I had finished my shift at the Florida theme park I was working at for that summer. It was close to sunset and the shuttle to the interns’ compound had parted not long ago. The station was lonely, with only myself and a Latino gal standing at the end of the boarding platform. There may have been one or two more workers sitting in the waiting area, can’t quite recall. Still, most seats around were empty and the station was silent; each of us had our minds in reaching home.
A large parking lot extended before us, and on its edge a narrow stretch of green trees blocked the horizon line. Above us, the usual Floridian cloudy sky. It was my second month as intern and was still getting used to the peculiar geography of the state. Or better said, non-geography. Florida being a young territory –in the geological sense- had no mountains, nor hills anywhere, just a monotonous horizon line comprised of medium height trees that stretched forever.
We waited. The girl on the platform was thin and short, with curly reddish-dyed hair, and a baseball cap covering her gaze. She seemed immersed in her own world and her body language didn’t invite approaching. First time I ever saw her, not strange considering the park hired thousands. I looked at her with more care, she was rather attractive in a ‘girl next door’ kind of way. She didn’t seem like an intern though, more like a full time employee.
Few months before, when I had agreed to join the internship program, I hadn’t anticipated what a surreal experience was to live in a theme park. It was to experience firsthand the odd luxuries of our age; that of families around the world with disposable income, travelling to a made-up magical land to experience cheap thrills. For those visitors each day was a magical once-in-a-lifetime experience; to us, all a predictable daily routine.
The quietness of the evening was suddenly broken as a rumbling engine approached in the distance. The shuttle? Not quite. Some loud vehicle was coming towards the boarding ramp; slowly, chugging along, spewing a thin cloud of smoke into the air. The Latino gal perked up, clutching her backpack tightly and stretching her upper body in attention. Her ride had arrived, but what was it?
As the vehicle slowly approached, the faded mustard coloring became apparent. Some American beater from the Ford-Nixon era? The engine was an 8 cylinder in rough condition, one could tell that from the distance. Then, the glistening radiator became apparent. Some junky late 70’s Lincoln? It was going to take a few more seconds to figure it out, as the car wasn’t in a rush; it advanced with the urgency of a wounded earthworm.
The Latino girl took a few steps towards the edge of the platform. As the car got close, it became clear; it was a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, with hardly any silvery qualities left. Inside, it seemed her whole Cuban family had come to pick her up: Oversize sweaty dad at the wheel, mom riding on the passenger seat, younger bro in the back seat, and if memory serves me, little granny in the back. The two tone (light brown on brown) faded British wonder slowed down, smoking the area, with the girl walking briskly to board. It was a surreal scene, rather fitting in what had been a less than ordinary summer.
I absorbed the scene; the whole family jollily picking their little girl in their faded luxurious ride: faded 70’s correct paint scheme, raggedy vinyl brown top, some missing trim, and loud mechanicals. I can swear they were listening to salsa, but I’m pretty sure that’s my mind playing tricks, I doubt the radio worked. Passenger onboard, the worn out Crewe jewel left in the same lackadaisical pace as it had arrived.
In the pecking order of luxury brands, we pretty much know (by anecdotal evidence, of course!) how each meets its fateful end: Lincolns and Cadillacs tend to crowd the slums, riding in poor condition until they rust their souls away. Audis just get tossed away, Jaguars (post 1970) too. BMWs have mixed fates, some preserved to posterity, while others end in the hands of eager Fast and the Furious wannabes, busting them (same fate of Japanese luxury rides). Old Mercedes hang as family heirlooms, while those built after the 90’s suffer ignominious unbecoming ends. But Rolls Royces? Those generally have only two fates: preservation for eternity in the hands of the posh, or discarded in junkyards. There’s rarely anything in between. Poor running Rolls Royces do not exist… or do they?
