Northern lights adventure Epic trip to the Arctic in a £4k Rolls. Could there be a better way to travel 2260 miles to see the Northern Lights than in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow bought on eBay for £4100? Words Harry Metcalfe. Photography Justin Leighton.
NORTHERN LIGHTS BY ROLLS Epic Arctic trip in a bargain Silver Shadow . ‘Even after taking a Testarossa to the Sahara in 2015, driving a £4100 Rolls-Royce to the Arctic Circle in winter was madness. We encountered blizzards, wandering moose and daytime temperatures in the minus-20s. The best car journeys should always be memorable. This one was unforgettable.’ Arctic Rolls…
It’s eight o’clock in the evening and we’re cruising along a damp M40 towards the Channel Tunnel. I’d like to say everything’s going well but it’s not, because I keep catching glimpses of smoke from the rear of the Rolls-Royce in the headlights of following cars. Just before setting off, I’d discovered that the header tank was nearly empty. Until then, during three months of ownership, the Rolls hadn’t consumed a drop of coolant.
Anyone who owns old cars will know this feeling: they seem to break only when you want to use them, especially when your Missus has agreed to come along and she’s not really sure why you’re taking the old car when there’s a perfectly good modern Range Rover in the garage. Low coolant and steam from the exhaust point to potential head-gasket issues, no easy roadside fix, yet the V8 seems to be performing fine and the temperature gauge needle is pointing exactly where it normally does. Maybe I’m imagining it, so I keep quiet for now. I’ll make the call on whether to abandon the trip in the morning.
Perhaps it’s a silly idea anyway. Driving to the Arctic Circle had long been on my bucket list, as had seeing the Northern Lights. With peak solar activity in Norway being February/March, the perfect car for the trip would be a comfortable mile-muncher with a good heater. Such as a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. I’d been looking at them on eBay for months, preferably an early car in silver or white, the most handsome version, which suits lighter hues best. Trouble was, each time I spotted a Shadow worth looking at, it was priced around the same as a good Bentley Turbo R (£10,000-12,000) and I couldn’t help but think that would be the better buy. So I ended up with neither.
But then this example appeared. YUR 228 had spent the last 12 years earning £250 every Saturday carting brides to and from their weddings and looked to be in reasonable mechanical order, if a touch tatty around the extremities. I hadn’t intended bidding but casually checked the price with only ten minutes to go. Top bid was £4000, which seemed absurdly cheap to me: the private plate was included, it had nine months’ MoT and I’d kick myself if someone else got it for that. So, with a few seconds to go, I chucked in a bid of £4100. The counter ticked round those final few seconds and… oh dear, suddenly it was mine. Why did I do that? I’d bought it solely because I thought it was too cheap, the worst possible reason to buy a Rolls-Royce!
Once it was mine, I sent it to my local specialist, DEW Motor Services in Eynsham. A few days later, they called to tell me the worst. One carburettor was completely blocked, the other partially (which explained the car’s alarming lack of performance), all thanks to a rusty fuel tank. And, though the braking system had just been renewed by the previous owner (six new calipers, new discs and all new pipework), it hadn’t been plumbed-in correctly (both rear calipers were working only on one side), nor bled properly.
A drivetrain vibration was caused by worn UJs in the prop- and driveshafts, the diff seals were gone, and new power-steering hoses were required. It also needed a full service because there was no history of it ever having had one. Some £2500 later, I had myself an early 6.25-litre Shadow that drove nicely.
I was pleasantly surprised by its get up and go, the serenely comfortable ride, hushed ambience and fingertip-light steering. What it really deserved was a big trip, and that’s how this daft idea of heading for the icy tip of Norway came about. What I didn’t appreciate at first was the enormity of the distances involved: from home near Oxford to Tromso in Norway (inside the Arctic Circle) would mean covering 2260 miles. That’s 300 miles further than driving to Moscow! I had thought there was a ferry service from the UK to Norway, but no, that stopped running a few years ago. At least the Copenhagen-Oslo ferry would take 400 miles out but, even so, we were about to add 4000 miles to the odometer. That’s more than it had covered in the last 22 years.
