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.

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What makes up the high annual costs for a vintage Bentley or Rolls Royce?

What makes up the annual  upkeep costs for a vintage Bentley or Rolls Royce?

When people ask me what it will cost to keep a 1980s-1990s Rolls Royce on the road (with moderate use) I usually say it’s a middle four figure sum, if you pay someone to do all the work.

Every year the car should have its oil changed.  The other fluids should be checked. The chassis should be lubricated.   The hydraulics should be bled.  All the car’s equipment should be checked and serviced as needed.  This job will take 4-6 hours, and consume several hundred dollars of fluids and supplies.

If you are paying $100-150 per hour for labor this service is probably close to or above $1,000.

On an older car you will always be coming due on something.  Perhaps it’s transmission fluid due every 30,000 miles, or coolant due every 3-4 years.  And there are tires every 5-10 years.  Those periodic items add up.

Next are mechanical repairs.  The car may emerge from storage with inoperative air conditioning, or a fresh oil leak.  It might develop a running problem, or the radio antenna might fail.  On a labor-intensive British car those repairs can easily exceed $2,000 per year.  Or you may get lucky and have none.  More likely, the problems occur and the driver fails to spot them, or chooses to ignore them.

Over my years as a service manager I have seen some really egregious faults - rock hard suspensions, 8 cylinder cars running on 4 cylinders, and Rolls-Royce cars with blown exhausts being driving down the boulevard by oblivious owners.  "I thought that was the way it was," they've told me and I just shake my head in wonder.

Then there are those who notice the faults and say, "Let it go; I'm selling it soon." Those people annoy me because I know they plan to pass the problems on to the next sucker, though they would never admit that truth.  

Finally, there are cosmetic costs.  The car may get dented.  Wood veneers crack, and leather splits.  Those repairs don’t happen every year, but when they do, they are costly.  Small dent repairs can run $1,000, while overall paint jobs can exceed $30,000. 

When someone says “I’ve owned the car ten years and never spent anywhere near those sums,” that usually tells us they have overlooked most of the items above.  Mechanics may be working, but run down. The paint may be more faded, and the leather harder. The wood may show some additional cracks.  Some owners dismiss that as “patina” while others want it fixed. 

A car with a lot of patina eventually becomes a candidate for restoration or scrappage.  Restoration of a 1990s-vintage Rolls is a six-figure proposition and few of those jobs are done today.  Most people look for a “good enough” example and drive it a few years.  That’s ok as long as acceptable cars can be found, but eventually they will all be gone, and people will see very steep costs to bring rougher cars back.

Can you buy a decent running car, drive it lightly, and get away with doing nothing for a couple years?  Probably so.  But at some point there will be a reckoning, and it will probably cost more than keeping the car in good shape right along.  I can’t tell you have many times I’ve brought one of those “never needed anything” cars into our shop, only to write up a $15,000 list of needed repairs.

And what about those $15,000 lists? How can an owner know what is real and what’s “mechanic exaggeration?”  My advice is that you ask the mechanic to show you.  We document everything we report with measurements and photos.  If a car should hold brake pressure for 40 pumps of the pedal, and it fails at 9 pumps, it’s worn out.  The fact that the brakes still work does not matter.  That measurement may be your only warning they are headed to failure.  Fluids should not leak.  You may look at a leak, and decide you’d live with the spots rather than pay a huge repair bill, but in either case the leak is a valid problem to report. 

We can test fluids like antifreeze, but if Rolls-Royce says “change this every five years” we ignore that at our peril.  Some will do that, others won’t.

Cosmetic damage is all in the eye of the beholder. One person will look at cracked wood trim on the doors and have to have it fixed, even though it costs $4,000.  Another person would not care.
Taken together, I think you can see how the work adds up on these cars.  You can get a free ride for a few years, but know that you are just passing the buck to the next buyer.  And when you buy a used car – know that most sellers are passing their buck onto you.  That’s a really good reason to check a car like this out thoroughly before you buy.

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 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.

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