Cubans are notorious for their resilience against adversity and the creative ways they overcome hardship. That the island is the unlikeliest place for a large repository of still-in-daily-use 1950’s American iron is what resounds most with us, motor heads. For years, Cubans had come up with all kinds of homely solutions to keep their precious American cars in motion: vinegar and home cooking oil mixes for brake fluid (really!), and illegal repair shops where metal and aluminum sheets are manually beaten to replace those impossible to obtain foreign body panels.
How our faded Silver Shadow came into the hands of these tinkering Floridian Cubans? Maybe some Versace ride given in kind to some hot Latino lover? However the Crewe jewel came into the hands of these Revolucion refugees we’ll never know, but someone in the family must have been quite the mechanic; all kinds of resourceful thinking must have been used to keep the old Brit in disgraceful working order. For any Rolls, such a fall from grace is beyond the pale, but Cuban dad was probably very glad to have a ride to boast about with his neighbors. Thanks to American prosperity, he now had a ride that even the Batista regime would have envied.
That the 1959 Cuban revolution had tremendous repercussions around the world is almost an understatement. Concurrently, a revolution of sorts was taking place at Rolls Royce’s headquarters where work on the ‘revolutionary’ Silver Shadow was ongoing. By the 50’s, Rolls Royce’s fate hanged in the balance, as their old style of chauffeuring motoring was becoming a dying breed, and new models were needed that appeased a want for more involved motoring, while retaining the air of nobility the marque was known for. It took about a decade of development to reach the Silver Shadow’s launch in 1965 (More on those events on Tatra87’s take on the Silver Shadow).
The off the cuff Cuban maintenance program was probably the furthest thing from Rolls Royce’s original intentions; as it’s one of the few marques that has enjoyed a long tradition in training drivers and chauffeurs in proper factory-approved maintenance. Around 1912, Mr. Royce showed concerns of their vehicles being returned too often for repair. Figuring that some damage was being done by poor maintenance, a school was put in place to train in the Rolls Royce way of caring for vehicles. Since then, the school has been an ongoing effort, occasionally interrupted by a world war here and there (or some management reshuffling).
The School of Instruction -as it was originally known- changed location a few times throughout the years (More on one of those early locations here). That said, the program’s content remained pretty steady since inception: a 5-12 day course, with 70% time dedicated to maintenance and 30% aimed to driving techniques, all in the effort into keeping the brand the poshest of the posh.
On the maintenance front, lessons revolved around the car’s mechanicals and its daily up keeping. Washing and cleaning was its own extensive ritual; from what materials to use to the correct order of the process. Passenger care was extensively attended: the way to adjust rearview mirrors to minimize eye contact, the right amount of interaction to be had, the way to dress and present one’s self. Also, how to tend to passengers as they boarded (ladies and men are to board differently, just so you know).
To paraphrase Anthony Hopkins on The Remains of the Day, the job of “the chauffeur is for the passenger to never notice there’s a chauffeur.” With that in mind, on the driving front, attention was placed on how to drive with prowess while doing so in a ‘dignified’ way (harder to do than you think on daily traffic!). Braking techniques were emphasized in order to avoid blush-inducing dives. As these techniques were mastered, certificates were handed to those that wished to persevere in the effort. It took a few good years to get one, as the company made sure the applicant’s record adhered to Rolls Royce’s education.
To this day, the tradition hasn’t died, as the school was revived in 2011. Nowadays known as the White Glove program, in modernity it attends details as: the proper placing of AC vents for passenger comfort, the proper presentation of seatbelts (not messy!), and the placement of Evian bottles at easy reach; among others.
Cuban dad probably never knew much about Rolls Royce’s-approved maintenance details. Not that he would have cared much. A bucket of Tide water undoubtedly sufficed for the car’s cleaning ritual, and that Connolly leather probably ended under Walmart seat covers eventually. Never mind. Luxury is nothing but an idea; comprised of a mix of wealth of means and of time, ever changing in time and place. Hythe road might have disapproved, but some dancers in Calle 8 probably had a ball of a time riding the faded Silver Shadow.
More on the Silver Shadow: