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Allan Dick goes to the end of SH1 near Bluff, to meet up with a bunch of Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners, then travels with them to Dunedin.

Words and Photos: ALLAN DICK

Keith Hunter was a young fellow when he arrived in Dunedin to begin studying at Otago Dental School. Born in Wellsford north of Auckland, he was to make Dunedin his home for the next 30 years. The journey from Wellsford to Dunedin was accomplished with a considerable degree of discomfort, and a distinct lack of speed, aboard a Vespa!

Today he could make that same journey with more pace and in a much greater degree of comfort. He’s got a large collection of cars, but the one I’m interested in is a 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III.

It’s not just your garden variety Silver Cloud III, but one with a special, styled and hand-crafted body by James Young Ltd. Founded in 1863, James Young went the way of the other great independent British coachbuilders, like Mulliners, and produced their last body, a Rolls-Royce Phantom, in 1968. Keith’s Silver Cloud one of just 19, 20, or 21 James Young Silver Cloud IIIs that were built — the number varies on where you look and to whom you listen.

I meet Keith along with a small group of Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners at Stirling Point, which is the southern end of SH1 just past Bluff town. There’s a very famous signpost here that people come to stand beside and have their photograph taken!

This is the start of the South Island leg of a Rolls-Royce and Bentley journey to Masterton to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Owners’ Club. The North Island participants are somewhere on that other island north of Cook Strait and they’re all to meet in Masterton.

There is some tension in the air. Not about the weather. Not about the potholes on SH1. Not about the “Cost of Living Crisis”. Not about the price of fuel. Certainly not about exhaust emissions. N0, the concern is if the ferries will be sailing …

An Invitation and a Spanner in the Works
Organisation for the South Island leg was being looked after by Murray Hawkes, a retired geologist who seems to have spent much of his working life in the Yemen but is now “on a farm” in the Central South Island.

I’m here because Murray initially asked if I could be the after-dinner speaker at the Dunedin stopover at the end of their first day on the road. Dinner at the awfully prestigious Dunedin Club talking to Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners sounded like something too good to miss. And I had heard that the Club’s three-stand men’s urinal was the largest single piece of marble in New Zealand when installed circa 1874 — and that had to be worth a look.

Then Murray sweetened the meal. If I could get to Invercargill, I could travel with him in his 1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom to Dunedin.

Now I’ve been involved with cars for a long, long time, but not too many of them have been either Rolls-Royces, or Bentleys.

So, the Dick family plotted a motorhome trip from home in Oamaru, spending four or five days on the good roads of Southland and dropping me off at the appointed time of 10am at Stirling Point. My wife would drive the Hilton-on-Wheels while I would be wafted along with Murray.

Then … an email from Murray two days before the planned rendezvous! The Phantom had developed a noisy clutch thrust and it had been replaced by his 1981 Bentley Turbo R.

And this in itself is remarkable.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of rural Ashburton is Bruce McIlroy’s establishment — a modern workshop set in idyllic surroundings where Rolls-Royces and Bentleys from around the world receive the best automotive medical care imaginable. Murray and his cars are clients of Bruce.

Murray rang Bruce for advice — “Noisy thrust bearing, should I risk it?” The answer was no. Instead, Bruce would get his flatbed truck, go to Murray’s house, pick up the Bentley Turbo R, load it, drive to Invercargill and take the Rolls back to be attended to.

That is what you call service. But get to meet Bruce and you understand that’s what he would do.

So, we arrive at Stirling Point. Maybe ten or so Rolls-Royces and Bentleys are all parked nicely, drivers and passengers chatting, watched by a large crowd. Of course, there would be a crowd. If they had been Fords or Vauxhalls, there wouldn’t have been. But these were the “Best Cars in The World”. Cars that are fabled. Cars that are legend. Cars that elevate you to another level of society.

Time to take a break and look at the Rolls-Royce image.

New Zealand — Land of the Tall Poppy Syndrome
It’s not as bad as it used to be, but there was a time if you drove a Rolls-Royce you were too big for your boots. Drive a Bentley and you were a show-off.

One man who didn’t like Rolls-Royces at all was Sam Bracanov. He was a regular caller when I was on Radio Pacific. He was a Yugoslavian with a mangled, thick accent who hated the Royal family, and everything associated with it. When Charles and Camilla — you are allowed to be familiar when writing about Rolls-Royces — toured New Zealand, Rolls-Royce sent out the most famous of all their cars, the Silver Ghost. “Mad Sam” didn’t like this and crashed past the spectators watching the royal procession in Auckland’s Newmarket armed with a galvanized bucket of horse poo, throwing the contents at the car and then attacked it with the bucket doing some real damage. He was arrested and fined heavily for that, but almost immediately he was back on Radio Pacific, explaining why he had done it.

