Interview with a Rolls-Royce (Mar, 1953)

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Interview with a Rolls-Royce

Mechanics love the motor, ladies adore the elegance. Every year 250 Americans pay $10,310 and up to own a Rolls. And one potentate has sixty in his garage!


The vast majority of humankind plod through life without once setting foot inside a Rolls-Royce automobile. This is not astonishing, if only because barely 30,000 Rolls-Royces have been assembled during the half century since three Londoners founded Rolls-Royce Limited. So it may be imagined with what delusions of grandeur this Plymouth-bound reporter in one day rode in two Rollses and drove a third, thus enjoying a fleeting intimacy with approximately .0001 of all the Rollses ever built.

I experienced this heady sensation as a result of a long-smoldering curiosity about a minor phase of the company’s activities—its School of Instruction in London. There, so I had always understood, any gentleman who owns a Rolls and/or his gentleman’s gentleman can obtain thorough training not only in the care and handling of the car but also in Rolls-Roycean etiquette. When I requested permission to visit the school, the management offered to send a car for me at my convenience. And so, a few days later, I emerged from my modest digs in an unfashionable section of London to behold a huge, black, gleaming, postwar Rolls—this model is called the Silver Wraith—standing majestically at the curb, a uniformed chauffeur holding open the door.

The Chauffeur’s Eyebrow Raises

The chauffeur, Stone by name, was clearly an old-school graduate, summa cum laude. He raised an eyebrow when I insisted on sitting up front with him. The school is at a considerable distance from the center of London, where I was staying. It is located in Scrubbs Lane, a remarkably inappropriate address for one of the world’s toniest concerns, and I had almost an hour in which to gape at the car’s numerous wonders. Gradually, Stone unbent far enough to explain some of them.

“Take a look at this, if you please, sir,” he said, pushing a button beneath a dial on the dashboard. An indicator swept halfway around the dial. “Gives the oil level. Saves soiling one’s hands.” He was wearing immaculate black leather gloves. “Now, here, sir,” he went on, “one has a warning light. If one’s petrol supply falls below two gallons, it flashes green.”

“Why the extra emergency brake?” I put in, pointing to a shaft next to the steering wheel.

“Ah, that’s no brake, sir. That’s a grease pedal. When one pushes that, one automatically lubricates the entire car.”

One need not exert oneself very much when changing a tire, either, I learned: The car can be raised on power-operated, built-in hydraulic jacks. The cylinders are chrome-plated and seldom require decarbonizing. To recharge the battery, it is unnecessary to remove it. It can be plugged into the car’s electric circuit through an outlet on the dashboard.

The Silver Wraith was slipping through the London traffic as noiselessly as a fish in water. “Not much vibration,” I commented.

As though he had been awaiting a cue. Stone instantly halted the car, got out. and opened the door on my side. “If you please, sir,” he said, “a little demonstration.” I followed him to the front of the car. “Have you a coin I may borrow, sir?” he asked me with the air of a conjurer. I handed him a dime. He stood it on edge behind the radiator cap. It didn’t budge.

“You’ve cut the motor,” I said accusingly.

“Not a bit of it, sir. She’s purring away quite as usual. Fact of the matter is, sir, when our testers at the factory make their final check for any untoward sounds in the engine, they have to use a stethoscope.”

I was still digesting this information when we arrived at the Scrubbs Lane branch. It consisted of a whole complex of hangarlike structures, which surprised me until Stone explained that besides the school they embraced the Rolls-Royce service headquarters for the entire world.

A guard led me to the office of the head of the school, one William Elwin Mad-docks, or W.E.M. (All Rolls personnel, from Lord Hives, chairman of the board, down to the humblest apprentice mechanic, are known to each other by their initials.) W.E.M. is tall, broad, gray-haired, and heavily spectacled, a figure of boundless dignity. With the exception of four years in the RAF during the war, he has been a Rolls employee since 1916, when he started as an “improver” (grease monkey).

“So you’re interested in our school,” he said. He has a big. deep voice and teeth like piano keys.

I said I was, and he proceeded to guide me through it. “The course lasts twelve days,” he said, “and is open only to owners of Rolls-Royces and their drivers. We charge a nominal tuition fee of ten guineas [$29.40]. Since the war, we’ve graduated about a thousand drivers and a hundred and fifty owners.”

He showed me into a room full of disemboweled engines. Some twenty students and an instructor were clustered around a blackboard. I tried to distinguish the gentlemen from the gentlemen’s gentlemen, but failed miserably.

“Correct method and adjustment of tappets,” W.E.M. whispered.

