It’s challenging to follow a legend. The Silver Shadow, the Rolls that really took the hallowed marque into the modern era, would almost necessarily overshadow (har har) its successor, no matter how well-crafted it might be. And even more so if it ended up being something of a disappointment. On a dark day in 1980, the dispiriting new Rolls was unveiled, and the world yawned.
The Silver Spirit, and its long wheelbase sister the Silver Spur, ushered in the dreaded ‘80s – at least, from a styling point of view. Because under all that rather bland linearity, the car underneath is pretty much a Silver Shadow (or rather, as we’re dealing with the LWB versions here, the Silver Wraith I), so really more of a ‘60s car. Thus for the last two decades of the Twentieth Century, the most expensive British saloon in regular production was this boring box with a shiny schnozz and a big behind.
There are a few differences with the Shadow, all pretty minor: the Spirit / Spur got an extra inch of wheelbase, three more of width and one less in height compared to their Shadow II / Wraith II predecessors. The body was a fresh design from the ground up, but only skin-deep. Said skin, by the way, was the work of by Austrian-born designer Fritz Feller. Everything under that remained pretty much as was, until they put a turbocharger on the Bentley version.
Because of course, there was a Bentley clone. Badge-engineering was never the exclusive propriety of low-brow carmakers such as British Leyland, Rootes or General Motors: Rolls had been at it since the ‘40s. So much so in fact that, by the ‘80s, the Bentley marque had practically been a Daimler-like zombie sub-brand for over a generation. The magic of the word “Turbo” would change all that in remarkably little time.
But that’s neither here nor there. We’re dealing with a Silver Spur here, not a Turbo R. This is a late model Spur, known by some as the Spur IV. R-R never used the numeral on the cars themselves, as the number 4 is considered bad luck in certain Asian countries, including Japan. But it was the fourth series of the model, which included a few noticeable external changes and generalized the fuel-injected 6.75 litre turbo V8 for all models, be they sold as Bentley or Rolls-Royce.
So for the first time since they adapted the Bentley Mark VI standard steel saloon into the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn back in 1949, something that the company had pioneered under the Bentley marque crossed over to become a Rolls feature. This was a significant reversal of the roles the two marques had played for decades, and it took place just before they “divorced” in 1998.
Visually, Bentley increased their sportier image by doing away with the heavily chromed nasal treatment, at least on the sportier versions of the big saloon. This was never an option for the Spirit / Spur, where the massive upright Greek temple of a grille, topped as per longstanding tradition by the Spirit of Ecstasy, dominated the front end as it had since the Edwardian era.
For the fourth series, which debuted in 1995 (a full fifteen years after the Spirit / Spur came to be), the Rolls got integrated body-coloured bumpers. These had been previewed on specials and limited run cars in the years prior, but obviously it was such a revolutionary change that Rolls-Royce took the time to ease into it. The Greek temple also lost a couple inches and the Flying Lady became 20% smaller. This was the most significant facelift the car ever got in 20 years, and it came very late in its life. One major regional particularity was the North American version’s quad headlamps – our CC has the big “global standard” composites, which do look a bit better. This particular car also has clear front turn signal lenses – not a very common variation, but it suits the design pretty well.
Although turbocharged and equipped with ABS, a new 4-speed slushbox and all the trimmings, our late model Spur still has the Rolls suspension settings – made for comfort, definitely not roadholding. Some might argue that the quality of the interior is worth the price of admission. At least from this vantage point, you don’t have to look at the car, which is definitely a bonus.
As time went by, the customer base started to skew towards the more competent (and discreet) Bentley; about 40% of Crewe’s saloons between 1980 and 1999 wore a winged “B” badge, compared to about 7% of the Shadow generation. They sold pretty well, considering the semi-handmade production methods and outrageous price: just over 32,000 units made (both Bentley and Rolls-Royce in standard and long wheelbase, but excluding stretched cars). Makes these almost common, which certainly doesn’t help with their current status as the least sought-after Rolls-Royce.
That’s their reputation anyway: unloved, uncool and out of style. And they are quite disappointing when seen next to their predecessors. But personally, I’d take one of these British-made Peugeot 604s (the rear end has a little mid-‘70s PF to it, no?) over the gigantic BMW-powered atrocities that took over the range in the early 2000s any day. Crushing peasants should be done in plushness and style, but if said style is in short supply, at least it should be made with a modicum of discretion. The Silver Spur certainly blends in to the background, so it could still fit the bill.
Curbside Classic: Rolls Royce Silver Spirit – Delivered By The Wind, by David Skinner