's made ownership a pleasure and learning experience . Happy RR motoring .