Some of the joys of life are the surprises that it often throws up. For Chris Browne, a chance conversation over dinner led him, and his fellow Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow owner David Whitehead, to a dilapidated WW2 Nissen hut in north Nottinghamshire. As Browne recalls: “A friend knew of my interest in all things Rolls- Royce, and mentioned that he may know where there was a tired old Silver Shadow.”
When the hut’s nailed wooden battens were removed, and the doors swung open, both men received a pleasant shock. “Chris said: ‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’” recalls Whitehead, whose reply was: “That’s not a Shadow!” Talking to both, the excitement of the moment is still palpable. They smile at the shared memory of Chris’ next line, ‘Oh, don’t we want it then?’
They quickly identified it as a Silver Cloud Standard Steel saloon, with a desirable straight-six engine: “One rear tyre was completely flat, and the car was filthy with accumulated grime from years of neglect. At first glance it seemed remarkably complete, but the steel coachwork had been ravaged by rust and corrosion.”
The vendors Jenny and Mac were cousins of its owner, late theatrical agent Jack Denman – whose clients included Dave Allen, Pat Phoenix and Bill Maynard – and had been offered a considerable amount to break it for spares: “We couldn’t run to that. So we promised to restore it to its former glory, and put in our best offer.”
Three days later, they received a phonecall, as Browne explains: “Jenny told me that they appreciated what we were going to do with the car, and had decided to accept our offer. The only condition was that we return once the rebuild was complete, so that they could receive the first passenger ride in the car. And we were only too happy to give them that assurance.”
Once disinterred, the car was transported to Whitehead’s impressive home workshop, near Derby. The gents were now owners of a remarkably unmolested, one-owner-from-new Silver Cloud – with less than 27,000 miles on the clock and its original registration number.
For unmolested, read front wings replaced with glassfibre items and a repaint in silver over a ’70s Fiat green. Inside, though, everything appeared remarkably well preserved. The last tax disc sat on the front seat and had expired some five years earlier, in April 2006.
“Our short-term goal was to do what was necessary to get it through an MoT test,” says Browne, “because we’d booked onto a Rolls- Royce Enthusiasts’ Club Silver Cloud technical seminar weekend. We hoped to drive it to the headquarters, at The Hunt House, so that the instructors could appraise it for us.”
They sourced a factory workshop manual and set about recommissioning the car, which included fuel pumps and SU carburettor refurbishment, a full brake rebuild and fresh fluids all round. Coloured tape on the end of each rod helped with the correct setting up of the complex system and ensured that the oft-maligned brakes worked superbly as they were designed to.
It sounds easy, but just to get it to a road-legal state took an incredible 340 man-hours over nine weeks. Once done they had a fully functioning vehicle, however, with the only discernible fault a heavy change from second to third gear. “It didn’t miss a beat,” recalls Whitehead. “The expert appraisals of our instructors Steve Lovatt and Eric Healey were that the car was obviously rough.” But there was a silver lining: “Because nothing was missing – which for a Cloud was rare – it was the basis for a good car.”
Listening to the instructors’ lectures, talking to owners and seeing the quality of their examples had a definite effect on their plans. “I thought we can’t bodge this,” says Whitehead. And by the time they left, it was agreed that nothing less than a ground-up rebuild would suffice.
In May 2011, they began stripping the interior, starting with the wood trim and then the upholstery. The wood had cracked in places, and it quickly became apparent that the original Wilton carpets – bound in the same hide as the seats – were beyond saving. “We got incredibly lucky,” states Browne. “I found exactly the right carpet and Connolly hide – stamped RR and Connolly on the back – for £40 on eBay.”
He carried out all the timber and leather work himself by researching how to restore them correctly, taking guidance from the club. “We had no training,” says Whitehead, “just asked opinions on what was the best way to do things, listened and learned.” Their luck continued when a new neighbour moved in next door: “He was a leather worker – with all of the tools and sewing machines – and did the carpet binding for us, while a seamstress friend made the West of England Cloth headlining.” Once done, they were packed and stored for safekeeping.
The engine rebuild was a mammoth task, because everything was stripped down and repaired or replaced. “The club has records of every car ever built,” says Browne, and everything is matched to the chassis number. You can trace it all, and finish as per the original specification.
After trying and failing to rectify the problem with the automatic transmission, it was sent away to a specialist for a complete overhaul. There was a distinct split in terms of labour, with Browne adept at cleaning, stripping, pattern making and refurbishing, and Whitehead in charge of welding, fabrication and mechanical repairs. And, as Whitehead explains, so began the most difficult elements of the job – the body and chassis: “There was severe rust in the chassis, but one club specialist said ‘whatever you do, don’t remove the body – you’ll never get it back on – while the other ‘you have to remove it, or you’ll never be able to restore the chassis properly’.”
Opting for the latter, Whitehead braced the shell – which has 15 mounting points – and spent two weeks fabricating a jig for the chassis: “The Hunt House has a Cloud III chassis and I was able to take measurements. It was worth the effort to get it spot-on. Time was available to us, rather than money.” His four-post lift allowed the chassis to be lowered from underneath and taken out, while the body remained on the ramp.
