From Beijing to Paris in an old Rolls Royce

Words by Nigel Keen (m. 1965)

Our project started a few years ago at the start of the first pandemic lockdown. Myself and two friends, Bruce Norris and Stew Penney (both m. 1965) set out to enter our Rolls Royce Silver Shadow convertible into the Beijing to Paris Endurance Rally which was due to take place in June 2022.  We are all Peterhouse engineers having left Cambridge in 1968, the same year the car was built. I have owned it for more than thirty years and we felt that it would be nice to do something for the end of its life that was really special, and would serve as a ‘Viking’s funeral’ for this much loved friend.

Photograph of the car parked on a London street. The body of the car is white and it has a number 18 on the passenger side door

Our first challenge was to get a place on the rally, as we were told that the car was too young and that we did not have adequate rally experience.  We (or perhaps the car itself) persuaded the organisers that the car was so good looking that we should be given a place and we set out to prepare the car for the event.

The route was planned to go north from Beijing, crossing Mongolia into Russia and then through Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and up through Italy and France to Paris.  A long way, but the most difficult part is Mongolia where there are not many metalled roads and our beautiful Rolls Royce was not built as an off roader – we needed to change that! In the event, as a result of Covid and the Russian activities in Ukraine, the Rally did not take place as planned and is now due to run on June 2024 with an amended route.

These changes to the plans did not deter us from the car build but we realised we needed to join more robustly into the world of Classic Car Rallying.  As we had generated some interest in our plans we wanted to use this interest to raise some money for a good cause and to do this we felt we needed to find an established social media platform where we could show people what we were doing. Luckily, I had an introduction to former F1 racing driver, Jackie Stewart.  Jackie’s wife sadly suffers from dementia and Jackie has created Race Against Dementia which is a charity which sponsors scientific research into the causes of and potential treatments for this terrible disease. We intend to try to raise funds for RAD from those who are interested in following our progress.

Our first target was to compete in a rally across the Sahara which was scheduled to take place in the autumn of 2021.  However, this did not happen because the difficulties of crossing borders with Covid were then still much in evidence across the world.

To prepare the car we needed to work on multiple projects.  Rolls Royce had introduced the Silver Shadow in 1965 and then it was in production in some form or another until 2000.  Many improvements were introduced during this period but the most important changes to improve reliability and performance happened before 1980.  We planned to upgrade our car’s suspension and running gear to a 1980 spec and at the same time to ruggedise it by moving everything under the car (fuel systems, gearchange actuator etc) to the boot and to install under body protection for other vulnerable areas.  A key part of this was to translate the factory installed hydraulic self-levelling system to a manually operated ride height adjustment to give the car significantly more ground clearance for its off-road journey. 

The inside of the car, reduced to the bare wirings The car was built as a monocoque and so we were able to separate the front and rear subframes from the body shell.  We sent the body to a rally preparer and working with them we fitted the body shell with a roll cage, rally seating and rally instrumentation and installed the new fuel system and additional fuel tanks to increase range.  We also replaced the rather aged wiring loom with more modern cabling.

The two subframes went to the mechanic who has helped me look after the car since I acquired it and, with him, we reworked all the mechanical components, including better gearbox uprated shock absorbers, steering and back axle.  We also changed the electrically actuated gear change for a cable operated gear selector, again with the objective of ruggedising and simplifying the system to fit the car’s new role.

The project took a lot longer to complete than we had expected but it all came together in time for us to compete in our first international rally in February 2023 – the Winter Monte Carlo.

But before doing this we had to work on or own skills to drive, equip, maintain and navigate the car.  Bruce’s career in the army had given him a love of maps and I had been driving the car for a long time so was able to put the car through its paces.  We set out on training exercises where we took previously documented rally instructions and re-ran them for ourselves, learning a lot on the way.  We also practiced maintenance and basic mechanical procedures such as wheel changes and service routines.  Both of us were familiar with map reading for journeys on foot at walking pace, but applying this knowledge to rally instructions and instrumentation (no GPS allowed!) at fifty miles an hour was no mean feat!

The big day came and we set out for Troyes in France as the start point for are first ‘real’ rally to Monte Carlo where we were to arrive four days later after a trip across the mountains in the snow, sessions around race tracks and ending up with a race up the Col de Torini just outside Monte Carlo… the car performed well… we didn’t come first… we didn’t come last in the field… and we won a trophy.

We had a good time and are now preparing for a Classic Marathon in Slovenia in June followed by an endurance trip across the desert from Jordan to Dubai through Saudi Arabia and Oman in October - and then finally off to Beijing in June next year!

Action shot of the car going round a corner on a track at speed