Back in 1995 I was going to the UK for a fortnight on various car missions and had arranged the use of a Range Rover for the duration. But a week before boarding my aircraft at Auckland, I got a phone call from Trevor Hudson who, at the time, managed European Motor Distributors, importers of brands like Porsche, Audi — and Rolls-Royce.

“I hear you are going to the UK, Allan, would you like a Rolls-Royce to drive for a week?”

It was arranged, so I bought a brand-new Harris Tweed sports jacket for the occasion and I flew into Heathrow where my Range Rover was in the big car park, doodled my way north to Crewe and was given the right royal treatment as the Rolls was entrusted to me with much pomp and ceremony. It was a Friday, and I was paired up with a two-tone blue Silver Spirit for a week, but that was extended until Sunday because they were going to celebrate 50 years of Rolls-Royce car manufacture returning to Crewe in 1945 at the end of the war. Every Rolls-Royce owner in the UK had been invited, so I might as well join the party!

Leaving my Range Rover in the company car park I swept magnificently out onto British roads feeling (a) embarrassed and (b) a bit like a rat with a gold tooth, despite wearing my brand-new Harris Tweed sports coat which had cost me $500 in New Zealand.

What I learned very quickly was that the Brits didn’t have the degree of Tall Poppyism that we did then. There was not a trace of wankerism about me driving a Roller, in fact there was nothing but respect for the car because it is such an icon of everything British.

I loved my week and two days in that car. Lasting impressions? The ‘organ stop’ controls for the heater/air conditioner, the audible V8 rumble under acceleration and the cathedral-like silence while cruising.
Today, New Zealand has grown up and the envy that we previously directed at Rolls-Royce (and Bentley) owners has largely dissipated, which possibly explains why one of the oldest remaining British marques has an owner’s club in New Zealand that is only 50 years old.

The Tour Begins
So here we were, at Stirling Point, ready to head north and I realised that the travel group was smaller than I thought as three or four cars there were locals just out to fly the flag at the start. These included a very large 1937 Phantom III which, initially, I thought was the famous ‘Thomson’s’ car from Dunedin, owned at one stage by the Marquis de Portago. The marquis died along with his co-driver and nine spectators when his Ferrari crashed in the 1957 Mille Miglia— a tragedy which ended that event. But the car at Bluff was not de Portago’s.

I joined Murray Hawkes in his 1981 Bentley Turbo R for the first leg — Stirling Point to Niagara, a dot on the map in the middle of the Catlins and so named because of its waterfall that is all of half a metre high!
Murray’s Turbo R is a quite high mileage example that he uses a lot, running it on 100 octane when he can, which he gets from NPD self-service stations. Murray’s ambition for the car is to reach half a million kilometres with no major repairs.

It’s fast, noiseless when cruising but with that unmistakable V8 rumble under acceleration.

After an excellent lunch and a long chatter at the café in the old school at Niagara, I took myself with camera to the 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III of Keith Hunter for the drive to Dunedin.

What was the Rolls like compared to the Bentley Turbo R? The same, but different.

The Silver Cloud III looks large and imposing, but much of that is an illusion created, mainly, by the traditional Rolls-Royce grille. It’s big, vertical, imposing, a touch intimidating and it sets a contrasting tone with the rest of the car, which is svelte, elegant and comprised of hand-shaped aluminium alloy.

I’m constantly surprised by this car – it’s what I expected it to be but it’s not.

Despite the impression of bulk, the car is quite modestly proportioned. I keep thinking the cabin is about the same size as the two-year-old MO Morris Oxford my father unexpectedly arrived home with in 1951.
Egress — that’s both in and out, is via doors that are small and featherweight — particularly the rear ones. I swear you could close them by blowing on them. And they “click” closed rather than “clonk”.

The front seats are individual — I won’t use the term “buckets” because you sit ‘on’ them and not ‘in’ them and like the rear pew, they are upholstered in the finest Connolly leather.

And, of course, there is wood — acres of it. Hand selected, hand cut, hand finished, hand polished — it gleams. Beautifully.

The dashboard is exactly that — a great swath of gleaming furniture that swoops across the entire width of the car. All the instruments are carried in a secondary layer of this crafted wood mounted on the dashboard. I am struck by the honesty of this.

Instead of hiding how this secondary layer of timber is affixed you can clearly see — there are the heads of chromed screws.

That honesty is everywhere. The hand operated cranks for the quarter lights aren’t held onto the door trims by some hidden clasps or clips, but slot-head screws that match the handles and go directly through the handle into the shaft.