The alarm goes off at 6am and it’s make-orbreak time. In the car park outside the motel, our Rolls has a shimmer of ice across its roof. The bonnet pops open and I unscrew the cap and check the coolant level: it’s normal! Oh, the relief. The oil level is good too. I’m beaming; Mrs M really can’t understand why I’m bouncing around at such an early hour. We head for the Eurotunnel, and roll under the English Channel just after 7am. We need to be in Copenhagen by 3pm tomorrow, 700 motorway miles from Calais, so ahead of us is a gentle canter into Germany for an overnight stop near the Danish border.
I love the view down the Shadow’s long bonnet, with the Spirit of Ecstasy leading the way. Meanwhile other road users gawp at us, the nutters who think piloting an old white Rolls through Northern Europe in the middle of February is a good idea. France soon merges into Belgium, then The Netherlands and finally into Germany, where a marker post indicates 494km to Berlin. It is also the start of the derestricted Autobahn and, while I’m tempted to discover what the Shadow’s top speed might be, maybe I’ll leave that for the way home. We’re limited to 106mph on the Bridgestone Blizzak winter tyres anyway. Still, progress is good and we call a halt in Lubeck, some 558 miles and five countries from where we started out in the morning.
Next day dawns with a sprinkling of snow and I check the Shadow’s fluid levels in the hotel’s heated underground car park. The coolant is fine but the oil is way below the minimum mark and it takes three litres to fill it. I’d had no inkling it was using any and no harm seems to have been done so we head 180 easy miles to Copenhagen before lunch, leaving us time for a gander around the city before the overnight ferry to Oslo.
As the ferry glides up the channel into Norway next morning, the view outside is becoming ever more wintry. Houses, roads and gardens are coated in thick snow and the water is iced over, with the bows breaking off chunks as we plough through. The outside temperature gauge reads -8ºC as we drive off and it’s forecast to be a whole lot colder inland.
So it’s getting a little more serious, a bit more Arctic, yet the Rolls seems unworried by the below-freezing temperatures. Old-car heating is rarely great but the Shadow’s is far better than most, with split-level controls and a bizarre all-or-nothing hot-air vent above the stereo that, when open, is like having a hand-dryer blowing at full blast. The famous organ-stop vent control won’t quite close on the passenger side, so we stuff the vent with a woolly glove to keep the cold out.
The route plunges into a labyrinth of tunnels that bring you out on the outskirts of Oslo, where we pick up the main E06 route through Norway and climb towards the ski resort of Lillehammer, then on into the national parks. Lakes alongside the road are all frozen over, occasional fishermen huddling around holes in the ice. When we fill up with fuel, the forecourt is a reminder of just how icy it is. It’s funny how complacent you become when driving on proper winter tyres but the soles of my shoes aren’t up to scratch and it takes effort to reach the pay-kiosk without falling over.
It’s as the sun starts to set that I notice a worrying misfire developing. Despite my best efforts to ignore it, it’s getting progressively worse, so I phone DEW and describe the symptoms; they suggest I check the points gap, as both sets are new and they can suffer initial wear. We pull over, I pop the distributor cap and, sure enough, one set has closed up almost completely. I didn’t pack a feeler gauge but my guess at 25 thou’ can’t be too far out as the engine feels much sweeter once adjusted and we press on to our destination of Hell. Yes, we chose it purely for the name.
The Shadow spends its first night in the open in temperatures of -10ºC, and the morning dawns bright but distinctly chilly. Today will be a big test as the run to Mo I Rana is some 323 miles, taking us to within 50 miles of the Arctic Circle. First though, the Shadow needs to be coaxed into life. I turn on the ignition to trigger the fuel pumps and prime the carbs, then I spin the starter motor. The V8 cranks and briefly catches, which sounds hopeful, so I repeat. This time the engine catches and does its best to run, but it’s lumpy. I’m praying it’ll clear its throat and idle smoothly but no, it gets even lumpier and starts spewing out clouds of black smoke. I know the engine is fitted with an automatic choke but it feels like it’s staying on too long in the cold temperatures, so I pop the bonnet and see if the engine will start with me holding the choke fully open manually. And soon it does, then idles beautifully. I love simple engines like this, which are easy to understand and which respond to a bit of TLC.
