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Motoring: Everyone loves a Bentley owner

So why do Rolls-Royce drivers get so much grief? It's all down to the grille, apparently. By Jonathan Glancey
Rich bitch," he said. And all my friend was doing was filling up her pounds 6,995 car at a petrol station in Derby. And, no, she was not dressed in mink, nor even in Prada. This friend, an astronomer, is neither rich nor a bitch. The reason that the man in the garage filling up his brand new Ford Escort alongside felt it his right to insult her was because of the particular pounds 6,995 car she drives.

Unable to afford the new Renault Clio 1.4 she had toyed with when courting the bank for a loan, she settled for a two-tone green 1970 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow instead.

The car had been fully serviced and well looked after. It was over 25 years old and so there was no road tax to pay, and, surprisingly, a decent Rolls-Royce is not a particularly expensive car to run. Of course, they are a touch on the thirsty side, but they make up for this by being famously reliable.

A Silver Shadow might be big, yet it is a doddle to drive, easy to park, relaxing in all road conditions and sexy in a Jayne Mansfield kind of way. It cruises sedately at anything up to an illegal 100mph and is bliss around town: its gracious, old world manner almost insists that you drive it like a lady.

The only trouble is the way other drivers treat the owner of a Rolls- Royce. In Tonbridge Wells, Harrogate and Edinburgh (genteel places all), the big car is a red rag to bull-necked, green-faced drivers. And, should a young woman be seen to step down from behind the large, thin steering wheel of a Rolls-Royce, bull-necked, green-faced drivers appear to have a licence to hurl Anglo-Saxon abuse at her.

Up until the Seventies, this sort of thing happened but rarely. A Rolls- Royce was seen as a beautifully crafted and elegant, all-British motor car - a sort of mechanical Union Jack, that deserved nothing but praise. Condemnation set in when Rolls-Royces, for better or worse, became associated with Middle Eastern oil money, get-rich-quick builders and fast-buck, fly-by-night property developers in the Seventies and Eighties.

Since then, Rolls-Royce has had an image problem and has been working hard to re-associate the car with notions of dignity as well as "loadsamoney" success. And yet today it is possible to go out and buy a fine second- hand Silver Shadow for well under pounds 10,000.

These cars, whatever the imagination says, were not all painted Cartland pink or biological washing-powder white, nor were they all fitted with gold bonnet mascots. What they did all have, however, was that grille. For, if anything symbolises Rolls-Royce it is that famous hand-crafted, stainless-steel radiator grille. Fashioned to mimic the facade of a Greek or Roman temple, it has long been precisely the right gesture for a car designed to be parked outside the noble Palladian porticoes of grand country houses.

And this, sadly for my friend, is what can bring out the worst in people. I took my friend's Silver Shadow out for a spin and my experience was no different from hers. Drivers of vans and souped-up tin-boxes outside central London (a Rolls-Royce is a common sight in Town) cut me up with abandon, refused to let me into lines of traffic when turning out of busy junctions, raced off alongside me at amber traffic lights and raised a crude "finger" as they blazed away in a costly trail of sizzling rubber and blue smoke. When I stopped to fill up in a garage on the edge of Watford, a pair of fat men in dayglo leisure wear stepped from a shiny Ford Granada to let me know I was a "rich bastard".

The very next day, I began a glorious week's motoring, Toad-style, thanks to Rolls-Royce, in a brand-new and brutally handsome pounds 187,300 Bentley Continental R. This mighty beast can charge up to 150mph with astonishing ease and can out-accelerate all but the fastest supercar exotica. If any car can be said to hide an iron fist in a velvet glove, then this is it. The Bentley is quite simply magnificent, a truly memorable meeting of gentleman's club, Avro Lancaster, Gresley Pacific and the sort of heroic engineering Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have taken his stovepipe off to.

The Bentley really does command the road; you will never feel safer nor grander when out for a drive. As that great bonnet, fronted with its famous Gothic radiator grille, swings into a petrol station on the A1 near Newark, hear what the locals, flustered from Transit vans, hot from Reliant Robins and Austin Maestros have to say: "beautiful motor", "fantastic car", "lucky geezer", "won the Lottery, then, have you? That's what I'd get if I did".

Out on the open road, nearly everyone (save for a few angry-faced, mustachioed, fast-lane reps in Mondeos and Vectras) give way to this 400-horse-power chariot. Even normally unstoppable British Telecom vans flash the Bentley into busy traffic queues.

Fascinated by the royal treatment I had received from other road users when out driving the hugely expensive Bentley, I decided to complete this investigation into British manners, Crewe radiator grilles and Pavlovian responses by borrowing the nearest Rolls Royce equivalent to the Bentley I knew. This was an immaculate 2-door 1976 Rolls-Royce, based on the Silver Shadow, and one of the most elegant of the cars crafted at Crewe in the oil-crazy Seventies.

You will already have guessed what happened. Wherever I parked this handsome road carriage, I was met with the stock response "rich bastard" (once at a service station at Andover and once again, on the way home, at a garage near Basingstoke). This particular second-hand Rolls-Royce coupe was on sale for pounds 24,995, more than pounds 150,000 less than the new Bentley.

My advice, if, like my friend you are attracted by the idea of driving to work in a used Rolls-Royce, is to remove and store that famous stainless- steel radiator grille (save for trips to Berkeley Square, Cannes or Baden- Baden) and replace it with the much cheaper painted steel Bentley item. This seemingly insignificant quick-change act will transform you from a "rich bitch" into a someone to be respected. Absurd, but, sadly, all too true.