Friday, November 27, 2015

Recommissioning a Shadow-era Rolls-Royce or Bentley after long term storage

"It’s only got 25,000 miles on the odometer!  It’s been stored for ten-plus years!  It’s got to be in great shape, right?  How much will it take to put the car back on the road?  The seller only wants ten thousand dollars.  It's got to be a bargain, right?"

Quite a lot, in most cases.  This is the story of one of those cars.

1980 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith II (c) JE Robison

The late70s long wheelbase Shadows were badged as Silver Wraith II cars  (C) JE Robison

Jay’s Silver Wraith II arrived at Robison Service in the beginning of August, 2015. We saw a fairly clean-looking 1980 Silver Wraith II that had not run in some time.  The inspection sticker dated from the spring of 2007 – 8 years previously.  The owner believed the odometer reading of 30,300 was original.  The interior and mechanicals looked original; the body was repainted but clean and undamaged.  There was no sign of mildew or corrosion – at least where we could see. 

This was not a recent purchase.  It was Dad's old car, and now that he was getting on in years, his sons wanted to bring it to life for him to enjoy one more time.  That's often how these jobs begin . . . with a treasured old car from a parent or relative.  Other times we start with a purchase - a barn find.

We began this project by getting the car running (temporarily) and doing an evaluation of what we could see without a road test. The original fuel pump had failed and we had to make some modifications to install a new style pump from Bentley, because the current replacement unit uses entirely different line fittings and mounts.  The old Opus electronic ignition had failed in storage and had to be replaced. We identified a number of basic drivability problems that would have to be addressed before the car could be evaluated on the road:
- The owner was aware of inoperative brakes when he put the car in storage;
- We also found an inoperative parking brake;
- We found deteriorated fuel in the tank and corrosion/leakage at carburetors;
- There were a number of damaged rubber bushings in the front end that would lead to noise when driving;
- We saw collapsed brake supply hoses and aged hoses to wheels;
- All four tires were badly dry rotted.

We noted that the car was still a ways from being drivable and there could be other issues when it was on the road.  With an optimistic outlook, we set out to solve those major problems first.  The owner felt that most accessories had worked when the car was put in storage and he hoped they were still okay.

The first focus of our attention was the brakes, which did not work. There was no system pressure.  We replaced the supply hose to the front pump and tested the circuit. The front pump did turn out to be damaged, and we ordered a new one.  From there we moved on to the wheels.  We removed all six brake calipers and found rusted and frozen pistons in all of them. This is characteristic of a car that sat a long time without the required annual fluid flushes.  The cure is new pistons and seals.  The caliper bodies are generally usable once they are cleaned and honed, which we did.

When we took the calipers off we also examined the flexible hoses and found several of them were collapsing internally like the supply line. All appeared to be original and all were scheduled for replacement.  Rolls-Royce calls for these hoses to be replaced at the 8-year service interval but few owners do that.  In modern times, Land Rover and other carmakers have seen failures of 8-year-old brake hoses so the risk of failure is clearly real.

We pulled the combined accumulator/valve assemblies apart and found more rust and corrosion.  We tried to clean them, but in the end, the accumulator valve units were too corroded to repair and both had to be replaced.  Those valves are no longer available new so we sourced rebuilt units from the UK.  The accumulators themselves were rebuilt with new diaphragms and seals and recharged in our shop.  That was a bit of a challenge as the accumulators had been rebuilt at some time in the past and they were assembled incorrectly, so the factory holding tools could not be put in place.  We got them apart and they are assembled in correct alignment now.

We fitted new brake pads and retaining hardware once the calipers were rebuilt (most of the anti-rattle hardware was missing when the car arrived). The calipers were refitted to the car with new rubber hoses, and the parking brake calipers were rebuilt.  With this work done, we had proper functionality in one hydraulic circuit but the other pump continued to fail the test and we replaced it. With that done we had brake pressure in both systems. 

Moving on to the engine, we completed overhaul of carburetors and setup of the engine.  We drained the fuel system and refilled with clean gas, to find the gauge did not work.  The sender turned out to leak internally and we replaced it.  We replaced the aged ignition wires and mis-matched plugs, and repaired the distributor balance weights and springs which had been damaged by rusting in place. The bimetallic choke element was broken and we fixed that.  We tracked down and fixed a number of vacuum leaks and some under hood wiring errors that stemmed from prior vernacular repair efforts.  With that done the engine ran well.