All instruments, switches etc are discreet black (and remind me of Bakelite more than plastic) with hints of silver — is it stainless steel or chrome? Probably both.

The “select” lever for the four-speed automatic transmission is a quadrant on the right-hand side of the steering column somewhat like a very heavy indicator switch.

The steering wheel is big, black, plain and ‘40s in style.

But where is the rev counter? I search and scan. There is none. In 1965 rev counters were still reserved for sports and performance cars, thus were considered unnecessary — a gimmick. Another touch of honesty.
There is an intimacy here, more than I expected, Keith and I are almost touching shoulders.

The view out the front is through a narrow, curved windscreen and down a long, narrow, tapering bonnet that’s hinged down the centre. And, at the ‘sharp end’ the severe shape of that traditional grille forms a small wall that fringes the outline of the bonnet.

Something that is unmistakable is that shape of the top of the radiator topped by a silver Spirit of Ecstasy — the Rolls-Royce symbol of luxury for decades. By 1965 standards it’s an old-fashioned view.

It’s a narrow bonnet that tells you there’s probably a six-cylinder motor in there. And there was when the Silver Cloud debuted in 1955. It had a 4.9-litre inline six with 155bhp (115kW). But a lack of performance for a car of this type and price was a constant criticism, and so in 1959 when the Silver Cloud II was announced the inline six was replaced by a 6.2-litre “Rolls-Royce developed” aluminium V8 with “sufficient” horsepower.

The Silver Cloud III was launched in late 1962 with some engine modifications that increased power to the point of being even more sufficient, but estimated in the region of 220bhp (164kW).

The engine is GM-based but heavily modified by Rolls-Royce while the four-speed transmission is unashamedly a GM Hydramatic unit capable of high mileages, great power, much abuse and all with great reliability.

Keith hustles the car along quickly enough through the winding roads of the Catlins and into South Otago and onto SH1. At one stage he unleashes it. This dowager aunty picks up her skirts and sprints and I see an, ahem, illegal speed come up very briskly. And then there is that V8 rumble.

Under the Hood
We stop at the small lakeside town of Waihola for an appointment with a photographer from the Otago Daily Times. ODT owner, Sir Julian Smith, is a car enthusiast with Rolls-Royces and Bentleys contrasting with Ford Ts and Ford As, so car events like this get the media treatment!

While we wait I inspect the sensual shape of the Silver Cloud III. Grille apart, it is so delicate. It took James Young’s team of artisans over 2,500 hours to build, and it shows in the flowing lines and detail shapes. It’s not just the profile which flows, nor just the delicately peaked guards, but also the impossibly thin and scroll-like door and boot handles.

The brutal way in which this traditional Rolls-Royce grille interacts with the airflow is shown by the number of dead insects smeared across the otherwise perfect metal.

But let’s look under that long, narrow, tapering bonnet. We open the driver’s side — to say the V8 engine is a snug fit is an understatement. There’s engine and engine and still more engine - and there is a party trick. We open the passenger’s side and Keith Hunter shows how to check the engine oil.

The vast air cleaner, like the bonnet, is hinged lengthwise. Keith undoes a winged nut that holds a bracket that attaches the air cleaner to the engine. This allows this side of the air cleaner to be lifted and then held in place via a small cable and hook. Access to the dipstick is then granted!

It’s almost a touch of overkill.

The other cars on the tour have joined us as have the ODT photographers and a journalist. Cars are positioned, photographs taken and interviews finished, we complete our journey to Dunedin.

The Silver Cloud III was the last of the truly traditional Rolls-Royces, it’s built on a simple, heavy, separate chassis with all of the care that the company is famous for.

Today the fact that it does have a separate chassis with a handmade specialist body is a plus, but in the early sixties Rolls-Royce was falling behind in terms of engineering design and so the Silver Shadow was born — the first Rolls-Royce to feature unitary construction and altogether a far more modern looking car that conformed to the ‘pontoon’ shape of cars first introduced by the Ford Forty-niner.

Keith Hunter bought this car 20 years ago. “I had a number of cars already but when this came up for sale, I knew I had to buy it even though it was expensive.”

He has had it repainted.

It’s history isn’t known although it has a window transfer showing that at some time in the UK it was sold by the oldest independent Rolls-Royce dealer in the world, Frank Dale & Stepsons. It was exported to New Zealand by a Japanese industrialist in 1998 who specified the personalised number plates when it landed in New Zealand.

My time with Keith had been a wonderful experience. Over the drive from Niagara to Dunedin he and I discovered we had literally dozens of friends in common. But for me, more was to come when I dined and supped with the members of the tour in the wonderfully-gracious Dunedin Club that night and shared some of my stories as a motoring writer over some decades.

A truly memorable experience.

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