Why the Silver Shadow is still the coolest classic car in the world
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“Silver Shadows have always been cool,” says Paul Hegarty of The Market by Bonhams. “If anyone thinks otherwise, they don’t understand them. They’re wonderful, gentle cars that don’t fight or bite; everything is slowed down, they calm you.”
Associated with the British Establishment and rock royalty alike, the Silver Shadow was introduced in 1965 following six decades of sizeable, stately British-made Rolls-Royce designs. It immediately broke the mould. Until then, Rolls-Royces had a separate chassis “not out of place on a truck”, according to former Wigan Athletic FC owner Bill Kenyon; he’s restored older models, and owned a Shadow in the ’70s and ’80s. The Shadow, he says, both looked modern and “felt modern to drive”.
The Shadow’s edge attracted a host of new-gen buyers, including footballer George Best, The Who drummer Keith Moon, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Freddie Mercury, who each commissioned them in era-appropriate shades such as gold, aubergine and beige. Many owners were known for their wild antics; whether Moon actually drove a Shadow into a swimming pool is debatable (some of his friends say it was a Lincoln), but such myths – perpetuated by the cover of Oasis’s 1997 Be Here Now album featuring a Shadow in a pool – positioned them as the car equivalent of a rock star’s unfazeable butler. So began the era of the rock ’n’ Rolls-Royce.
To the casual eye, there are a number of Shadow-shaped models, although only two actually wear the Shadow badge: the Silver Shadow I (1965-77) and Silver Shadow II (1977-81). (The longer-wheelbase Silver Wraith II, and Bentley T1 and T2 are all but identical bar their badges and some minor interior and exterior features.) The rarest and most desirable variants are the two-door and convertible “Corniche” models (named after a 1939 prototype). Those with celebrity provenance also drive up the price; Michael Caine’s 1968 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow Drophead Coupe recently sold for £135,000 at H&H Classics. Specially commissioned one-offs are also highly sought after. Common to all is the engine – 6.2 litres, which became 6.75 in 1969 (and which enthusiasts refer to as the “six-and-three-quarter”).
For a time relegated to the wedding-car circuit, Crewe-built Shadows are well into their comeback years. “Six or seven years ago a good 40,000-mile Shadow with full [history] cost £16,000. Now it’s £40,000,” says Frankie Batchelor of independent specialists Ghost Motors, in Kent. “Pay less than £15,000 and you’ll spend £30,000 bringing it up to scratch. Budget £25,000 for a sensible car.” The best, he says, are around £45,000. “If looked after, Shadows go on forever,” adds Ghost Motors owner Charles Baseley, who was an engineer at Rolls-Royce’s London base in the ’60s and ’70s. (He maintained Queen Elizabeth II’s Phantom IV.) “We had a Shadow in that’d done 200,000 miles – it was like new,” he says. Annual service costs are a modest £600-£1,200.
Kate Moss bought her silver 1979 Shadow in 2006. “She drives like a dream, the seats are as big as an armchair,” she says. “I have a vintage long velvet coat with a faux-fur collar that instantly makes me feel glamorous when I put it on... That’s what my Silver Shadow is like: comfortable to drive, with a touch of glamour.”
Even so, a Shadow sometimes needs a little sprucing. “She’s just been ‘done up’,” adds Moss. “She was in pretty good driving order, but looking a little tired. The garage I bought her from, Hanwells of London, gave her some TLC. I kept everything the same, except I had a better sound system put in: music is essential when driving.”
In the US, Rodd Sala, of Park Ward Motors, an Illinois Rolls-Royce specialist, is in discussions over the sale of a 1980 Shadow to the drummer in a well-known rock band. “Shadows are classic, not bling, elegant without being ostentatious,” he says. Expect to pay between $45,000 and $70,000 in the US for really good ones, he adds.
Mike Scott, of Scotts Rolls-Royce & Bentley in Hayling Island, warns against the temptation of bargain Shadows: “One turned up on a trailer – the owner had bought it for £6,000; it wasn’t running. It took £1,500 of work just to get it back on that trailer. Get an engineer’s report before you buy.”
Both Scott and Baseley highlight the advanced-in-its-day hydraulic suspension and braking systems as potential trouble spots. Brakes can seize and suspension fail. “Engine and gearbox are rarely a problem,” says Baseley. “But water leaks from the windscreen can flood the footwells and cause rust.”
On the flip side, “Shadows are ideal for electric conversions,” says applied futurist Tom Cheesewright, who advises the likes of Ford and Nasa. “There’s loads of space under the bonnet and bootlid, and no complex electronics.” You simply “remove the engine, gearbox, fuel tanks and exhaust; drop in a 300kW electric drivetrain and 90kWh battery – with zero modifications to the body or chassis – and mate the EV controls to the existing ones. The wafty ride quality is an ideal match to an electric drivetrain,” he says.
“The Shadow may be an environmental dinosaur, but it has an eco-future – one with a rock ’n’ roll edge.”