The owner provided a set of Hankook tires which we mounted and fitted to the car.  The owner decided against fitting the original Avon tires due to the high cost and limited availability.  We have had good success with Hankook tires in the past.  The only issue we’ve seen is that the sidewalls are a lot softer than the Avon tires, and that makes for mushier handling.  However, that is not a concern for many owners of these cars.

We then turned to the transmission, which still had the original undercoating on the pan bolts, indicating the fluid had never been changed.  Inside we found a lot of sludge – no surprise with 35-year-old fluid.  We cleaned the valve body and pan, changed the filter, and filled with fresh fluid.  With the amount of sludge we found inside we have some concerns for the life of this gearbox, but there is nothing more we can do right now.

When we ran the car we measured normal brake pressure on our test gauge but the warning lights did not work properly.  We rebuilt the switches (a common job.)  The car was taken on its first road test and some issues were noted with the accessories.

The air conditioning system was empty; we charged it with the owner’s supply of R12.  The heat worked and the dash outlets worked when the Fascia switch was operated. Two windows were inoperative. We took apart both right side window motors and cleaned them up as best we could as new parts are no longer available.  We repaired broken wiring in the driver door and passenger front door for locks and windows.

The car was all over the road on road test so we replaced all four shocks and we also changed the bushings that had been rattling.  After review with the owner, we fitted Bilstein shocks front and rear; they are the most common choice for this type of car with a slightly more positive ride than the original units.

We continued to road test the car and experienced a loss of pressure on both brake hydraulic systems.  We traced that to one inch of sludge blocking the outlets on the bottom of the reservoir. We cleaned out that sludge and replaced the screens and seals on the reservoir. That remedied the loss of pressure when hot but we were still seeing contamination from the level control in the rear circuit. 

We took apart and cleaned the level control rams, valves, and lines. We removed quite a bit of gelled fluid from that last area.  When we did that work the rear level control began working (it had been inoperative.)  We were finally able to bleed it and eliminate most knocking noise from the rear.

After further running the engine oil and filter were changed.  The transmission was drained and filled again, and the rear axle fluid was changed.  Engine coolant had been changed in the earlier round of work (we drained it for the carburetor work) so all fluids are now fresh.  The fuel system is all clear; the tank was removed and cleaned and the outlet hoses were serviced as needed when it was out.  Some lines were changed on the motor; there are others that may need attention in the future.

All the running lights were checked and several exterior lights were repaired. Most of the light repairs were simple, but a few required tracing dead wire circuits back to the main distribution panel, and some hours were spent bringing the lights back to life.  One shock absorber ball joint was changed, and the compliance mounts were renewed in the front end.  With that done the car steered well and all joints are tight.  New carpet mats were laid into the passenger compartment and the trunk and battery tray was reassembled.  Interior detailing was not within the scope of this job, but the interior is complete and most accessories seem to be in working order.

The car is driving fairly well now.  It starts and runs well, and the engine is quiet.  There are no major fluid leaks at this time.  Steering and ride are normal.  Brakes are working properly though there is still some roughness from the brake rotors – which the owner elected to leave alone for now.  There is slight sag in the front and rear springs.  All in all, this car is now better than 90% of the Shadow II and Wraith II cars on the road.

Going forward, I recommend that the transmission fluid be drained and refilled next season.  The brake hydraulic fluid really needs to be changed on these cars annually and that should be done next fall (or in spring 2017) to protect the work we did on that system.  Other than that, future maintenance needs will be limited to issues that arise in use, and cosmetic fixing up.

I advised the owner to always use the highest-octane fuel he can get.  If the car is to be stored I actually suggest filling with aviation fuel as that does not have the ethanol that proves so destructive. These cars use Mobil Delvac engine oil, 15-40 or 15-50 weight.  The GM 400 transmission uses regular Dexron fluid.  The coolant is the traditional green ethylene glycol mix.  Brake fluid is a special RR363 product and that’s the only fluid you should use in that system.  I suggest putting the tires up to the maximum pressure for winter storage, and I recommend the rubber chocks from to preserve the tire roundness.

