The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is one of those rare cars that really deserves to be called both a gem and a milestone. It signaled the death of the chauffeur-driven peasant-crushers directly harking back to the pre-war era – a niche that Rolls-Royce had hitherto managed to cling onto exclusively for 20 years – and ushered a new owner-driver class of plutocratic transport. I may mock, josh and occasionally kid, but all joking aside, this really was the most significant car in Rolls’ post-war history.
We’ve had a number of posts on the Silver Shadow, but no “proper” CC as of yet. That’s quite a gap, one that needed to be filled with something worthy of this exceptional automobile. That means not one of those horrible late ‘70s Series II bumper-cars or a vulgar Corniche convertible: only an honest, fully-chromed and hopefully well-maintained Series 1 saloon would do.
I lucked out and located one a few months back, sitting in the same space as this Datsun Fairlady, strangely enough. Over the first half of 2021, I kept going back near that parking garage on occasion, just to see if I could catch the Silver Shadow’s rear end or get a better shot of the interior, but every time it was there, it was always parked the same way.
No matter, one must make do with the limitations of the area – and decent-looking Series 1 Silver Shadows are not necessarily that easy to come by, even in British-car-obsessed Japan. The darkness of the place added to the black leather interior made for a challenging dashboard shot, so here’s the best I could coax.
There was less glare for the rear compartment, fortunately. This is a standard 119.5-inch (303cm) wheelbase car, yet the legroom looks pretty generous, especially compared to the gargantuan (only on the outside) Detroiters of the times. Speaking of which, let’s delve into the historical background a bit.
So why is the Silver Shadow the most important Rolls in living memory? Well, there used to be a prolific CCommenter, whose name many of you may recall (he got banned ages ago), who pooh-poohed the Silver Cloud 1 as “a really nice 1939 car.” Comparing it to a Cadillac of similar vintage, he found that the R-R’s modest 6-cyl. engine, lack of gizmos and über-traditional styling quite at odds with the significant difference in price between the two cars, at least on the US market.
And to be honest, prior to 1959, this notion had merit. But that year, Rolls-Royce replaced the venerable six with a 6.2 litre V8 that would have looked equally at home under the hood of a Chrysler. From that point on, the only tangible technological edge that a Cadillac had over a Rolls-Royce was measurable in terms of gadgetry and style, but not substance.
What Rolls-Royce could not make themselves, they usually licensed: GM’s 4-speed Hydramatic gearbox was deemed quite satisfactory, so that’s what Rolls used in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They similarly did not bother to reinvent the wheel with A/C units or radio sets. Sure, if you wanted cruise control or automatic headlight dimmers, Detroit was the way to go. But other than that and the completely different approach to styling, by the early ’60s the Flying Lady was level-pegging with Imperial, Lincoln or Cadillac.
The competition was less with American cars than with a diminishing European field. Throughout the ‘50s, Rolls-Royce could not help but notice that the traditional luxury chassis-makers of yore, be they Daimler and Armstrong-Siddeley in Britain, BMW in Germany or Delahaye and Talbot in France, were in a pretty bad way or already dead. Traditional coachbuilders also went belly up left and right.
On the other hand, a resurgent Mercedes-Benz and an insolent Jaguar threatened R-R’s niche more than ever. Switching from 6-cyl. to a V8 was only part of the solution: Rolls-Royce also needed to make cars for people who took the wheel rather than the back seat. This meant a smaller and lower car, with better driving characteristics than the older generation — without compromising on comfort.
In the mid-to-late ‘50s, Rolls-Royce started several revolutionary new small car programs. One of these was a collaboration with BMC, which resulted in the Vanden Plas Princess 4R. Another was a stillborn Bentley sports car, the Korea. The ones they dubbed Tibet and Burma eventually matured into the Silver Shadow. Monocoque construction was seen as the ideal solution to bring weight and size down while keeping decent interior space. A completely new all-independent coil-sprung suspension, including a Citroën-licensed hydropneumatic self-levelling system, was also devised to improve on the old body-on-frame models’ live axle and leaf spring set-up.
Rolls-Royce were initially reluctant to fit disc brakes on their new car for one simple reason: the ones that existed then were noisy. This was deal-breaker for a car like the Silver Shadow, as low decibels were deemed an essential quality of anything with a Flying Lady on its nose. Screeching to a stop was not in keeping with the serene image they wanted to project. But eventually, the Crewe crew cracked it: all that was needed was a adding band of stainless steel wire on the disc, and mum was the word. Four disc brakes thus came as standard from the car’s launch in late 1965, power-assisted via the Citroën-sourced spheres that kept the car level.
So to recap, the Silver Shadow had an all-alloy V8 with automatic transmission, unit body construction, all-independent self-levelling suspension and power disc brakes, making it leagues ahead of Detroit technologically-speaking, and almost on par with Mercedes-Benz. These sophisticated solutions had demanded a lot of work and took a long time to get right. Rolls-Royce could not afford to debut a half-baked, gremlin-infested new car.
