Things to look for in a Crewe-built Rolls-Royce or Vintage Bentley

1981-2000 models

In this essay I’d like to show you some of the problem areas in 1981-2000 Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars. I hope you’ll be able to use this information to inspect your own car or avoid unexpected surprises when buying a car. In addition to studying this article, I strongly suggest you retain the services of an expert to inspect any Rolls-Royce car prior to purchase.

To find a Rolls-Royce workshop near you, look under the “services” tab on the home page of the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club, I recommend joining the club if you plan to acquire a car.

If you are looking at an older car, or if you’re looking at one of the newer BMW- or VW-based vehicles, I refer you to my articles on those cars.

As with the Silver Shadow series, the worst problem with these Spirit and Spur series cars as they get older is owner neglect. Before buying a car it is worth making a serious effort to ensure the required maintenance is up to date.

A clean interior in a 1996 Bentley.

The first sign of a neglected car is its cosmetic appearance. Faded and split leather, cracked and peeling woodwork, perforated or worn carpets and faded and damaged paint are all signs of a car that’s been allowed to run down. Be warned - bringing back a tired looking Rolls or Bentley will cost well up into the five figures. Around here, a paint job on a Rolls-Royce will cost at least $10,000, because the old paint usually needs to be stripped. Interior renovation can cost even more.

Whenever you see cosmetic neglect you can be virtually certain there is mechanical neglect also. It’s just harder to see. I suggest you start by looking at the tires. Every modern Rolls-Royce should be fitted with tires carrying a V or higher speed rating. A clean 1976 Silver Shadow.Speed rated tires have stiff sidewalls, and those stiff sidewalls are what make heavy cars like this nimble. Non-speed-rated tires will give a mushy ride and mushy handling.

Proper tires for these cars are expensive, and many people who buy these cars used are, well, cheap. They buy cheap tires, and they wonder why their Rolls-Royce handles like a 1967 Cadillac. Bargain basement tires with no speed rating are a sign of skimping in the maintenance department. The engine compartment should be clean and in order, as on this eleven-year-old Bentley.The original tire on most models was an Avon Turbo, a Goodyear NCT, or a Goodyear Eagle. Michelin makes tires for some models, and we’ve had good luck with those.

Open the hood and take a look at the engine compartment. Is it clean? A well cared for car may have a dusty motor, but it should not be oily or filthy. Look for signs of oil leakage around the valve covers and in the center of the engine. Look under the car for signs of leakage, too. There should not be any substantial fluid leakage, but all older cars do seep some oil. Fluids should be reasonably clean and the levels should be correct. Belts and hoses should not show signs of deterioration.

Open the oil filler and check for sludge, foam, or gunk. The cork gasket should be reasonably clean as shown in the photo. If the car passes the cosmetic inspection and it has decent tires we can move on to the other areas. We’ll start by checking the braking system.

Before starting the vehicle from cold, turn the key on and make sure BRAKE 1 and BRAKE 2 warning indicators light up. These lights have had different names through the years but there are always two of them, and they should both light if the vehicle has been sitting more than a day. If they don’t light up when you switch the key on, give the brake pedal 10-20 quick pumps. If that puts them on, fine. If not, you have a problem with the warning lights. They are either broken or disconnected. I advise you not to drive any Rolls-Royce whose brake pressure lights are inoperative since the brakes could completely fail without any warning.

The brake pressure lights should not be on in a warm car or one that has been run recently. Once you start the car, both lights should go out within 30 seconds. Lights that stay on indicate weak accumulator valve blocks, a $1,000+ repair. You should be able to shut the key off on a warm car, turn it on again without cranking the engine, and pump the brakes at least 40 times before the BRAKE lights illuminate. If the lights come on in less than 40 pumps, that’s a sign of weak accumulators.

A car whose brake pressure lights come on within 10 pumps may be unsafe to drive. A car whose brake pressure light flashes when you jab the brakes once of twice as the engine idles is definitely unsafe to drive.

