FOR the United Kingdom, the 1960s were strange and interesting times.
As a nation, we had finally regained some national confidence after the devastation and long-term rationing of the Second World War (the rationing, after all, had only ceased for Britain in 1954). To add to this, there had been the political embarrassment of the Suez crisis, and the population was rapidly rising.
From the midst of all this turmoil emerged many notable things. Primarily, these included hippies, the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, and a ‘New Town’ called Milton Keynes.
If we discount the hippies for the moment, there is more similarity between the latter two than one might at first imagine.
In order to relieve pressure on housing in London in light of the population increase, it was decided by Parliament that several waves of ‘New Towns’ were to be built in the southeast of the country. Milton-Keynes was to be by far the largest and most ambitious of the scheme.
Consequently, on the 23rd January 1967, Milton Keynes was officially designated a ‘New Town’. What was fascinating about Milton Keynes was the forward thinking, modernist approach to town design and planning of founding architect, Derek Walker.
Walker took his inspiration from the Californian urban theorist Melvin Webber, and this inspiration is plain to see if one looks at Milton Keynes from above.
Unlike the majority of towns and cities in the UK, which have grown from little village centres over hundreds of years, the ‘clean sheet’ approach taken by the town planners allowed complete freedom to use any layout they chose.
Thus, Milton Keynes’ roads followed the American style grid and road naming system much preferred by Webber, rather than the somewhat higgledy-piggledy nature of roads in most British cities.
By now, you might well be wondering why on earth a piece on a 1960s British ‘New Town’ has appeared on a luxury car website. Indeed, that would be a very fair question.
The fact is, the similarities between one of the World’s best known luxury cars, the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Milton Keynes are pretty strong.
You see, as with Milton Keynes, the Silver Shadow followed a modernist approach towards design. The head of the styling team, John Blatchley, was charged with shaking off Rolls-Royces’ hitherto old-fashioned image.
To his credit, Blatchley managed this feat without losing all the elements of character that allowed Rolls-Royce the undoubted success it had enjoyed until then.
Like Milton Keynes, the design of the Silver Shadow employed all the new fangled technical expertise available at the time, though this author would suggest that the lines of some of the more concrete ridden 1960s buildings of Milton Keynes have not mellowed with age quite so well as those of the Silver Shadow.
I must confess that I really warmed to Milton Keynes, much as I did to the Silver Shadow. Both are obvious contrasts to the accepted wisdom of what went before, yet both manage to retain an element of their predecessors charm and character.
Perhaps it is for this reason that both designs succeeded in their aim of subtle modernisation in such a big way.
IT must have made an odd sight.
A hitherto mature adult, my disposition reduced to that of a nervous schoolchild as I approached, with great trepidation, the driver’s door of 579 SYA, a pretty much perfect 1975 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow I was to drive for the day.
Nervous though I might have been, I could not fail to notice the remarkably solid feeling of the handle whilst pressing the cool chrome button to unlatch the door.
In less exhilarating circumstances, I might have taken comfort from this reassuring solidity, but my mind was on other matters: how not to do anything unexpectedly expensive to what was clearly someone’s absolute pride and joy.
As I sat there, the owner explained to me that there were two things people always mentioned on starting his car. Despite having a pretty good idea what they were, like a complete lemon I fell immediately into the first trap.
Expectantly, I inserted the key into the ignition, not on the steering column but on the dashboard to the right of the wheel, turned it from the vertical through to the start position and held it there against the detent.
Faintly, as if from miles away across the meadows, you could just hear the starter humming away. I released the key, then… nothing.
Had I stalled it?
I enquired of Philip, immediately giving myself a mental kicking for asking the first of the two obvious questions I promised myself I wouldn’t. No, it hadn’t stalled, it was just a very quiet engine. I was in a Rolls-Royce: what else should I have expected?
The second unmentionable followed very soon after. In preparation for moving off, I gripped the steering wheel and instantly realised that for such a large car, it was remarkably thin. It felt almost as if passing a knitting needle through one’s hands. Again, I could not help but remark on it, as indeed everybody always does.
In the manner of quite a few older cars, the gear selector lever is on the steering column. On every other car I know of, the lever, irrespective of its position on the steering column or transmission tunnel, is linked to the gearbox by a Bowden cable or similar.
Not so in the Silver Shadow. All the work is done by a servo on the gearbox, allowing a beautifully smooth, light action for the selector lever itself.
Having snicked the lever down to ‘D’, we were almost ready for the off. All that was left was to release the handbrake. But where was it to be found?
I eventually located the handle deep down under the dash by my right knee. Like a Mercedes W123 I used to own, the Shadow had an ‘umbrella’ handbrake, and to release it, the handle is twisted and then pushed firmly home.
However, unlike my old Mercedes, in which I was forever bashing my right knee when exiting the car, the Shadow’s handle was well recessed, presumably to avoid such bashing of ennobled knees.
So, with each hurdle overcome, we were away.
