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An Elegant Machine

photo by Matt Rose

If environment is fate, it hardly seemed likely that Scott Surrette’s childhood interest in classic automobiles would have flowered into the passion of his adult years.

“My father detested old cars,” the Hendersonville native remembers while sitting one day in The Peddler, the restaurant on White Street that he and his wife Carol Ann have owned for 13 years. “But while I was growing up, there was a neighbor on one side of us who had two Jaguars, and the neighbor on the other side collected Mustangs. I loved to look at them, sit inside them.”

Poring through copies of Hemmings Motor News, the bible of classic car collectors, Scott was especially fascinated by Rolls-Royces. “It was what they represented. Every one of them was handmade, and every one was slightly different, with its own quirks. And the craftsmanship, the oak frames and the hand-turned aluminum trim, really impressed me.”

Some years later, when Scott was 31 years old, he bought his first Rolls-Royce for the classic car collection he’d started building. It was a 1969 Silver Shadow, the first in a line of six Rolls-Royces to have taken up residence in Scott’s 2,400-square-foot garage.

The very first Rolls-Royce was the product of a 1904 collaboration between British engineer Henry Royce and one of Britain’s pioneering race car drivers and aviators, Charles Rolls. Royce agreed to produce cars exclusively for Rolls’ use on the track and for his fledgling auto dealership, and by 1907 had produced the first “silver” branded model, the Silver Ghost. By the 1920s, the Rolls-Royce had become a symbol of elegance and meticulous craftsmanship, so much so that the factory produced only the chassis and invited buyers to contract with recommended coach builders for a custom-designed body.

“The Rolls has always been made in Britain, except for a short period when there was also an American factory in Springfield, Massachusetts,” Scott says. “Each car came with its own complete toolkit, and buyers were invited to send their chauffeurs to England for a three-month course in maintaining the car.”

Tossed by the vagaries of world wars and disrupted economies, the Rolls-Royce company was forced into receivership at least twice before it was split in two, the Rolls-Royce brand sold in 2003 to BMW and its companion brand, Bentley, to Volkswagen.

Scott’s most recent purchase is a sleek black-and-silver 1955 Silver Wraith, the 71st of the 100 Wraiths produced that year. (The line was discontinued in 1959, and was the last Rolls to offer a bespoke body.) With a wheelbase nearly 11 feet long, the rear passenger compartment is roomy enough for Scott’s lanky, six-foot frame to stretch out to full length. There’s a built-in bar compartment, oak trim throughout, and fenders that swoop upward along half the car’s length to the silver headlamps.

Among the Wraiths still on the road are the official state cars for the presidents of Brazil and Ireland, and for the Danish royal family. Scott pointed out with evident affection the car’s signature features. “Each of the four doors has two eight-inch, hand-forged hinges,” he explains. “And there’s a special pump that constantly sends lubricant throughout the chassis so it’s a nearly silent ride. The metal louvers on the grill are thermodynamically controlled, so they open and close according to the engine’s temperature.” In the glove box was the original owners manual in hand-tooled, green-dyed leather, and in the ingeniously designed trunk (“boot,” as an Englishman would say) were the tools specially designed for the car’s innards, a fire extinguisher (one of Scott’s Rolls did, in fact, once catch fire), a jack and tire iron, and a fold-down shelf with fasteners to accommodate a gentleman’s traveling trunk.

“The car probably cost $15,000 in 1955 dollars,” Scott says. “If they were still being made today, you’d probably pay around half-a-million for a new one.”

Scott’s collection of 15 classic cars hasn’t been limited to Rolls-Royces, although they’re his 11-year-old daughter Alison’s favorite. “She loves it when I drive her to school in the Rolls,” Scott says. In past years, he’s owned three Mercedes-Benz classics, including a 300 series limousine known familiarly as an Adenauer, since it was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s favorite car, and a 1971 600 series, a boxy, long-wheelbase model much favored by statesmen and royalty and distinguished by having the loudest horn of any production car. But Scott’s favorite of his current collection isn’t a luxury car at all. It’s a 1951 Chevrolet flatbed truck, named Buford. “I painted it green, and put the restaurant’s logo on the doors,” Scott says. “I like to drive it around, park it at the restaurant sometimes.” There’s also a 1927 Model T Ford in his garage, although Model Ts, produced in the hundreds of thousands on Henry Ford’s assembly line, are the most commonly owned classic cars.

Scott’s cars aren’t just museum exhibits. He often volunteers them for weddings and other social functions and likes to take longtime customers from the restaurant for spins around town. In October, Scott drove to a regional meeting in Pennsylvania of the Antique Automobile Club of America, of which he’s a longtime member, but not behind the wheel of one of his classics, which can sometimes be temperamental over long distances.

“For that trip,” Scott says, “I just took my Ford pickup.”

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