Having passed this test, start the car and let it warm up. Do you hear any exhaust leaks? Are there any tapping noises from the engine? And strange smells? Take note of anything out of the ordinary. The car should start and run smoothly, with no smoke from the exhaust.

How does the engine idle, especially with the air conditioner and all accessories off, when fully warmed up? Roughness can signal clogged injectors or other engine management problems. You should see the check engine lamp illuminate when cranking the car and it should go out when the car starts.

1993 and newer cars seem especially prone to injector problems. To address any of these engine running problems I recommend finding a shop with the Rolls-Royce test system as the cars are not compatible with generic OBD II test gear.

Rolls-Royce uses an electric gearshift system. The shift level in the car is not connected mechanically to the transmission. Instead, it’s connected to a group of switches that operate a motor on the side of the transmission that does the gear shifting. With your foot on the brake shift the car through the gears and make sure they all engage. The contacts in the shift mechanism can become flaky and the car will fail to change gears if this happens. If the engine is running well and the gear change is working normally you’re ready to drive off.

Pay close attention to the ride - a mushy, floating ride can cost several thousand dollars to correct. Cars built before 1990 get mushy when the shocks wear out or leak. Each shock costs several hundred dollars, and replacement of the front units requires a special Rolls-Royce tool and takes half a day.

In 1990, Rolls-Royce added electronic ride control which consisted of a control box in the dash that sent signals to electronic dampers. These electronic dampers are double the price of the earlier non-electronic parts, and when the first systems failed they defaulted into a rock-hard ride mode. This system, called auto-ride, made its debut in Spur/Spirit serial numbers above 30,000. Corniche cars did not get auto rice till later.

J E Robison Service Co Inc of Springfield, Massachusetts, is an independent business that specializes in the sale and service of used Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars. We are not an authorized Rolls-Royce or Bentley dealership, we do not sell brand new Rolls-Royce or Bentley motor cars and we are not otherwise affiliated with, originating from, sponsored by, or approved by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. or Bentley Motors Ltd. in any way.

For 1993 the electronic ride system was altered to default into soft mode if it fails. If either system fails you’ll need a shop with the Rolls-Royce special tool for diagnosis. There is no way to fix auto-ride with generic shop tools.

Drive the car on a mildly rough road and listen for clunks in the front end. The most common source of clunking is worn out front shock bushings and compliance mounts. Replacement of these bushings is an all-day job that requires a special Rolls-Royce spring compressor.

These cars are heavy and they tend to beat the front end bushes to pieces quickly. It’s not unusual to need several bushings in a car that’s only covered 20,000 miles.

Try the brakes. Are they smooth? Try braking from highway speeds and watch for vibration or roughness. That’s a sign of warped or rough brake rotors. When these cars sit for long periods in humid climates, it’s common to get spots on the rotors where the pads were in contact. This results in rough braking when the car is used again. Replacement of brake rotors on the front of most models is a 4-6 hour job. Replacement of rear rotors requires a special Rolls-Royce hub tool ($1,000 if you can find one for sale, or rentable from the RROC) and takes two days of labor.

When you are moving on the highway step on the gas and feel how the car takes off. Shaking or shuddering can point to problems with the driveshaft or drive axles. Driveline problems are fairly common on older cars. Stumbles or lack of power may point to troubles in the engine. Make sure the gearshifts are smooth and there are no slips or bangs.

Cars built before 1978 used axle shafts with exposed u-joints. Those shafts were prone to go off balance. Rolls developed a kit (still available as of fall 2006) that converts those Shadow/Wraith cars to the rubber booted CV joint as found on the Silver Spur line. Installation of that kit is costly, typically $4,000 or more. The long drive shafts in these cars have been known to twist, too – another costly repair. So pay close attention to driveline feel, especially in older cars.

