(Reader’s note: This article bears my attempt to use proper Queen’s English, so it’s best read in an upper-class British accent) The 1965-80 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is sometimes called The Everyman’s Rolls-Royce. Its £23k original price might say otherwise (ca. 1979, inflation adjusted to £108k today; $69k U.S. MSRP, adjusted to $280k in 2022). The Silver Shadow may have been a democratizing development, in hindsight relative to the models it superseded, but new ownership was still only attainable by the peerage, gentry and others with sufficient old or new money. The car presented here is just such a latter case of new money, having been originally owned by an American country and western music star. Such ownership probably caused many Old World Rolls owners to roll their eyes, but Messrs. Rolls and Royce, when living, were surely glad to make a sale anywhere they could and the firm bearing their name gladly continued that tradition.
The Silver Shadow has been covered here at Curbside Classic a number of times, though surprisingly a profile last year by Tatra87 was the first full CC treatment. Since he did not have the benefit of photographing his car with full access in full sunlight, it’s a subject worth revisiting if only to look at the pictures of this lovely specimen.
I had originally contemplated doing a write up on the above Series I car, which I found a couple of years ago abiding in front of its estate, as a perfect example of the Everyman’s Rolls. It was strictly a 20-footer and ultimately I felt if that article should be written, I would wait for a better vehicle. Well, that vehicle came along, but in the meantime Tatra wrote his full treatment, which takes a little pressure off me to provide every detail. Therefore, this article while still lengthy, will just be hitting some highlights of Rolls-Royce history and the tale of the Shadow. Please refer back to his article if you’re interested enough to want a fuller history.
On Rolls-Royce model naming:
From early in the marque right up to the present, Rolls-Royce has had dreadfully evocative model names. It started with the spectral: Ghost, Wraith, Phantom; proceeded a tad more optimistically to the atmospheric: Dawn, Cloud; finally rather hitting on both themes with Shadow.
From 1904, as with other high-end cars from the Full Classic era, Rolls-Royce sold chassis and other firms provided bespoke bodies, at least from the cowl back. Rolls didn’t originally give their cars names, just appellations based on the horsepower of the car (e.g. 20 h.p., 40-50 h.p.). One particular 1906 40-50 h.p. performed heroically in public endurance tests and did much to cement the reputation of Rolls-Royce as a builder of unsurpassed automobiles. This car was nicknamed the Silver Ghost (it was monochromatically painted silver) and subsequent 40-50 h.p. models were colloquially called Silver Ghosts until a new 40-50 h.p. 1925 model received Roll’s first official name, the New Phantom. Though no Rolls-Royce was officially called Ghost until the current model (from 2010), that 1906 Silver Ghost is the origin of the Silver prefix used on most of their models from 1946-98, whether actually painted silver or not.
On Silver Shadow predecessors:
If such a rarified conveyance as a Rolls-Royce could be said to be going “mainstream”, it started in 1949-55 with the Silver Dawn, their first car that was sold with a full standardized body and intended to be primarily owner-driven. It was originally only sold as a left-hand-drive export model, later expanded to the domestic (U.K.) market.
In 1955 the Cloud came in after the Dawn, which makes as much sense meteorologically as it does denominationally. It was marginally larger (but virtually matched kerb weight), much refined mechanically, and was very much improved, appearance-wise. Second to none in Rolls-Royce styling, I’d say. A tasteful combination of traditional stately air and curvaceous lines, with righteous proportions for a high-end luxury saloon. By the standards of the time, it did not have excessive amounts of adornment or embellishment beyond the slightly anachronistic trademark grille, essentially unchanged since the 1920’s.
While contemporary, the Silver Cloud in 1955 could hardly have been considered cutting edge modern. Rolls’ resistance to styling fads of the time helped the Cloud to age reasonably well over its decade of production (and it still looks good today), but to 1965 eyes, it surely looked positively antediluvian. And as one of the world’s most expensive cars, even respecting the firm’s long established conservatism, the Rolls-Royce was badly in need of more modern mechanicals.
So, Rolls-Royce took a giant step into the modern era in 1965 with their new Silver Shadow, though they would continue the Cloud for one more year and the Cloud-based Phantom VI limousine until 1990.
Rolls-Royce did their utmost to uphold the honour of The Spirit Of The Ecstasy while keeping up with the times, making their cars reasonably competitive in specifications, and most importantly providing the expected craftsmanship par excellence.
To that end, the new car was several inches smaller in every outward dimension, yet larger in passenger and baggage space with a bigger petrol tank. This achievement was largely possible because the old separate chassis was superseded by a monocoque structure with front and rear subframes. The Cloud’s leaf-sprung live axle was replaced by an all-independent coil-sprung suspension, with hydraulic leveling system fore and aft. The servo-assisted drum brakes dating to the 1920’s were replaced by four-wheel discs power assisted by the same two hydraulic pumps powering the leveling system.
Naturally, the most obvious change was the car’s shape, on which designer John Blatchley and company laboured, rather successfully, to replace one iconic, classic design with another. Where the Cloud was tall and curvaceous, the Shadow was lower, straight-edged and by 1960’s standards could be considered austerely orthodox. What may appear plain at first glance is quite pleasing upon extended viewing and the design restraint helped it maintain consumer demand for 15 years with no body changes in saloon form, and 15 years beyond that in fixed head or drop head Corniche form (that would be coupe or convertible to the masses). The side profile here shows the windscreen is quite upright, even for the 60’s.
The Rolls-Royce grille was significantly modified for the first time in many decades. While still the world’s least subtle grille, the shorter styling was more befitting on the new car.