The rear chassis legs had rotted through and, with new ones costing £540, he set to work: “I put the welds in the same place, so they looked original. It probably took me a week to make the pair, but the cost was £20 per leg for half a sheet of 3mm steel. You feel the way for the first one, but after that you’re away.”
Walking around his workshop, he picks up a bit of old lamppost: “It was the same when I did the front wings; I’d bolt something like this in the vice and get my bits of steel and bend them around. Cardboard – such as a Cornflake packet – was useful, too, because it has the same bending properties as steel and allows you to get the bends and twists right.’
So, not a traditional grounding in bodywork, then? “I made my own car when I was 17: Herald chassis, Spitfire rear axle, Dolomite engine, Marina gearbox, panels designed out of cardboard and aluminium bent round my mum’s downpipe – much to her disgust. A friend asked how far it’d go; Monte-Carlo was the answer.”
Repairing the body proved to be the biggest challenge, because the bottom 8-10in was shot. “We had to tack weld about an inch apart, so it didn’t distort,” says Browne. “Then fill in the gaps, and fill them in again. Eventually you got a continuous seam, but it was time-consuming and easy to crease it with the heat. Dave repaired the panels bit by bit, adding strength as he went.”
Once the body was done they took up Lovatt’s offer to borrow a corner of his Nottingham body shop (ristesmotors.co.uk): “He’s the club’s chief instructor, and a Rolls-Royce specialist, but foremost an enthusiast. In the industry, they knew we didn’t have a lot of money and really helped us.”
Over six months, they were able to come in and work on the body, all under the guidance of the firm’s specialists. “We were going to try and paint it ourselves but our environment wasn’t clean enough and if you want that top class finish you just have to bite the bullet,” says Whitehead. “Once it was ready for painting they said you’ve done all you can, now hand it over to the experts.’
The other unavoidable major costs were for rechroming 124 parts – “very expensive” – and £650 for a remanufactured rubbers kit: “From a firm in America, right down to the tiniest little bit you wouldn’t even think of.” They made a new wiring loom to factory specification, before putting the running gear back on the chassis. “We set it up with a Crypton tuner, so it was spot-on,” Whitehead recalls, “and I said to Chris: ‘I wonder if I could balance a pound on the rad?’
‘Flippin’ heck, you wouldn’t believe it’d stand there like that.’ It’s such a beautiful engine.” The bodyshell – now finished in original Shell Grey over Velvet Green – slipped back onto the chassis like a glove, and they had a week to fit it out before the 2015 rally at Burghley House, Lincolnshire. No road test, just straight there. It was worth the rush to get ready because, to their surprise, it picked up the RREC Douglas Wood Trophy for Best Personal Restoration.
In July ’14, Browne started writing progress reports – an epic 35,000 words in all – in the club magazine, The Bulletin. As Whitehead puts it: “Someone came up and said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen your article on how you made bits for the front wings, are you a bodywork specialist?’ So I shook my head. ‘But compound curves are really difficult.’ I just made them. If someone had told me they were compound curves, I wouldn’t have tried.”
They cite the RREC and help of people such as Lovatt – he took out an advert congratulating them – and “walking encyclopaedia” John Creasy (flyingspares.com) as critical to the success of the project. “Without them,” confirms Browne, “we simply wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
True to their word, in November 2015 they took the Silver Cloud back to its original owner’s relatives. “They were over the moon,” says Whitehead. “The old chap had severe Alzheimer’s, but was lucid during the journey because he remembered the car clearly from his youth.”
According to Browne, you find two types of people in the RREC: “Ones who can afford to pay for others to do all the work, and those like us who shouldn’t really be playing with Rolls-Royces.” Except the result suggests the absolute opposite.
Browne worked in the tyre industry and Whitehead as a Boots distribution manager, and neither had a scintilla of formal training. They worked on the car for five days a week for four years, and this superb Silver Cloud clearly shows that the only limits to what you can achieve, with a restoration, are the people themselves.
From top: straight-six is so smooth that you can stand a pound coin on the radiator when it’s running; chuffed but surprised winners of 2015 RREC Best Personal Restoration – Browne (l), Lovatt and Whitehead; treasured factory handbook; this Cloud does have a silver lining – well, silver grey!
Elegant early Silver Cloud has been resprayed in the factory Shell Grey over Velvet Green; the bottom 8-10in of the body had to be reconstructed all round.
Work in progress
From top: engine as found; new wiring loom fed through bulkhead from instrument panel; bare refurbished frame; finished rolling chassis; highbuild primer applied; overhauled engine and ’box.
From top: Whitehead is delighted with how well the Cloud drives – all of its mechanicals were renewed or overhauled; it was first owned by successful agent Jack Denman whose roster included comic Dave Allen; famous emblem; Browne refurbished wood and hide after researching how to do it and with RREC’s help.