If the student is a driver, a report goes to his employer. No weaknesses are glossed over. “Meadows,” reads a typical report, “is young, and, taking his age into account, he is likely to develop into a useful servant. His roadwork is very fair, but he lacks experience in London traffic.”

“We retain a copy of every report in our permanent files,”-W.E.M. added. “If there’s trouble with one of our cars, we like to know whether the driver has been to school here and what sort of showing he made.”

No student, however adept, receives a diploma when he graduates. Such recognition comes only after he has driven a Rolls at least three years and 30,000 miles. A serviceman calls on every owner once a year during the life of the three- year unconditional guarantee, and if he uncovers no blots on the graduate’s record during this time, W.E.M. awards the driver a “certificate of merit.” So highly prized are these certificates that when I asked W.E.M. to let me have a blank one as a souvenir, he drew a line through it and wrote “canceled.” “In case it should be mislaid and fall into unworthy hands,” he explained.

It was lunchtime, and W.E.M. led me into a cozy little dining room. We were joined presently by a brisk, stocky man whom W.E.M. addressed as S.B. He is Stanley Bull, the chief service engineer, and he. too, has grown up in the company.

A Mecca for Ailing Rollses Although Rolls-Royce repair service is available in almost two hundred cities scattered throughout the world, many owners will permit none but headquarters to lay a wrench on their car. Thus, many an ailing Rolls arrives in Scrubbs Lane after a voyage of thousands of miles, costing thousands of dollars. (In the garage, I later counted thirty-four license plates in as many different foreign languages. I S.B. sees that they are restored to their owners cured.

S.B. has also been known to respond to cries of distress from customers far from home, where no local service was available. Not long ago, a Rolls owner broke a spring on a mountainous road in Spain. The company flew down two mechanics, who promptly repaired the damage. When, months later, no bill was forthcoming, the grateful owner wrote asking for one. “We do not understand your letter.” came the reply. “Our springs never break.”

Old Rollses, according to S.B., never die. Specimens as old as the company with half a million miles on their speedometers, are still functioning. In fact. S.B. has yet to receive a Rolls that his department cannot resuscitate. It maintains 30,000 bins of spare parts.

W.E.M. and S.B. fell to reminiscing about some of the more unusual orders the company has been called upon to fill. “Nearly every Rolls is unique.” W.E.M. declared. “After all, when a chap spends that much on a car [the lowest basic price is $10,310. the highest $16,000], he wants those additional touches that set it apart from the other chap’s.”

The least inhibited in devising such touches are India’s princes. The Gaekwar of Baroda, for example, has a Rolls upholstered in hand-embroidered brocade. The exterior is painted a specially created shade of scarlet to match the Gaekwaree’s nail polish. After the war, the Maharaja of Patiala bought thirty-five Rollses with fur upholstery and gold-plated dashboards. The Maharaja of Mysore owns all eleven of the most expensive Rollses ever built. Each cost S28,000 and has gold door handles and a built-in cocktail bar. The maharaja owns thirty other Rollses.

But both the Maharaja of Patiala and Mysore are underprivileged compared with the Nizam of Hyderabad, who is frequently described as the richest man in the world. His garages shelter sixty Rollses. His favorite one has a silver chassis, a domed roof, lace curtains, and a gem-encrusted throne instead of a rear seat.

A Chamber Pot in Her Rolls

Eastern potentates, of course, have no monopoly on eccentricity. An English lady fitted her Rolls with a washstand and chamber pot. An English business magnate ordered a built-in safe for his loose cash. An English art collector had the interior decorated to duplicate in miniature his study, with hand-painted cherubs and half a Chippendale table attached to the back of the driver’s seat.

Americans, who now buy more Rollses than any other people (an average of 250 a year), show, surprisingly enough, a conservative taste in decor. No very startling fripperies decorate the Rollses of such American nabobs as Myron C. Taylor. Byron Foy. Tommy Manville; of such Hollywoodians as Jack Warner, Norma Shearer. Clark Gable, Irene Dunne. A possible exception is Mrs. Jessie Woolworth Donahue. Her Rolls contains a vanity case and electric clock together costing $5,000.

Occasionally, the company rises in all its majesty and rebuffs a would-be purchaser. It refused recently to honor an order by a Middle European dignitary because the numerous gingerbread accretions he requested would have unbalanced the body of the car. “We draw the line,” S.B. said, “at specifications incompatible with our engineering.”

Rolls-Royce Limited is not snobbish. It views with equal unconcern each customer’s social standing. Al Capone was a valued customer.