This job is typical of a comprehensive re-commissioning of a Shadow-era Rolls-Royce or Bentley motorcar.  We spent a bit over 200 hours on this project between August and November 2015. Our labor was divided among mechanical work, alignment and tire work, electrical troubleshooting, and cosmetic and detail work.  Most of the parts we needed were available, though no one vendor had them all, and the factory no longer supports many of the pieces we used.  When considering the time spent, remember we have lifts and all factory tools, and we have experience (some of us were trained on these cars when they were new!)  A hobbyist doing this at home would likely need considerably more time.

I hope this gives a perspective of what it will take to bring a long-stored RR/B back to life; this car was actually in better shape than many we see.  It’s worth noting that many of the major service headaches on this car could have been headed off by proper preventative care before the car was put away.  Sadly, that does not usually happen.  The best we can do is go through all the key systems step by step and bring the car to life in an orderly and efficient manner, knowing that we will still probably encounter unforeseen problems and complications. 

(c) 2015 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Rolls-Royce and Bentley clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Can a tight front end fall apart, with no warning?

We like to think careful inspection will reveal front end problems before they become failures, but that's not always true.  Take a look at these images from a Land Rover Ninety (the predecessor to the Defender)

The photo above shows the ball joint that connects the pitman arm - the output of the steering box - with the drag like (the connection to the wheels.)  There is nothing visibly wrong, and the joint seems tight.  It would pass any quick inspection, like most state safety inspections.  Is it OK?  Not by a long shot, but we have to take it apart to see the real story:

When it's town down we see that water has been seeping into the joint for a long time.  Gradually the grease was displaced and the steel began to rust. The rust swelled the parts, making a worn joint seem tight as new.  Meanwhile, the swelling increased the pressure on the load bearing cup until it split.  When that happened this joint was on borrowed time.  One sharp jolt, and it would come apart.

If that were to happen at highway speed the result would be a nasty crash as the steering wheel disconnected from the road wheels.  Who know which way the car would veer?  Over the years I have seen a number of Land Rovers wrecked from sudden failure through causes like this.

But it's unfair to single out Land Rover.  Any car can fall victim to this.  The pitman arm joint on a old Rover is just particularly vulnerable because the open end of the ball joint cup faces up, so it can fill with water and hold it. And when it come apart - because the cup faces up - the joint falls completely apart.

Cups that face the other way can come apart and the car will still steer as long as the cup isn't knocked off.  Both designs are common. So how do you protect yourself, and your car?  In my opinion, it's not enough to shake the steering joints and check for play.  As these photos show, the joints can be tight as they get ready to snap.  The only sure thing is to replace them on a schedule, which I suggest could be:
- every 50-100,000 miles of use, or any time you buy a car more than 15 years old
- Ten years of service life
- Appearance of any visible rust around the boot, or damage to the rubber boots

And I suggest you change ALL joints at the same time, to be sure.  They see equal stress, after all.

While durability varies, every car has joints like this in the steering, and this advice is fairly universal.

Till next time,

(c) 2015 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sudden Brake Failure in Shadow-era Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motorcars

How do you know the brakes in your Shadow-era Rolls-Royce are safe?  If you are like most people you trust the warning lamps on the dash.  When you start the car and you see the lamps glow, flicker, and go out – you know they work.  Lamps out - brakes safe.  You expect the lamps to warn you if either system loses pressure, so you can stop the car before brake pressure is lost.

Can that system fail?  Last week, I learned that the answer is yes.   Shadow brakes can fail without warning.  I know because we had it happen to a car in our yard.  The only thing that saved the car from crashing into the building was the simultaneous shift into park and stepping hard on the emergency brake.  And when the car stopped we realized we would not have been so lucky if the speeds had been higher – those tricks won’t do much at 60mph.

The next morning we hooked pressure gauges to the test points and read 2,000psi on the rear circuit, but just 1,300psi on the front at idle, rising to 2,000 as the engine sped up.  That puzzled us because the pumps were recently changed, and the accumulators were freshly charged on rebuilt blocks.  Why the low pressure? 

There was no obvious reason the front circuit should have been low.  And an even bigger question remained – how did the brakes fail with those system pressures?  1,300psi at idle is low, but it’s still plenty to stop the car.  And the rear had full pressure all along.  So what happened?  The pressures must have fallen to zero on the test drive, and we were at a loss to how that could have happened.

We did a flow test, which one circuit passed and the other came close.  That didn’t answer the failure either, but it raised a question.  What would account for low flow in a newly rebuilt pump circuit?  We have seen that happen with collapsed lines from the reservoir to pump, but these lines looked good.  

