Friday, August 29, 2014

The Commodore's Jeepster

When you’re the Commodore and you can buy any new car you want, what do you choose?  It’s a weighty decision.  After all, as Commodore, you set the standard.  That means you can’t just buy a mass-produced idea of style and form.  You must create your own; an expression of automotive craftsmanship fine enough to park beside the finest hand built yachts. You commission a motorcar as others commission a new kitchen.

It’s a hard choice, but someone has to make it.  American or foreign?  You’ve got both, and for this car, it’s going to be American.  They build some beautiful yachts in Europe but our native craftsmen are very fine too.

Sedan or utility?  That’s an easy question.  This vehicle’s job is to travel to the waterfront, and there may be a need to carry rigging, guests, live bait or giant fish.  An open utility is the only answer.

Open car or closed?  It’s summer on the oceanfront, folks! The only way to ride is under and open top.  How else will you move the fishing poles, and how will parade guests stand and wave? Open tourer it is.

Now we’re getting down to it.  Who makes such a vehicle?  Not Cadillac.  Not Lincoln. Not Chrysler. International Scout?  Too boxy.  One of the best loved open top sport utilities in the postwar period is the Willys Jeepster.  That, folks, is the Commodore’s Choice.  Isn’t this a magnificent example?

The common Jeepster had an economy level of finish, with inexpensive vinyl seats and basic, simple trim.  But even simple can be interpreted with beauty.  Basic lacquer can be replaced with the finest Glausurit urethane finishes.  Basic vinyl seating can be replaced with the finest leathers.  Wilton wool can pad the floor better than tar paper.

It didn't start out that way.  This is what we began with. And it was described as "restored!"

What did we do instead? Try powder coated seat frames, new marine plywood bases and cushions, Connolly leather upholstery and top-grade Wilton carpet. Which seats would you prefer?

Some people would change the engine for a new hot-rodded piece of iron.  But why? This engine was good enough to take American solders to victory all around the world.  Surely a rebuilt version can take a few modern day connoisseurs to the club and back!

This is the famous Go-Devil motor, the engine that earned a reputation as “the motor that won World War II” in the original Jeep.

Here's how it began . . .

And he she is today . . .
1948 Jeepster engine bay with Go Devil engine

You won’t win any drag races in this old Jeepster, and you won’t be running the fast lane on the Interstate, but in a car like this you will have something truly unique.  Like a fine wooden boat, this is a car to treasure for a lifetime.

There’s restoration, and then there’s Restoration.

We started with what was optimistically called "a well restored example."

In the image above expert body man Al Keinath looks at what we're facing.  Three different shades of burgundy on the nose alone. A full quarter-inch of plastic filler in some spots. Rust holes covered in household caulk. A cardboard firewall that's painted car color to hide the crumbling. Chips, bangs, and nothing fits. It takes two hands to shut the door, and a good kick to get it open.  The bottom of the hood has a layer of black goo to hide the imperfections.  And the condition of the undercarriage . . .

But we will make it new again! Better than new, in fact. We'll be finishing this with the level of  craftsmanship you find in a fine wood boat. No corners cut in this job . . 

Reshaping the rear contours

The body work is done on a stand

A thousand little parts to refinish or rebuild

Almost ready for paint

Lots of metal work

The burgundy paint is on!

Painting the gloss black two-tone

Some final welding on the body

The convertible top attachments are handmade wood

Inner panels get painted first, in Glausurit

Fitting the frame for the convertible top

Fitting up the interior

The finished body

Rebuilt engine and transmission ready to install.

The Go-Devil engine goes back in place

Installing new vintage wiring

Summer has arrived, and this 1948 Jeepster is once again . . King of the road . . .

At Robison Service, we started out restoring European classics, many years ago. We were lucky to find patrons who appreciated our work and commissioned more and more. As we grew, people asked for higher and higher standards of workmanship.  I wasn't surprised - after all, we worked on some of the finest cars in the world.  Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, and Rolls Royce. Then people said, "Can you do that level of work on my father's old Willys?" And of course we can.  And we did.  These are the cars America grew up with and loved, interpreted in a whole new way.  You may have seen Jeepsters, but I guarantee you've never seen one like this!

The greatest thing about these projects is that each one is totally unique. I'm proud to call them expressions of the auto restorer's art; translating our client's visions into drivable pieces of sculpture..

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Long Life Spark Plugs don't always last forever

Not too long ago spark plugs were replaced every 30,000 miles.  Then 60k became standard and now it's 100k.  30 years ago spark plugs fouled from deposition.  New engines run cleaner, which means wear has become the limiting factor.

The spark plug manufacturers went to exotic metals to reduce wear, and for the most part those materials work.  However, wear of the carbon steel electrodes is still an issue, and a tired engine can actually foul the exotic metal spark plugs more easily than before, because the exotic metal contact area is smaller.

These images clearly illustrate wear in a modern high performance spark plug, from a car that just arrived for service.  The top photo shows how the electrode wore at an angle, and the top-on view of the plug shows how the deposition pattern (left side only) reflects this pattern.

As the plug wears in a sloped pattern the flame front becomes more and more one-sided which leads to knock and misfires.  The worse it gets the more this particular cylinder's timing will be backed off to compensate, with lower efficiency, more heating, and less power as a result. Uneven plug fouling will raise the necessary firing voltage, which will over stress coil packs.

This particular plug came from a 2009 Range Rover with 80,000 miles.  It's clearly due for replacement even with 20% life remaining by the schedule.  The moral of this story - manufacturer service schedules are a guide, not an absolute.  Some cars will benefit from earlier plug changes.

Remember - as a carmaker their goal is to sell new cars, and part of that plan rides on wearing out the old car while another part rests on low advertised cost of ownership (defer it all till the last possible moment!)

As an owner, your goals may be rather different, especially if you plan to keep your car a long time or pass it on to a friend or family member.

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

Restoration and the future for Rolls Royce and Bentley cars - the 2014 RROC Annual Meet at Seven Springs

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