The same amount of care was afforded to the car’s appearance. The Silver Cloud was kept in production for longer than it should have, by the end having sprouted quad headlamps to help reduce the quantum leap in styling between it and the Shadow. But not everybody was thrilled by the new Rolls’ looks when it came out. Some felt the big vertical chrome grille looked anachronistic on such a modern body. Others felt the rear end was too timid and already outdated, looking like a portlier Peugeot 403 from certain angles. As far as I’m concerned, this is John Blatchley’s best work — an opinion shared by my esteemed CColleague Prof. Andreina in his seminal oeuvre on the designer, which should be re-read as soon as.
As had been the case since the ‘40s, both Rolls and Bentley versions would be sold alongside each other, without any difference between the two except the grille and badges. Two-door versions – a drop-top and a coupé – were soon added to the range, but we’ll get into those in another post. The ‘60s and ‘70s were dark times for the Bentley marque, which almost became extinguished due to it becoming a badge-engineered exercise in futility. The public almost agreed, too: Rolls barely only sold a single Bentley T1 for every ten Silver Shadows, two-door derivatives included.
There were many small changes to be made still, though: the self-levelling suspension, initially on all wheels, was pared back to the rear only by 1969. Also around that time, A/C became a standard feature and the US-made GM400 3-speed gearbox replaced the older RR-built 4-speed unit for all markets. In 1970, the V8 got an increase in stroke that brought it to 6750cc for all markets as well (the US got it earlier than that). This was to be the definitive Rolls-Royce/Bentley V8 engine displacement, which was to remain thus until production ended in 2020.
In 1974, a revised braking system, coupled with fatter tyres, brought about the first notable external change: slightly more prominent fender flares. As we can see above, US-bound cars were already being fitted with the infamous 5mph bumpers, but other markets had a couple years of reprieve before that happened. Our feature car is one of those flared-fender cars – the small grilles under the headlamps also vanished at some point, but I’ve not been able to ascertain when that took place exactly. For model year 1977, the car became the Silver Shadow II, now including big black bumpers, a completely new dash and rack-and-pinion steering. Saloons were made until mid-1980, but Corniche drop-tops lasted until 1995.
There was still a small clientele who preferred the ultra-long and super-conservative coachbuilt limousines of yore, so Rolls-Royce kept a trickle of Phantom chassis going for those folks. But by and large, by the end of the ‘60s, the world’s most elitist carmaker had successfully reoriented its output towards a far more modern clientele. But Phantoms we huge and expensive, so for people who preferred the rear seat, in 1969 Rolls provided a happmyy medium in the LWB Shadow (above), which confusingly became known as the Silver Wraith II for MY 1977. The extra 10cm (4 in.) of legroom was hopefully matched by a set of longer picnic tables…
The Silver Shadow was the most successful Rolls model of the company’s first century. All told, just over 21,000 series 1 saloons were made between 1965 and 1976, including 2776 long wheelbase cars and just over 1700 Bentleys. The shorter lifespan of the Series 2 (1976-80) belied an uptick in popularity, even as the model became over a decade old: over 11,000 R-R Silver Shadows II / Wraiths II and Bentley T2s were sold. The two-door derivatives, be they Rolls or Bentley, fixed-head or convertible, Mulliner-ParkWard or Camargue, totalled an additional 6280 even more expensive cars, albeit on a far longer timeline, stretching from 1966 to 1995.
The relatively large number of cars made means that there are still a lot of Silver Shadows out there, so it’s one of the cheapest Rollers money can buy. But given the complexity of the beast, its ’70s Pressed Steel body and upkeep costs, attrition must have claimed quite a few, now that they’re over 40 years of age.
For many in my generation, the first mental image that comes up when hearing the name Rolls-Royce is the Silver Shadow. It remains a classic among classics, infinitely more modern than the Clouds and Phantoms it eclipsed, far more beautiful than the bulky Silver Spirit/Spur that came after it and light years ahead, in terms of class, of the present century’s Silver Panzers, or whatever they’re going by.
If I had to pick a post-war Rolls, this would be the one. I’d have to win the lottery first of course, because though they’re not too dear at first, these little toys get thirsty and, when they break down, usually require a pile of cash in spares and expertise. Not to mention the need for a wardrobe and a lifestyle to match. So it’s a bit of a commitment, but then you can’t make light of a Shadow.
Vintage R&T Road Test: 1976 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow LWB Saloon – A House or a RR?, by PN
Vintage Review: Rolls Royce Silver Shadow – Car And Driver Checks Out The Updated Grand Dame Of British Motorcars, by GN
Vintage Review: Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II, by Yohai71
eBay Find: 1972 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow – The Ultimate Business Coupe, by Geraldo Solis
In-Motion Classic: Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II – Classic Luxury on the Way to Work, by Yohai71
Wordless Outtake: 1977 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II – Dignity, by Joseph Dennis
CC Biography/Design: John Blatchley of Rolls-Royce, by Don Andreina