The Luxury of Being Driven

Vile Gossip

It’s not that Bill Ruger, Jr., wouldn’t let me drive the 1971 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow that had belonged to his mother. It’s that it had just come back from what he called its “spring fluff-up,” and he wanted to give it a little shake-down run. What does fluffing up a thirty-year-old Rolls-Royce entail? “Oh, about $5000,” answers Ruger, a clever man who knows about old cars (he has about a dozen, including three 1930s-vintage V-16 Cadillacs, a 1940 Cadillac 60 Special, two good Packards, a 1933 Hispano- Suiza J12, a 1923 Stanley Steamer, a 1925 Locomobile Sportif, and a couple of 1932 Lincolns), about trains (he lives in a railroad baron’s Victorian mansion in the New Hampshire countryside), about art (his specialty is late-nineteenth-century American painting), and about music (he does nutty Tom Lehrer songs from memory) and who refurbished two old hydroelectric plants along the Sugar River, which runs by the gun factory his father started in 1949 with Alexander Sturm. Did I mention that he once traded a 1938 Buick for an Edison cylinder phonograph? It takes two Jennings family members to keep up one end of a good conversation with him.

It’s so worth the effort that we jumped at an invite to meander up to Bar Harbor, Maine, one exceptionally blistering week in June last year. It was the sort of heat that drives you to hang out in movie theaters and makes you wonder if the brain can actually melt and leak out your ears. Normally, driving a vintage car of foreign ex-traction in such treacherous conditions would seem foolhardy, but Rolls-Royce had the wisdom back then to use General Motors air conditioning, so we had confidence that we could ice down the interior and keep it suitably chilled for our adventure.

I volunteered for first shift in the back seat, settled in with my maps, and just, well, never got around to leaving. It was my own private sitting room, dominated by a deep couch upholstered in a finely worn maroon Connolly leather. A leather that smelled like leather. The headliner was a beautiful gray wool, and a carpeted wedge served as footrest. Looking out from picture windows, I would miss nothing going by.

My memory of past Rollers is dominated by one particular incident. I opened the door of a Silver Spur, and the entire interior door trim panel remained closed. At first, I had no idea what I was looking at. It looked sort of like a childproof gate stretched across the doorway to the basement steps. Very yucky indeed. But this mere Shadow of that Spur had no such tacky workmanship. The hardware was chromed and solidly attached to its moorings. I especially liked the spring-loaded pull straps on the doors. It was nice back there, and I was digging it.

There is no shame in lounging about in such splendor if you make yourself useful. “Our theme is cars,” announced Ruger. “We won’t be hiking.” Gotcha. I proceeded to map out a simple, fairly direct, fairly scenic route that would include stops at the Mount Battie Auto Road, the Owls Head Transportation Museum, and the tiny Seal Cove Auto Museum—all in Maine. Ruger added a side trip into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to visit Donald Koleman’s Com-petition Motors. No hiking involved.

<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2002/07/02-07-vilegossip.jpg" alt="THE CHAUFFEUR Bill Ruger, Jr., and his “Going
to Maine” car, a 1971 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.” class=”wp-image-499489″ />

The Donald was in, and it was a good thing, too. The Shadow wouldn’t leave D, not for N or P or R. We left it in D with the engine running, set the emergency brake, and headed in to see what mechanical finery Koleman had in residence. As befitting one who is driven, I wandered around the shop while puzzled mechanics scurried around the Shadow.

Donald Koleman is a lawyer who tinkered with mechanical things for years before he finally chucked his full-time law practice up in Salem, Massachusetts, for his workshop by the sea on the border of New Hampshire and Maine. The forty-one cars he had in-house (including three of the dozen or so remaining Bugatti 35Bs) represented about three to five months of restoration work of all types except for painting.

Sometime between running our hands along the body of a 1903 CGV that once belonged to a Russian czar’s family and scrutinizing a mighty 300-horsepower Alvis Barson Special that could have pulled the building down, our Shadow healed itself, and the happy Competition Motors mechanics waved us onto the road to Maine.

It was just across the river, and we sailed on up that rugged, pine-forested coast, taking the Interstate 95 toll road to Portland to gain some time for a quick visit to the Musical Wonder House (a collection of restored antique music boxes and player pianos) in Wiscasset, before the main attraction—the wonderful Owls Head Transportation Museum, adjacent to the Knox County Airport which facilitates the numerous antique “aeroplane” shows the museum hosts. And Ruger drove on. He’s always been quite a long-haul driver. He was thirteen when he bought his first car—a 1933 Buick—then sixteen when he bought a 1924 firetruck. He drove the firetruck from Concord, New Hampshire, home to Fairfield, Connecticut, then back to his private school in New Hampshire in the fall with his record collection stuffed around him. His first big road trip was in 1959, when he was twenty and drove coast-to-coast in a 1941 Oldsmobile Hydra-matic, “which, I might add, ran flawlessly. I had two friends going out and three coming back. I was about to go back to my junior year at Harvard. I’d worked all summer and had two or three weeks before school started. We went from Connecticut to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then took Route 2 to Glacier Park. Then San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Salt Lake, Denver, and Chicago. No Interstates and no divided highways west of Chicago. We never paid more than five dollars for a hotel. There were no credit cards, so you couldn’t reserve a room for late arrival. Gas cost forty-five cents a gallon in the mountain states rather than the thirty-five cents we were used to. All told, it cost $200 per person. We did eat at the Purdy Room in Chicago and went to the Gaslight Club and were served though we were all underage.”

It was odd, I must admit, emerging regally from the back seat of a Rolls-Royce at gas stations and restaurants (don’t miss the lobster roll at Canfield’s on Route 1, just south of Wiscasset). We were stand-out, midweek tourists, prone to arrive late for meals and barely before closing time at museums, just to add to the theatricality of it all. After spending the evening in Camden, we paid our six bucks at the Mount Battie Auto Road toll booth and would have wound our way slowly up the hill behind a tour bus if our unruly chauffeur hadn’t decided to pass it illegally, blowing the horn all the way. “Live Free or Die,” as our license plate proclaimed.

We eventually came to Bar Harbor. As so often is the case with those who arrive by Rolls, there was a ship—a Downeast 38 Grand Banks belonging to old Ruger school chum Steve Paneyko—waiting to take us on a late-afternoon harbor cruise past the summer estates of Brooke Astor, Martha Stewart, and the Rockefellers.

“Does your father still have the Gatling gun, Bill?” asked Steve, in that funny old, upper-crust movie-star accent from the 1930s. “The one we used to shoot from the terrace?” They reminisced, taking turns behind the ship’s wheel. I rode in the stern.

Some life.

“Could we have a more pleasant afternoon, Bill?” asked Steve, blond hair fluttering in the breeze.

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