Delivery of a Rolls in England at present takes two years; in the U.S.. whose dollars England so desperately needs, it’s six months. (The handwork on the body alone takes two months.) But delivery of one Rolls model is limited to a rare few. This is the Phantom 4. Because of its lofty dimensions, which raise the occupants above the common herd while permitting them to be clearly seen by all, the Phantom 4 is reserved for heads of state. Only one American President ever used a Rolls in office. He was Woodrow Wilson, and then Rolls was a gift from friends. “I expect,” W.E.M. reasoned, “most Americans would take poorly to the idea of their President favoring a foreign car.”

Queen Elizabeth’s Phantom 4, although by no means the most expensive in existence, is the most advanced technically. It is nineteen feet long and six feet high, and can develop 190 horsepower. “Quite a feather in our cap, really,” W.E.M. said. “The royal family, to be sure, has always preferred the Rolls for private use, but this is the first time it has been chosen as the official state car.”

Because of its longevity, the average Rolls passes through many hands, and the company tries to keep a record of its vicissitudes. If a Rolls has been in a serious accident, such details as may be gleaned from the owner, insurance company, or police go into the dossier. “Should you ever contemplate buying a used Rolls,” S.B. advised me, “you would do well to check with us. There are unscrupulous dealers who will patch up a damaged car that ought to be off the road altogether.”

Most Rollses wind up as hearses or mourners’ cars. “It is their natural destination,” S.B. said. “A cortege of them, silent, dignified, aloof, presents an immensely impressive spectacle. No doubt about it the Rolls has popularized funerals. Every successful undertaker has a fleet of them. The British Cooperative Funeral Service alone has three thousand with which to bury its members, and at least two thousand others are owned by undertakers in this country.”

“Give the poor bloke a splendid last ride is the idea,” said W.E.M.

After luncheon, W.E.M. offered to take me through a condensed version of the lesson in etiquette, and I thus entered my second Rolls since morning, a Silver Dawn.

As I approached the front seat, he observed casually, “If you were a chauffeur, that would be improper.”

“What would be?” I asked, appalled.

“Walking in front of the car. A chauffeur who knows his place always walks around the back. . . . Here, suppose you take the wheel for a bit.” He added helpfully, “I can always tell whether a driver has been properly trained or not. If not, riding with him is painful to me.”

I had scarcely touched the wheel when to my utter bewilderment W.E.M. murmured, “Bad stance.” He tapped my hands, which rested on the wheel more or less parallel to each other. “They should grip the wheel in this manner,”

he said, placing them on a diagonal line, left hand a little below the right. “What we call at twenty to four.”

Although I have been driving cars for some twenty-five years, I felt, under W.E.M.’s glacial scrutiny, as if this were my initial experience. “Now, let’s drive out the main gate,” he directed.

I shifted into first, and the gears emitted a faint sigh. W.E.M. winced. “The only noise permissible in a Rolls-Royce,” he said, “is that made by the passengers’ conversation. Our’ students spend three days just learning how to shift gears.”

I offered him a cigarette and started to light one myself. “We do not approve of smoking at the wheel,” he said. “Now. turn that corner, please.”

Dropping my cigarette, I placed one hand on top of the wheel, the other near the bottom, and swung it to the left. I knew it was wrong the moment I did it. “No, no,” said W.E.M. “Don’t alter your stance. Thread the wheel through.”

A man stepped into the road half a block ahead, and I gave him a blast of the horn. “Softly, softly,” my mentor chided me. “A Rolls-Royce horn should give a gentle warning, never an imperious command. Stop here a moment, will you?”

Before coming to a dead halt, the car lurched slightly. W.E.M. had been expecting it. “A skillful driver so handles his car,” he lectured me, “that a passenger dozing in back should be totally unaware of any change in speed or direction. Do you follow me? The correct method of stopping so that no lurching will occur is to let the foot brake off slowly at the very instant of rest. Try-it again.”

We lurched.

“Assume we’re getting out here,” he continued, passing over my dereliction in pained silence. “Pull your emergency brake.”

I pulled. It made a ratchety sound. W.E.M. lifted a long finger to his lips. “Quietly, man. That’s the kind of distressing noise we want to avoid.”

I managed to drive the two blocks back without distressing him further.

It’s the Driver Who Gets Aligned “To sum up,” he said, as we descended. “We try to line the driver up with the rest of the car.”

I felt like a worm.

Stone was waiting for me at the main entrance in another Rolls, and after thanking W.E.M. and S.B. for their hospitality, I boarded it. I sat in back this time. My sense of inferiority evaporated.

“Where to,, sir?” Stone asked.

“Home, Stone,” I said.

  1. Torgo says: July 15, 20098:42 pm


  2. Tom D. says: October 14, 200912:15 pm

    Now Rolls is now owned by BMW and the cars have become charactures. It’s a shame that Rolls Royce became another “notch on the belt” for a manufacture of mass produced cars.

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