My buddy Jim is getting married soon. Very soon. And as part of my duties as best man, I accompanied him on a journey to collect his 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud (that has been in his family since 1968) from his parents house in Minneapolis and return it to Connecticut.
The car is pretty special. It's only had two owners since new, and has always been in the Minneapolis Metro area since it was delivered. Its never been fully restored, the interior is original, the engine has never been opened up and it has simply been maintained, serviced and used regularly. The paint was done about 8 years ago and there was a bit of metal work that was done by Jim, just to fix a few little issues and preserve that wonderful body. Jim's work was masterful and the car is straight as an arrow and resplendent in its original black color. It displays a warm gloss that only a proper single-stage paint job can achieve. It's a honey.
The wedding plan has always included the car. Jim's Fiancee's family is heavily into British cars and will be using their 35 Derby Bentley and their 59 Silver Cloud, so Jim's car had to be included. Heck, he was brought home from the hospital in it and it was the first car he ever drove - it only makes sense that it plays a role in his wedding. The only issue being that the wedding is in Connecticut, I'm in Pennsylvania and the car is in Minnesota. How are we going to work this out?
We thought about flight options and how to get the two of us to MSP at the same time drive the car back and somehow get myself back to PA. Each option included leaving a car some place where we wouldn't be returning to. Also, airline tickets are $$$ and we are both cheap and broke. So, what the heck. Lets drive out in a one-way rental.
We had a time crunch as Jim has only so much time off. We had to do this thing in 4 days total. Jim drove our lovely rental (a Chevy Sonic, more on that later) to my house on a Tuesday night and we arose early and set out on Wednesday morning at 6:30AM. It's been a long time since we've embarked on a journey like this, and we were excited to make tracks. The goal was to minimize stops and be in Minneapolis that night. That's more than 1200 miles from Allentown. In a Chevy Sonic.
Excitement quickly turned to a dismayed wonder at the fact that a car built in 2011 could still be so bad. Was this thing built in China or something? With fewer than 10K miles on the clock, it clunked and clonked over bumps, displayed handling best described as "wayward" and was cramped, uncomfortable and had poor ergonomics. The dash display couldn't be seen through polarized glasses... the seats were horrid... there's a tremendous blind spot even though the thing is tiny... it goes on. It's a sad thing, really that GM couldn't get this right. Lets hope the Cruze is better!
But back to the task at hand. The only good thing is that the car allowed us to make only 4 stops over 1200+ miles. We achieved over 30mpg in spite of averaging right around 70mph. Only stop/go Chicago traffic kept our average below 70 at the end of the day.We each had our very first 5-Hour Energy experience (not nearly as bad as I expected), a couple of sandwiches, and we pushed through and hit Minneapolis about 17.5 hours later. Friday was a day to rest and eat normal food and spend some time with Jim's folks.
Friday morning and we were up and at it early again. Quick breakfast, get packed up and load the car. A full fluid check to make sure all was well and it was time to roll.
Nerves were a little on edge to start the journey back as we haven't given the car a run like this in about 7 years. So we were anxious about every little noise and smell as we rolled on. It didn't help that the temp gauge shorted out a few months ago, but we soon settled in to a nice rhythm and the car ran like an absolute champion.
The cruise through Minnesota and Wisconsin was outstanding. The car behaved so well, cruising effortlessly at 70mph and above without fault. We were getting respectable mileage out of the big-six and yes, it was most certainly more comfortable than the Sonic! Even without air conditioning, we had windows down and the air flow was just perfect. Not too noisy, not too buffeting. In short, all you'd expect a Rolls Royce to be.
Once we got through Wisconsin, we crossed into Illinois and soon hit Chicago. That's when our trouble started: See all those cars? Yeah, there were a lot more of them up ahead and it was getting hot outside, inside, and under the bonnet. What we didn't know at the time was that we were losing coolant. We smelled a bit of it, but it didn't seem too bad and we knew the car had a drippy heater valve so we figured that was it. The engine was running strong with no pinging or roughness so we knew it wasn't over heating. There was also no sign of steam so we pressed on. Once we got through the glut of Chicago and the scariness of Gary, Indiana, we decided it was a good time to stop and let things cool down.
What you see in the blurry photo above is anti-freeze. Fresh green stuff was coming from the overflow tube, hitting the fan and being sprayed out the side of the bonnet and all down the side of the car. It was like it was painted with green watercolors. Oh, Shit!
What followed was a series of short drives followed by stops to top up the hemorrhaging antifreeze. There was no obvious leak in the radiator core, and we couldn't find a source for the leak other than the right hand drain tube. The car still ran brilliantly, always starting right up after a stop and displaying no signs of overheating. So we felt confident enough to press on. We made it as far as Toledo where we had a welcome bite to eat, an even more welcome pint of beer and a place to have a restless sleep.
The second half of the journey was more of the same. There was no huge puddle under the car in the morning, so thoughts of a rad leak were out. We figured either a stuck t-stat or a blockage in the system was causing it to be pumped out when the motor was running. We topped up tanks and bellies and headed out for the second leg of the journey. We limped along through Ohio and in to Pennsylvania. Allentown felt like it was 3 states away and we kept a nervous eye and ear on the car while we climbed up and down the western PA hills. After all those hours and all that coolant (about 5 gallons to that point) we had to make a decision. We had to try and stop the problem. We decided to try and pull the thermostat in hopes of opening up the flow and to help keep things cool.
So we made it the remaining 150 miles back to Allentown where we were greeted by my very loving and patient wife with cold beers and a bucket of soapy water for the car. Suds and suds. The car got a well deserved bath and we had a few well deserved brews to calm our nerves. We decided the best thing was to trailer the car the rest of the way just to prevent any issues in New York traffic and to preserve the car for the wedding. It was a wise move. Jim's soon-to-be picked him up the next day, and the Rolls was tucked into my garage for a few days until he came back to collect it with a trailer.
As it turns out, our suspicions proved true. The radiator had a pretty serious blockage and it was pumping coolant out of the RH overflow, onto the fan and getting sprayed like paint out of the bonnet. The amazing thing is, that car never skipped a beat. It ALWAYS started. It ALWAYS pulled strong. It NEVER smoked and it NEVER quit on us. It used less than a quart of oil and the trans didn't leak a drop. It stopped and handled like it was new. There's a reason that Rolls-Royces are over-engineered. Sure, we went though 6 gallons of coolant and a couple gallons of water, but in reality, that was no fault of the car. It was just a matter of it showing its age a bit. The attention to detail that went into making it the best car in the world in its day shown through on every mile of this journey. I'll never forget this trip. It was a great, stressful, amazing opportunity and I can't wait for the wedding!
This story originally appeared on VWVortex' The Car Lounge on September 6, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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