Boxy and smelling of G and T, Denis Thatcher's favoured car is just a retro icon waiting to happen, says Sean O'Grady

once spotted Denis Thatcher in one of these. I was driving up the M1 from London and I noticed a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit in front. There's something about a Rolls-Royce that means people always look to see who's driving it.

I know that because I always do it myself and, on the few occasions when I've been lucky enough to find myself at the wheel of one of these machines, I get quite a few stares. Because of a glancingly vague similarity to Rowan Atkinson perhaps they think I'm that incredibly successful comedian and actor.

When I used to drive a yellow Mini, contrariwise, people often used to point and shout "Mr Bean" at me - even though Mr Bean's Mini was "apple green" with a black bonnet, not the "primula yellow" example I owned.

It was when I was in that yellow Mini bombing up the motorway that I decided to overtake the Rolls-Royce. Always a satisfying feeling that, a small victory in the class war. As usual, I took the opportunity to look inside at the foiled plutocrat, and, much to my amusement, there was the prime minister's husband.

I dropped back a bit to observe his driving style, a tendency to hang around in the middle lane too long. I was also curious to see where he turned off. I think it was Luton. I guessed he was playing golf because of his famous love of the game and because I imagined that a fine set of clubs was what was in that capacious boot.

Little did I realise that just a few short decades later I too would be taking a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit up that very same M1, dawdling in the middle lane as I went. Passing the signs for Luton I remembered Denis Thatcher and there, for a few moments, I occupied a sort of parallel universe with the old boy. I should have pulled over and treated myself to a gin and tonic there and then to celebrate the occasion.

A significant difference between Denis Thatcher and this humble hack is that Denis could at least afford to run a Rolls-Royce. Mine came courtesy of the Classic Car Club, a sort of timeshare scheme for classic car nuts. New Silver Spirits went for about the equivalent of £100,000 at today's prices; you can buy some tidy examples now for £20,000, and much less if you're happy to take a risk.

Why bother? Why indeed. Well, you could join the Classic Car Club instead, and thus have your pick of everything form a Morris Minor to a Ferrari 348 without any of the worry about repair costs. I'd be hard pressed to recommend that anyone buy a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit unless they're in the wedding hire business (something I've always fancied doing, as it happens).

But there's something very wonderful about this car in a Denis Thatcher sort of way. And it's so cheap.

Nowadays it's the least loved of the Rolls-Royces, and deeply unfashionable, just like being a Tory. Its predecessor, the Silver-Shadow, has long fallen into disrepute, perhaps because of the vast number made (by Rolls-Royce standards) and because they picked up a bit of an image problem. Somewhere they crossed over from classy to vulgar. Too many folk like Jimmy Savile and Denis Thatcher had them. The Rolls-Royce became an "old man's car".

Even so, the Silver Shadow's handsome lines have a patina, just like the interiors of the cars. They are getting more popular, especially as convertible and coupé "Corniches" with the earlier chrome bumpers. The Bentley T1 version is particularly favoured.

The Silver Spirit is basically an updated version of the Silver Shadow, launched in 1980 with more contemporary bodywork. Therein lies the problem. Its boxiness. It's as if some secret agents from Volvo had broken into the Rolls-Royce drawing office one night and done their worst. Whereas the Silver Shadow's styling has stood the test of time very well, the Spirit's hasn't. To contemporary eyes it has little going for it.

I think it's only a matter of time before it becomes rehabilitated. After all, it is a proper Rolls-Royce. It has by far the nicest thing about every Rolls-Royce, including the somewhat overblown Phantom model of today - a slim, delicate steering wheel.

It complements the light power-steering and the car's relaxed, wallowy ways. It'll shift, but only if you're insistent. The second best thing about the Silver Spirit, and which means it's a proper Rolls-Royce, is its engine, a developed version of the 6.75-litre V8 powerplant that found its first application in 1959.

Incidentally, after the break-up of the old Rolls-Royce/Bentley combine, new Rolls-Royces have BMW engines, whereas the Bentley Arnage, under VW's ownership, has gone back to the old unit, which also powers the new Azure convertible on the centre pages of this edition.

What else is there to love about the Silver Spirit? The absurdly plush lambswool over-rugs, which makes entering the cabin a little like walking into an overgrown meadow. Then there's the distressed leather seats and walnut door cappings and dashboard. There's the petrol filler cap button, labelled "refuel". There's a clangingly inappropriate digital clock too, but again with its own period charm, being an early incursion of 1980s hi-tech into the trad Rolls-Royce den, like finding a space invaders machine in a drawing room at Buckingham Palace.

The Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, boxy as it is, has presence and grace. I live quite close to an outfit called the Hanwell Car Centre in west London, which sells old Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. Every so often I have to get out of my Honda Civic Hybrid and stare into the showroom, transfixed by the glories within. Like the late Sir Denis Thatcher, you shouldn't really like them, and they're terrifically politically incorrect, but you can't help being taken in by their reactionary charm.

I'm off for a G and T before I blow £15,000 on a one-owner 1990 example with full service history. That's the spirit.

Thanks to the Classic Car Club (, Hanwell Car Centre ( and the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club (

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