Ownership of a Rolls Royce need not be limited to the very rich. You, too, can own one provided you have around pounds 10,000 to spare. That's surprisingly cheap when you consider that it will buy a hand- built car which just happens to be the best car in the world, allegedly.

To become a pukka buyer of a pre-owned (or second hand) Rolls Royce, you need to face up to reality. There are cars that handle better; Jaguar has more gadgets; BMW and Mercedes are just as solid. And the Rolls Royce is not a practical day-to-day proposition. Although the price could be the same as a new Fiesta Ghia, running costs will be in a very different league.

Yet the good news is that there are plenty of Rollers to choose from on a pounds 20,000 budget. Silver Spirits up to 10 years old are, in Rolls Royce terms, very affordable. These days the earliest examples of Silver Shadows are not that good to drive. Best opt for a Shadow II, built between 1977 and 1980. This is almost a different car: agile and better equipped.

The next generation of saloons was based on the Shadow and called the Silver Spirit, with the longer limousine version named the Silver Spur. Imposing and impressive, it reflected the company's desire to catch up with new technology so that by 1986 fuel injection and ABS brakes were part of the package. A four-speed automatic gearbox made things even smoother from 1991 and a redesigned engine in 1993 combined with adaptive ride suspension and twin airbags brought the models bang up to date.

However, anyone cautious about the Roller's nouveau riche image might prefer the racier, old money marque that is Bentley. Since 1981 Bentley has been marketed as a distinctive range of models rather than a Roller with a rounded grille and flying B mascot. The Bentley Eight is the basic model with matt finish trim and cloth seats, while the Mulsanne is a clone of the Spirit. Meanwhile, if Ferrari ever built a four-door tank it would be just like the Turbo and Turbo R models.

There is more to checking over a used Rolls Royce, or Bentley, than kicking the tyres. The process is akin to a grand old family making sure that no undesirables are allowed to marry into the fold. There ought to be a file of history several inches thick detailing every service, spare part, cough and sneeze of its life. Such a reassuring document tells you everything worth knowing from the last brake overhaul, to the latest financial damage for a set of wiper blades. Either buy from a specialist, or get it checked over by one. Rolls Royce and Bentleys are incredibly well built, but do need looking after because old ones will rust, the suspension and steering can show its age and a new interior could bankrupt you.

At the Hanwell Car Centre the stock is dominated by Shadows, Spirits and Eighties Bentleys. The Shadow IIs are pitched between pounds 13,000 and pounds 14,000. When I visited, I found it hard to separate the cars by anything except colour preference. Every one had a full service history and was immaculately presented. I suppose the 1978 Caribbean Blue Shadow with cream hide interior was showy enough for me at an attractive pounds 13,950. There were several new shape Spirits with prices starting at just pounds 17,950 for an early 1981 model. Among the Bentleys I spotted a 1986 Mulsanne at a remarkable pounds 19,999, while the most affordable Turbo, a 1984 finished in black, was pounds 21,950. Every example here is serviced before sale and comes with an 18-month parts and labour warranty.

If you want to take a risk among the private sellers there are lots of temptingly cheap Rollers out there. I rummaged around in the classified ad bargain basement to see what I could come up with. The first was a Shadow II at pounds 4,995, which had been stored for five years and was in need of unspecified attention. Even more remarkable was a 1983 Spirit which had been vandalised, leaving a distraught owner asking pounds 7,995 for it.

Both of them could be a drain on time and finances, but there are companies that can take the pain out of running and repairing a Roller. Legendary dismantlers KLW actually break damaged examples for the precious parts. Many classic car dealers have qualified mechanics who can make servicing costs containable and if you shop around it is possible to buy tyres, normally costing three figures, for around pounds 50-pounds 60.

Hanwell Car Centre 0181 567 1777 (pre-owned)

KLW 0171 622 8865 (parts)

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