Motoring: Basking in the Shadow's glow: Walnut, leather, silky silence: James Ruppert is sorely tempted by a pounds 5,000 Rolls-Royce

OWNERSHIP of a Rolls-Royce was once described by The Motor as 'the goal of all civilised men'. These days, anyone with up to pounds 10,000 to spare can join this gentleman's club, whether civilised or not. The walnut, leather and silky silence on wheels now belongs to the masses - and a Rolls-Royce can make more sense than any number of executive expresses: most depreciate like stones and have all the presence of a jelly mould.

Today's bargain Rolls-Royce, the Shadow, was a great technological leap forward in 1965. The only part to survive from the previous Silver Cloud was the V8 engine, although even that was modified. The radical development was monocoque construction: the traditional separate chassis was dispensed with, and the running gear and suspension were attached to the bodyshell, making the car lower, lighter and stronger. The styling - it looked like a sort of scaled-up Cortina Mark 2 - was not to everyone's taste. Today, however, the Shadow has a timeless quality, and stands out among lesser marques.

The car's other firsts included disc brakes and a complex, self-levelling, independent suspension that results in a superlative ride. A long-wheelbase version, with an extra four inches behind the door pillar, became available in May, 1969; it was distinguished by an optional glass division behind the chauffeur, rear compartment air-conditioning, vinyl roof and smaller rear window. The car became heavier as the specification improved and features were incorporated to meet US safety standards.

The Series II model went on sale in early 1977 and incorporated a number of significant changes, including revised suspension and engine. Inside was a neater fascia; outside were large rubber-faced bumpers and a plastic front spoiler. The Shadow was finally replaced in 1980.

The best way to check a used Rolls- Royce is to get someone else to do it. A professional engineer's report can prevent an expensive mistake. But such reports are also expensive, so before you make that investment, there are plenty of simple, common sense checks to be performed. Top of the list is the service history. Skilled maintenance is the key to a car's long-term survival, and the major hydraulic services at 48,000 and 96,000 miles should not have been ignored.

With older and cheaper Shadows that have slipped out of the official network, you will usually have to be slightly more lenient about service history, but it is reassuring to find bills and receipts for recent repairs. Do not be afraid of a 100,000-plus mileage, as in the words of the company's old advertisements, the cars 'are only just run in'.

You will be able to spot any signs of neglect simply by looking and listening carefully for un-Rolls-Royce-like traits. Rattles from the engine compartment, or blue smoke from the exhaust should make you think again. A test drive will not always reveal too much because of the overlight power steering, but anything less than a smooth, silent, straight-line ride should be cause for concern. A low-mileage vehicle that has been garaged is not always the perfect purchase, as brake discs corrode and the electrics can suffer.

Always ensure that all the power windows, mirrors and air-conditioning work properly. As for the bodywork, rust is no respecter of the Spirit of Ecstasy and it can be found around the sills, wheel-arches, front valance, door handles and trim. Substandard accident repairs ought to be obvious from panel gaps and less-than-pristine paintwork. Look in the boot for the jack and tool kit, as chauffeurs often remove them as a leaving present. Remember that the Shadow was also badged as a Bentley: the car is identical except for the radiator and is more exclusive and often cheaper because most buyers want a 'Roller'.

Although owning and driving a Shadow is a sublime experience, it need not be a costly one. Main agents will charge several hundred pounds for opening the bonnet, but a recommended specialist can source much cheaper replacement parts and carry out servicing at Ford Granada prices. Ghost Motors, in south-east London, quoted pounds 160 for a 6,000-mile service, including parts; prices for exhaust systems start at pounds 200. What might frighten you off, however, is fuel consumption - 18mpg on a good day, less than 10mpg in heavy traffic. And since a Rolls-Royce raises hackles among petty vandals, you cannot always expect to find your Shadow in quite the same condition as when you left it.

If you think you are up to the responsibilities that Shadow ownership entails, ensure it is the most recent and best model you can afford. A Shadow II, with its improved specification, is the one to go for.

The trouble is that dealers usually pitch the good models at pounds 14,000-plus. So I was pleased to find an example just pounds 500 above my hypothetical pounds 10,000 budget at Keith Breton Cars in Surbiton. I reasoned that a cash offer would take me comfortably within my budget. The 1977 Shadow II was fresh from a family trip to Euro Disney. Mr Breton outlined the pleasures of ownership and the low running costs. He had replaced a wheel bearing and air-conditioning pump; all it needed was a valet and a fresh MoT to be issued that morning.

Cosmetically, the leather interior was immaculate and on the outside, just one bubble of rust clung to the chrome body strip and the base of the famous radiator grille. The car was a joy to drive and had a full service history. Even if you sold it after a year, there is no doubt that you would get your money back. No wonder the telephone inquiries were piling up as I dithered.

At the other end of the Shadow price spectrum, pounds 4,995 is probably the limit. On the telephone, the owner of a 1974 Shadow at that price was painfully honest about the car's shortcomings, but it seemed worth a look. The car had a beige 'Everflex' roof, which suits these models perfectly, and it had character. Rust nibbled at the wheel arches and the lacquer on much of the paintwork had crazed. Inside, the beige leather was surprisingly good, but some of the walnut veneer door cappings had peeled. It started first time, and only a blowing exhaust and noisy air-conditioning pump gave cause for concern.

I estimated pounds 500 to service and sort it out. As the ultimate expression of reverse snobbery, it seemed perfect. The seller was not a trader but a retiring Finchley accountant, which explained his openness. It would make a lot more sense to pay pounds 3,000 more and get a pristine Shadow Mark I. Nevertheless, I have not been so tempted to buy a car on impulse for a long time.

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