At some point in this check you should put the car on a lift. Check for rust and corrosion, and any old collision damage. Look for evidence of repainting and body repair. Look carefully at any areas where fluid actually drips. Repair of leaks can be very costly on these cars because they are so time consuming to work on.

These cars are hard on batteries. Make sure the battery is less than three years old or it may fail without warning. A good shop should have a battery tester but we see plenty of “good” batteries drop dead at 4-5 years of age so I suggest timely replacement.

Look at the condition of brake rotors and pads. Grooving, ridges at the edges, or rust spotting on the rotors means it’s time for new ones. Pads should have friction material that’s thicker than the metal backing plate. Any less and you need new pads, too. The park brake pads in the rear are separate.

All the rubber brake hoses should be replaced at least every 20 years, though Rolls recommends much more frequent service. Check yours. Check the parking brake cables to make sure they’re free. Check the motor mounts to make sure they are not flattened or broken. On pre-1995 cars, check the spare tire carrier as I’ve seen them rust and drop the tire in the road.

While you’re driving, try all the accessories. Is the air conditioner cold? Is the heater hot? Swing the dial from full hot to full cold and make sure the temperature actually adjusts. The system in these cars is slow to change, so be prepared for it to take up to a minute to swing from full cold to full hot. Make sure air blows from the correct places. Operate defrost and fascia vent buttons. All those functions are controlled by servo motors, each of which can cost several hundred dollars to buy and take several hours to replace. A special Rolls-Royce climate control tester is required to work on these systems. Repairs to the automatic climate control can be costly.

Pay attention to the operation of windows and door locks. Open each door and make sure the interior lights come on. If they don’t you should look for problems in the door latch, which contains the light switch. Window lift motors get tired and slow, and replacements run $500-800 plus installation. Power door lock solenoids are a common trouble spot - make sure all the door locks and windows work properly or discount your offer accordingly.

Power seat motors are another source of trouble on these cars. Try each range of motion as they use separate motors. Availability of replacement motors has been spotty as of 2006. If you are looking at a car with power rear seats don’t forget to check them, too.

1984 Silver Spur, formerly owned by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.Try all the little gadgets - power seats, map lights, radio, trip meter, and anything else you see. Make sure it all works. Try the lighters.

When you come to a stop it’s time to walk around back and bounce the rear suspension. If it feels rock-hard you probably need gas springs in the rear. That’s several hundred dollars in parts and half a day’s work on most sedans, a full day for some convertible and coach built models.

    I suggest you check to make sure the car includes all its little goodies. You’ll be shocked what it costs to buy any that are missing. Here are some of the things that should be included with a Rolls-Royce or Bentley:
  • Sheepskin overlay carpets for front and rear passengers;
  • Owner’s manual, service booklet, and various other paperwork (varies by year);An owner's book, circa 1997.
  • Two sets of keys with remote entry fobs (after 1993);
  • Keys to unlock the wheel covers and wheels;
  • There should be a tool kit/jack in the compartment at the top front of the trunk;
  • There should be two bottles of mineral oil in a storage compartment in the trunk.
  • The spare tire should be under the car or under the trunk floor.
Owner's books, circa 1987; Clean sheepskins are a nice addition to any Rolls-Royce.

Technical Consulting

Founder John Robison has been around cars for 40+ years. He has served as a technical consultant for the BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and Bentley car clubs. He has served as a track inspector for BMW, Ferrari, and Porsche club events. He is also a concours judge for the American Rolls-Royce and Bentley club.

John serves as a technical consultant to attorney and insurance companies in regard to automotive forensics, particularly with respect to the cars we specialize in and Bosch systems. John has broad experience investigating and explaining mechanical failures of all kinds.

J E Robison Service Co Inc of Springfield, Massachusetts, is an independent business that specializes in the sale and service of used Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars. We are not an authorized Rolls-Royce or Bentley dealership, we do not sell brand new Rolls-Royce or Bentley motor cars and we are not otherwise affiliated with, originating from, sponsored by, or approved by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. or Bentley Motors Ltd. in any way.