In Love with a Flying LadyFeb 17th, 2013 | By Chris Bateman | Category: Bateman's Blog
“You’re not really thinking about buying that thing?” My wife gave me a look. “Are you?”
“No, no,” I said, waving her off. “It’s just for a story.”
Yet the image kept going through my head: Me, a semi-retired journalist on an income that’s fixed pretty low, tooling down Sonora’s Washington Street behind the wheel of a 1967 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Or easing the iconic beast into the Express Lube for an oil change – and asking the guy in charge to polish up my walnut-and-ebony, Nardi-designed steering wheel while he’s at it.“You’re not really thinking about buying that thing?” My wife gave me a look. “Are you?”
“No, no,” I said, waving her off. “It’s just for a story.”
Or pulling into Columbia Nursery to get fresh roses for the standard-equipment rear-seat vases (pronounced VAHH-ses by the upper crust). Or maybe just handing off a jar of Grey Poupon to another snooty Rolls-owner buddy out on Rawhide Road.
A classified ad in the local paper made this improbable dreaming possible.
“SPECTACULAR,” trumpeted the ad, which included a minuscule black-and-white photo of the Silver Shadow. “Runs well. Needs some cosmetic restoration. $9,500.”
I called right away. Moving up to a Rolls-Royce for less than half the price of a Prius? Who wouldn’t call?
Almost everyone here in the land of pickup trucks, it turns out.
“You’ll be the first to look at it,” said Ian Owens, a transplanted Brit who was having no luck selling his 1967 coupe for the seemingly surrealistic price.
A 70-year-old Oxford grad who retired to Marin County and Sonora after a career in astrophysics and telecommunications, Owens had an explanation.
“It’s like that guy who was giving away $100 bills in New York City,” he said. “People thought there had to be a catch, so they didn’t take the money. But with this Rolls, there’s no catch.”
“Can I test drive it?” I shot back. “Certainly,” said Owens, and I jumped in my own pickup truck and headed his way.
Tucked in a far corner of an East Sonora mobile-home park, the 46-year-old Shadow is faded red with a tan vinyl top and, of course, the trademark Rolls grille and “Flying Lady” hood ornament. Its interior is rich in leather, walnut, and cashmere, which lines the roof.
This aging beauty in ’67 retailed for about $30,000 – which translates to nearly a quarter-million in today’s dollars.
“All it needs is a tune-up and a coat of paint,” said Owens, raising the hood to expose a mammoth V-8. My heart skipped a beat.
“This Rolls is handmade with more than 900 man-hours into it,” he continued. “And there are probably fewer than 200 of these Coupes left here in the U.S.”
Fewer yet have right-side steering, which makes this particular Shadow perfect if I take a part-time job delivering magazines or mail. But the thing weighs nearly 4,700 pounds, has an appetite for high-test gas and is not at all politically correct. Total mileage? “Anyone’s guess,” said Owens, adding that the ’67 Shadows’ odometer rolls over every 100,000 miles.
Owens, who over the decades has owned more than 50 cars and restored more than a dozen, bought the Silver Shadow in 1996 and joined the Rolls Royce Owners C lub.
“It’s a spiritual thing,” he said of the nearly 10,000 miles he has driven the Rolls. “Looking over that long hood at the Flying Lady ornament, it was like, ‘I’ve made it.’”
Owens added that the Shadow “will beat a Porsche off the line” and that its ride is so smooth, so quiet “that you can’t even feel the road.”
“It makes a Cadillac seem like a tank,” he said.
“Let’s take her out,” I urged, thinking that yes, I wanted a car that states in no uncertain terms that, “My urbane, very cool driver has made it.”
But for all its touted virtues, the Silver Shadow wouldn’t start on this cold Sunday morning. Its battery, fresh from Kragen, tried and tried, but Owens finally gave up. “It needs a tune-up,” he said. “You spend $500, and this car will run just fine.”
Owens admitted that a paint job (I’d opt for a patrician, understated gray), along with other “purely cosmetic work,” might run up to 10 grand.
“It’s still a bargain,” he insisted.
“I have too many cars, not enough time and not enough money,” said Owens, scientist, poet and, according to a Mensa membership card tacked on his kitchen door, a genius. “I can only do one thing at a time.”
Once freed of the Rolls, he will devote his considerable talents to building a replica of a classic 1929 Mercedes SSK roadster. And some lucky buyer, Owens added, will get the Silver Shadow for a song.
“Well, I’m just here for the story,” I hedged, backpedaling toward my pickup.
I drove home and forgot about the Rolls until the phone rang two days later. “I got it started,” said Owens, and I jumped back in my truck.
Thirty minutes later my heart was again skipping beats at the mobile-home park. The Shadow’s engine may need a tune, but it sounded magnificent – quiet, dignified, but incredibly powerful. But, no, Owens told me, we couldn’t go for a ride.
“The brakes,” he explained. “They’re seized.” He said he’ll have them fixed within the week.
My ardor again cooled – until Owens confessed that he really doesn’t care whether he sells the Rolls or not. “I’d be just as happy keeping it.”
For reasons only a psychologist could explain, I warmed to the car again. Then I went to Arizona and Reno, getting out of the Shadow’s alluring shadow. When I got back to Sonora, Owens called. “I’ll have it running in a week,” he said. “You can drive it.” What’s more, he added, “I’m going to repaint it — probably silver-gray.”
But alas, I’ve reluctantly put away my checkbook, rubbed the stars out of my eyes, and come back to the world of French’s mustard, Chevys and Fords. Think about it: This nearly half-century-old car didn’t move an inch during our brief courtship.
But I enjoyed the flirtation: It gave me an exhilarating, if short-lived, tour of fantasies I didn’t know I had.
But even if I roll down the window and proffer a jar of Grey Poupon to a guy in a fully tricked-out Silverado, nobody will believe it.
(Unless I changed my mind, or someone else beats me to the punch, Owens’ Silver Shadow is still for sale. But, because he’s already restored the car’s vinyl top and will have it running “in just days,” the price has risen to $10,000. To start your own romance, call him at 209-532-6831.)
Chris Bateman, 66, is a longtime journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun. Contact him at email@example.com.
Copyright 2013, Friends and Neighbors Magazine