We suspected the answer might lie in the hydraulic reservoirs, located on the left fender well just forward of the firewall.  We started removing the screws that hold the cover in place - something that never happens on most Silver Shadow cars.  Why would you remove the cover?  You can see the fluid through the sight glasses, and you fill through the caps on top. The unit itself is seldom taken apart.  But it should be, as our exploration revealed!

The first thing to check was the intake screens in the reservoir and that is where we found our answer.

Sludge in a Silver Shadow hydraulic reservoir (c) JE Robison Service

What you see in the photo is a solid inch of sludge, and the intake screens are actually collapsed from the force of the pumps trying to suck solid sludge through the fine mesh.  Take a look at this comparison:

You can see how the pump was straining for a long time to pull fluid through those clogged strainers. Intake restriction is surely a cause of pump failure in some of these cars.  And it can get worse - if a pump fails it can seize and damage the pushrod or even the cam. So you can see how this gel issue can turn into major mechanical trouble in addition to the obvious hydraulic problems it causes.

I was shocked to find such a gelled mess of fluid, but the car in question had been stored for 10 years, and a review of online forums reveals quite a few instances of brake fluid gelling in cars and motorcycles during long term storage.  We have actually seen that ourselves, as shown in this photo of what we found in a Jaguar XK120 brake reservoir after being parked 6 years.

The fix for this - on the Rolls - was to remove and clean the reservoir, and replace the screens.   

For the sake of comparison, this is what a disassembled reservoir looks like on a car in our restoration shop:

A restored RR363 hydraulic reservoir from a Silver Shadow (C) JE Robison Service 

After cleaning this car's reservoir, we also replaced the suction lines to the pumps, and thoroughly flushed the system.  But flushing only goes so far.  After running the car 100 miles this is what we found on removing the reservoir top again

As you can see the rear circuit has turned rather dark, and there are little bits of debris accumulating in the tank.  In these cars the rear hydraulic circuit powers the level control, and we have known the rams to build up sludge, some of which seems to be making its way back to the reservoir.  The photos below show the level control circuit on this car, which was a repository for more sludge:

The cure for that: Take apart and clean the level control circuit.  In this car, the level control hadn’t worked, and the owner had said to ignore it. But we could not do that, when we saw how it was polluting the clean fluid in front. We took apart and cleaned both rams, cleaned the valves, and blew clear the lines. In retrospect I see that the level control failure was due to gelled fluid preventing proper operation. It worked once this was done.

So one takeaway from that is that the whole system should be cleaned and serviced, even if the owner does not care about self-leveling.  What seems like a place to economize on service (level control) could well end up a cause of rear circuit brake failure.

The other takeaway is that the reservoirs should be opened up and inspected when these cars receive major brake service, or when they are serviced after long-term storage (more than one winter.)  There is no external sign of sludge in the reservoir, and if you don't open it up and look your first clue may be the total and sudden failure of the system.

This inspection is a nuisance, with 14 screws holding the cap in place, after which the screens and plates have to come off.  And if the reservoir needs to be cleaned you could be into a half-day project.  But do it anyway, in the interest of safety!  The lesson of this car is that the fluid reservoir should be checked before the car is driven.

And when the reservoir is filled, be sure to use the RR363 fluid that's made special for these cars.  Ordinary brake fluid does not have the castor oil lubricant the brake pumps require, and substitution of a different fluid can lead to brake pump wear and premature failure.  That's a failure that's easily avoided - just use the right stuff!  It is ok to top these systems with DOT3 fluid in emergency but if that is done the RR363 should be put back in at the earliest opportunity.

And one final thing – why didn’t the warning lights come on?  In some of these cars the warning lamps are at the end of long dead-end pipe runs.  In this vehicle, the line to the sensor was jammed by gelled fluid, and there was no live connection between the sensors and the fluid they were supposed to monitor. Yet they looked good from outside!  That just shows how appearances can deceive.  Particularly since this car originally had the warning lights lit, and they went out when the car was first started up.

The advice in this article applies to 1965-1980 production Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars that use pressurized RR363 hydraulics.  This includes all Corniche, Shadow, Wraith, T Type, and T2 built in that period.

(c) 2015 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Rolls-Royce and Bentley clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.