James May

James May

Roll with it

Let’s sit back, relax, and talk about 100 years of Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce is one of my favourite car companies and, in my view, whatever it is that Rolls-Royce stands for is the future of motoring.

The other week, we had the 100EX in the Top Gear TV studio and I was completely bowled over by it. Which is remarkable when you consider that the German delivery driver wouldn’t even let me touch it.

This supposed ‘one-off concept’ – you’re better off thinking of it as the forthcoming new Corniche – is exactly what a modern Rolls-Royce should be. It retains the dignity of its forebears and will doubtless be supremely languorous with a V16 up front. Yet it looks thoroughly modern and is built in a thoroughly modern way. I sometimes think that BMW understands Rolls-Royce better than it understands itself at the moment.

I was so taken with the EX I thought, for a moment, that I should sell my old Bentley and find an old Rolls-Royce instead. A Rolls- Royce is truly cool. I know gangsta rappers and Jordan have Bentleys, but so do some of us who understand things a little better.

Ever since the end of the war, a Bentley has really been little more than the bastard offspring of an equivalent Rolls-Royce from Crewe. Until now, that is, when it’s the bastard offspring of an equivalent VW from Wolfsburg. However, Rolls-Royce under BMW is going its own way and I decided I would enjoy the association. But then a member of the studio audience approached me and, unusually, he hadn’t arrived in a Subaru Impreza or Civic Type-R. “Jangle, jangle” was all he said, but he had a point.

The fact is that, in buying Rolls-Royce, BMW acquired only two things – the use of the name and mascot, and a severe image problem. Yes, the EX features real teak decking, motor-launch styling and those headlights, all of which is great. But until the image is sorted, it may as well be fitted with a retracting solid silver statuette of Jimmy Saville. It’s difficult to know what should be done about all this.

One option might be to change R-R’s identity very slightly, in the way that Oil of Ulay became Oil of Olay to distance itself from old ladies’ dressing tables, or Jif bathroom cleaner became Jiz, or something like that. But no-one would be fooled for long.

In any case, I’m not terribly interested in ‘the brand’, I’m more worried about who I might meet coming the other way in the same car. The problem is a complex one. What really embarrasses Rolls-Royce is the same thing that embarrasses people of about my age when visitors start leafing through their record collections. The Shadows.

“What embarrasses Rolls-Royce is the same thing that embarrasses people my age when visitors peruse their record collections. The Shadows”

The Silver Shadow was a great car. It was the last occasion on which Rolls-Royce did something truly radical and it obviously paid off, because it became by far the most numerously produced Roller of all time.

The Shad is still a great car if you find a good one. Unfortunately, ubiquity, neglect and depreciation has put too many shabby Shadows in the hands of dodgy hire-car operators and flash gits who don’t maintain them properly. For every tidy Shadow out there being mollycoddled by true enthusiasts, there are a dozen snotters changing hands for a meagre £6,000-£7,000.

These cars could easily cost 10 big ones to put right, but no-one’s going to bother because a fully sorted one is unlikely to fetch more than £16,000. So they rot even further, a hub-cap goes missing and is never replaced (because it costs hundreds of pounds) and they break down. In short, the most successful car in Rolls-Royce’s history is now doing terrible damage to its reputation.

And it gets worse, because we now also have the spectre of the media trendy who buys a Shadow because it’s ‘ironic’. They don’t care about service history, the right tyres, the correct operation of the complex hydraulics or anything else that conspires to make one of these things behave like a true and sublime Rolls-Royce. They just want a brown one. Something has to be done.

Fortunately, I have a plan.

BMW should scour the country for every Silver Shadow worth under £7,000, buy them all and trailer them to a quiet corner of the new underground Goodwood factory. And then crush the lot of them.

I mean it. All the exquisite woodworking, the handmade grilles, the piped leather: in the bin with it. It’s all knackered anyway. Rolls- Royce is 100 years old and its attic needs a bit of a clear-out. I’m having one – I’ve thrown away some poems I wrote to a girl when I was at school – and I’m only 41.

I realise it’s a rather novel approach to this brand management business and the last time I suggested it to the R-R senior management, I was pretty much seen off the premises. Somebody said it would be a bit like buying three valuable Stradivarius violins and then throwing two of them on a bonfire so that the surviving one would be worth 10 times as much. But that’s different. Stradivarius never exactly suffered from over-production and, as a result, all his surviving violins are in the hands of top-flight musicians. They don’t happen to crop up on a live music night at your local Irish theme pub.

How can this not make sense? It would probably cost no more than a couple of concept cars but would do much more to enhance the image of Rolls-Royce. If every old Shadow you ever see on the road is a lovely example owned by someone who really cares about it, you’ll feel that much happier about buying a new Phantom. It’s tough on the wedding car business, but that’s the way it has to be. In my scheme, brides will have to make do with a stretched Granada. It looks as if Jim has fixed it after all.


James May, Column, Rolls-Royce

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