We set off and drop by the old railway station, for a brief visit to Hell’s waiting room. I’m pleased to report that it’s empty. Then we make like bats out of Hell (sorry) and it’s not long before the E06 changes from a regular dual-carriageway to what would be classed as a minor A-road in the UK. Alongside, the scenery takes on a more forested look, and the predicted snowy weather appears as we begin our climb inland.
That big can of screenwash I’d bought in the UK promised protection down to -18ºC yet it’s freezing to the windscreen when the outside temperature remains a balmy ten below. Still, the best way to keep the screen clean is to keep going, and we press on while the snow gets ever heavier. I’m impressed by the number of snowploughs; one rushes by in the opposite direction every hour or so, while the wagons do their best impression of Ice Road Truckers and are a constant hazard: 42-tonners with fully studded tyres don’t hang about and seeing one thundering towards you, creating its own snow-storm on a narrow road hemmed in by giant snowbanks, is a real conversation-stopper.
Night falls, and I’m really not enjoying the driving here. It’s testing my nerve as well as the car; you only realise just how stupidly icy the road is when you try to stop, or pull out onto the main road after a fill-up, so I’m relieved when we arrive outside tonight’s Scandic Hotel in Mo I Rana. It turns out to be the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in so far, and there’s a covered car park nearby so the Rolls can take shelter too.
By the morning the snow has stopped falling and, with the sun just rising above the hills, it’s picturepostcard pretty outside. It’s also -18ºC and the snow is making a strange squeaky sound as we walk over to the car park. The Shadow hasn’t thawed out at all overnight and the icy tears falling from each of its headlights remain, as does its snowy tail.
After yesterday’s starting issues I’m prepared for the worst but, with control of the choke from the off, she bursts into life and soon settles into an even idle, despite the bitter conditions. The Shadow is behaving way better than I’d dared hope before we left the UK and we make our way out of town and up into the hills towards our first stop. It’s a significant one: the Arctic Visitors’ Centre, located at the point where the E06 crosses into the Arctic Circle.
After yesterday’s constant snowfall, today’s bright conditions are a massive relief. OK, the roads are still icy but it’s Sunday so the truckers aren’t around and there’s less traffic. We climb out of a beautiful wooded valley and spot a sign saying the Arctic Circle is just 2km away. The scenery opens out and we pass through open moorland, feeling completely detached from civilisation. Powdery snow off surrounding slopes is being blown across the road in front of me and, just as I’m becoming mesmerised by the extraordinary view outside, a domed building looms on the horizon. This is it. We’ve driven a four-grand Rolls-Royce all the way to the Arctic Circle.
It’s incredibly beautiful up here. Reaching the Arctic Circle in winter feels much more of an achievement than it would in July. And it’s properly, numbingly cold. Such is the wind chill that, after two minutes’ exposure, my hands are in agony and I have to thaw them out using the Shadow’s heater. Incredible, especially given the bright conditions.
What else to do next than head yet further north? It already feels much emptier up here than where we were yesterday. There are occasional signs of habitation yet you can go for miles without seeing another car. The Shadow continues to behave impeccably, though I’m being very gentle with the controls because the roads are a patchwork of tarmac and sheet ice, and you need to work out which is dominating and drive accordingly. If you’re in the shade, it’ll be the ice.
Tonight’s destination is Narvik and, as the E06 descends towards the coastline, it gets even more beautiful. You can tell when the water in front of you is the sea by the fact it’s not frozen, thanks to the Gulf Stream, which keeps the sea liquid even this far north. The other surprise on this coastline road is that, while the Atlantic Ocean is out there, you’d never know as the coastline is littered with off-lying islands up here, which protect the mainland from the full force of the Atlantic swell, so the fjords look more like lakes than sea and are all the more captivating because of it. Just as we think the day has no more surprises, we round a corner and the road comes to an abrupt stop. To go any further, we need to take the ferry to Narvik.
The view from here is breathtaking. In the distance are the mountains of the Lofoten Islands, where we’re heading tomorrow. It’s dark as we board the ferry – really dark; there’s no light pollution here – and a few minutes later we’re out in the chilling air. In the distance, over the islands, there’s the faintest of green haze against the black sky: our first sighting of the Northern Lights. As soon as the ferry docks, we’re first off and pull over into a layby next to a fjord and let all the ferry traffic motor on by. The green haze is getting stronger now, and we’re already excited about what we might experience tomorrow.