The Flying Lady remained alighted upon the prow, delighting in the draught, as she had since 1911.
Underneath the bonnet, forward-hinged rather than centre-hinged for the first time, there lies an engine. You might be forgiven for doubting it, as all one sees on this 1980 model is an abstruse mass of tubing, wiring and componentry. Underneath, however, is a 6.75 litre vee-8 powerplant making an adequate amount of power. Rolls-Royce felt it indiscrete to be specific about that power, and you would be as well even for asking (psst, it was about 189h.p.). It was a curious practice for a firm that originally named its models by their power numbers.
The engine, which dated to 1959, gained 0.52 litres in 1970 and stayed that displacement not only through the Silver Shadow’s run, but also for subsequent Rolls models through 1998 and Bentleys through 2020. Of course, by then the original engine was highly upgraded, and in late Bentley twin-turbocharged form made a more-than-adequate 530h.p. (while using less petrol), which Bentley had none of Roll’s modesty in publicizing. The carburetters wouldn’t be cast aside in favour of fuel-injection until 1986.
I found the two-tone green paint colour appealing, but the interior of a well-kept Rolls-Royce is truly the part that beckons one. The thick wool carpet. The rich, soft leather. The very, very real wood. A Rolls-Royce interior is one of the few places where a consumer product’s quality is virtually free from compromise. The design may not have been as sophisticated or developed as some German or American alternatives, but in terms of quality and craftmanship: superlative.
Though the interior is luscious, one thing strikes me as incongruous. The steering wheel is so spartan it would look at home in a panel van. It is an almost jarringly unpretentious feature on the most grandiose of cars.
The one part of the subject car that isn’t in immaculate condition is obvious in the photos. The owner plans to have those front seats redone, but to do so properly in a Rolls-Royce is not as simple as dropping it off at the nearest auto upholstery shop. This car deserves only the finest materials and workmanship.
One unique Rolls feature was front door armrests which are adjustable up and down.
This Rolls has obviously been an owner-driven car because the right rear seat looks practically untouched. The seats are comfortable, but don’t compress as much as one might expect. Almost, but not quite, Teutonic.
The advent of the Series II of the Silver Shadow in 1977 brought an extensively revised facia, which would continue to be used in the Silver Spirit. That ostentatiously plain steering wheel was clearly intentional as it was actually a new design with the Series II. The old wheel was similar, but the new one was safer for having a deeper set hub. The wheel would be used through 1989, its replacement arguably less attractive. Rolls did have a sporty, wood-rimmed wheel they put in Corniches at the time of this car.
With the new facia came an updated automatic refrigeration system with new two-zone temperature control. The two zones are divided upper and lower, rather than left and right as seen in many modern cars.
If you are ever unfortunate enough to be stuck in a boot, you could only hope you find yourself in this commodious, wool-carpet-trimmed boot-extraordinaire. It’s even better for golf clubs.
Though prodigiously priced when new, the Silver Shadow was the highest-selling Rolls model before or after. The roughly 25,000 produced from 1966-1980 was about triple the Silver Cloud (1955-65) and well over double the Silver Spirit (1981-1997). This level of supply has long made the price of used Shadows well within reach of the yellow mustard crowd. As seen in the second photo here, residents of homes both large and small could aspire to Rolls-Royce ownership. Of course, keeping them roadworthy was another matter. The big car with the little home hadn’t been registered in a couple of years, and several months later it could no longer be seen there, so one could only guess that perhaps its repair needs got beyond the owner’s capability to handle.
For purists, the elephant in the room, or rather on the body, is of course the large energy-absorbing bumpers found on Series II cars (and U.S. bound Series I cars since 1973). Putting aside the practical consideration that they could potentially save an owner some very expensive body work, the questions arise of how much they mar the original styling and does it matter. As seen in the 1966 picture above, the original chrome bumpers were much more elegant looking. That’s undeniable. Also undeniable, the new bumper design Rolls came up with would look equally at home on an AMC Matador (OK, Ambassador since we are talking high class cars here). It seems as if they could have come up with something a bit more eminent, though I’m not sure exactly what that would look like.
I believe obsession about bumpers misses the bigger picture. The view from the august insides is the same and most people looking at the outside don’t look far beyond the grille. Prospective owners off-put by the battering rams could look for an early car, but that would foreclose a large universe of excellent available prospects and deny one the benefit of the many improvements over the years, especially the rack and pinion steering in Series II cars that is said to have made a huge difference in drivability. Unlike American cars of the period, there is little difference in the acceleration and fuel economy (such as they were!) between early and later Shadows.
I found it hard to criticize this green beauty, as in person it is quite enthralling. One hardly notices the bumpers. It’s very road-worthy, original and has only traversed 55k magnificent miles. This flying lady is living out her purpose in life when she hits the road, bringing smiles to the driver, passengers and just about anybody who sees it. The owner drives it to work regularly, though not daily. He finds it a thoroughly comfortable and easy-to-drive car.
It could be said that the chaps at Crewe set about to create the finest motorcar available for purchase, in the broadest sense. One could and should question the degree to which they succeeded, whether the car saved or doomed the company, and whether original buyers were getting the best value for their very considerable outlay. What seems unquestionable, though, is that today a well-preserved Silver Shadow makes a singularly charismatic and fun collector car.
photographed March 2, 2022 in Houston, TX
CC Biography/Design: John Blatchley of Rolls-Royce by Don Andreina
Also, on 7/28/22 I ran a Vintage Road Test article on the original 1966 Silver Shadow