And, to rather a hesitant start, I might add. One might have expected the pedals of such a large automobile to be relatively heavy in action, yet they were anything but.
The accelerator had only to be breathed upon, or so it seemed, for the prow to rise skywards, the rear to hunch down upon its self-levelling suspension and the car to surge forward with quite unseemly abandon.
Much the same could be said for the brakes also. The technology for the high-pressure hydraulic braking system came from Citroën, and was remarkably sensitive to inputs from the driver.
In the Citroën DS, one had only to brush the brake pedal to induce a dashboard gnashing emergency stop. In the Silver Shadow, the situation was much more refined, with a decent pedal travel leading to effective control over deceleration.
Despite this, the controls still took some getting used to.
In fact, until the first few roundabouts had passed, each contact with the brake or accelerator involved the same steep learning curve, particularly if one wished not to give the game away that here was a Silver Shadow with a novice at the wheel.
Thankfully for the reputation of both car and driver, the controls were soon mastered, and I quickly settled down to absorbing the remarkable experience of driving such a wonderful machine.
As one might expect, the engine was virtually Trappist in its silence under most conditions. If one trusted one’s senses, it was hard to know that the engine was even running most of the time, such was the absence of noise or vibration.
Only once did I bury the accelerator firmly into finest Wilton. In doing so, all one could hear was the faintest whoosh from in front, as if to stand as a gentle reminder that trips to the petrol station would increase tenfold in frequency if you persisted with this sort of uncouth behaviour.
You could almost hear the petrol being gulped down by the twin SU carburettors. It was a frightening realisation for a university student, particularly one without the security of shares in British Petroleum.
The handling also helped to discourage such foolish antics. Even in a Shadow as well maintained as this example, one navigated each roundabout with great trepidation at the beginning.
This is not to say that the handling was messy. Far from it: one rapidly learned to set a course and stick to it. Once this rule was observed, both the driver and car could relax, and corners and roundabouts could be navigated with an easy grace.
The Silver Shadow, it became apparent, was a car which did not wish to be hurried and, as the driver, one quickly came round to the same point of view: the Shadow was not a car for racing, but for wafting. All that was required was to turn the requisite haughty nose skywards to the pronounced roll that any corner presented.
As we glided towards Milton Keynes, I began to ponder if one could surpass the sensuality of sitting in a first rate Silver Shadow cabin such as this one. The lingering smell and feel of real wood and leather, and of Wilton carpet. The precise action of every chrome lever, switch and lock.
The magnificent view down that aircraft carrier of a bonnet, all the way to the graceful Spirit of Ecstasy almost on the horizon.
Especially, the knowledge that a craftsman, employing skills imparted to him through countless generations, actually felt proud to assign his name to the rear of the radiator grille he had fashioned all the way back in 1975.
This was, of course, at a time when large-scale industrial action in the British car industry had resulted in a paper-bag level of build quality for most ordinary cars leaving the showrooms.
In the Shadow, meanwhile, all of the aforementioned facets came together to imbue a feeling of immense wellbeing in anyone lucky enough to travel in such a machine.
The exterior, too, also makes you pause and just think.
For instance, that famous radiator grille, despite its appearance, contains not one straight line. A perfectly flat, shiny surface tends to look concave to the naked eye, so Rolls-Royce craftsmen have been hand shaping the shell over their knees for decades. The surfaces that resulted gave the impression of straight lines, even when in reality each was imperceptibly convex.
It was this thoughtful attention to detail that I came to love about the Silver Shadow, and about Rolls-Royces in general. Take the windscreen wipers, for example. In operation, they arc most effectively across the driver’s line of sight.
Yet, when switched off, they perform an extra sweep and park perfectly parallel to the bottom of the windscreen, well out of the driver’s line of sight. On most other cars of the period, it would be accepted that they could never lie perfectly true to the bottom of the windscreen, though this state of affairs was evidently ‘not the done thing’ for the engineers of Rolls-Royce.
Even just the opening of one of the doors was an immense pleasure. So much so, that I found myself opening and closing each door repeatedly, just to maximise the enjoyment inherent in such a finely engineered action. I am sure most enthusiasts of fine engineering would have behaved the same.
Or, perhaps I need to seek professional help.
Either way, even the most basic of actions with any other car proved to be sensual treats on the Silver Shadow.
Regrettably, as they say, all good things must come to an end. That end, in my case, was the car park of a motel several miles north of Stevenage, on the A1(M), where we had started the day seven hours earlier.
From such ignominious surroundings came, for me, a most enjoyable experience: what was, in effect, a sort of nirvana for me as a car enthusiast. Perhaps this explains why I had no room for sorrow at the end of the day. I was, after all, in a state of complete relaxation, brought on by driving such a remarkable machine.
Perhaps, one day, I might be able to experience it on a more permanent basis. I just need to ensure I have sufficient shares in BP first…
Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Messrs Bradley Starcevich and Philip Sage for their extraordinary efforts on our behalf in making this review possible. Mr. Sage is the proud owner of 579 SYA.