Our hotel in Narvik has a heated underground car park and the Shadow is nicely thawed out by morning. I top up the oil and replenish the coolant; it’s odd that the car lost so much on the day we set off and yet hasn’t used any until now.
We’re very lucky with the weather up here too. Today is forecast to be clear into the night, perfect for our plans, but there’s a red temperature alert on its way: overnight temperatures are expected to drop down to -25ºC. For now, though, we can have a lazy day making our way over to Harstad, where we’ll pick the perfect location to (hopefully) get a shot of the Shadow under the Northern Lights.
The car itself is looking less than picture-perfect; hardly surprising given we’ve covered 2200 miles through some atrocious weather, so we treat her to a jet-wash. Hmm. The water freezes on contact with the bodywork, but by using the ‘hot-water’ brush and being quick with the high-pressure lance, after much giggling we end-up with a shiny Rolls-Royce.
As for finding a photo location, what’s needed is a spot facing north and with an open stretch of water beyond it, ideally with a backdrop of snowy mountains to break up the horizon. Around these parts, there are plenty of suitable locations to choose from and, once we settle on one, we get ready for the long night ahead.
The Northern Lights don’t seem as keen to get going as they were last night, and the sky remains inky black for hours. The locals are out, though. They think we’re in for a good show later and sure enough, at about 9:30pm, they appear. The first inkling is a faint green fuzz in the sky, which slowly intensifies before fading again. It’s completely random and unpredictable and that’s why so many people become hooked on searching out the Lights. They’re an utterly captivating phenomenon and, as the night goes on, they get much more active. It’s like watching starlings murmurating in the sky, turning one way and then the other, increasing the density of the cloud as they do.
Watching the Lights do their dance above the Rolls- Royce, the green light catching on the chrome and the sea beyond, is magical. That’s why we drove this far north into the Arctic Circle, and it’s why I’m wrapped in all the thermal wear I could muster. And even though it’s so, so cold, we can’t bear to tear ourselves away from the show above us. Just as you think they’ve stopped for the night, another corner of the sky dances into action. I’m so glad we made the effort to get here.
Even more than I’d expected, the Shadow has turned out to be an inspired choice for this epic journey, with the kind of ride quality that has long been forgotten in modern cars. OK, so the 15.5mpg average isn’t ideal but first-class travel always costs extra and is often worth the outlay. And what has actually got us all this way is the quality of Rolls-Royce engineering. You really shouldn’t be able to drive to the Arctic Circle in a luxury car bought off eBay for a few thousand pounds without having issues. Especially not in these temperatures! But beneath this Shadow’s flaking skin is a beautifully engineered device, one that was built to last and that will go on delivering a silky driving experience for a good while yet.
After such an amazing trip, it feels as though we should be much prouder of the British engineers who designed the Silver Shadow over 50 years ago. It’s time this car is recognised for what it is: a genuine worldbeater in its era, and a truly remarkable car still.
SEE THE VIDEO of this trip at Harry’s Garage on YouTube.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1969 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
Engine 6230cc V8, OHV, two SU carburettors Transmission
Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Steering Power-assisted recirculating ball
Suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, hydropneumatic self-levelling at rear
Brakes Power-assisted discs
Performance Top speed 118mph 0-60mph 10.9sec
‘WATCHING THE LIGHTS DO THEIR DANCE ABOVE THE ROLLS-ROYCE IS MAGICAL. IT’S WHY WE DROVE THIS FAR NORTH’
‘IT’S GETTING A LITTLE MORE SERIOUS, A BIT MORE ARCTIC, YET THE ROLLS SEEMS UNWORRIED BY THE BELOW-FREEZING TEMPERATURES’
‘IT DESERVED A BIG TRIP. WHAT I DIDN’T APPRECIATE AT FIRST WAS THE ENORMITY OF THE DISTANCES INVOLVED’
Facing page, bottom left Woolly glove stuffed into an air vent keeps the draughts out; it’s likely that the Rolls would come off worst in an impact with the moose… Right and below right North of Oslo, the roads become straighter and icier, and the landscape more forested; reaching the Arctic Circle is cause for celebration.
Above and right It seems that Hell is freezing over, but it’s a lot more bearable when you’re making your way out in the warmth and comfort of a Rolls-Royce.