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The Man Behind America’s Best Silver Ghost
By Ruby Rae Scalera

In 1957, when Veasey Cullen got his first Rolls Royce at the ripe age of 12, there was no ‘antique cars’ section of the newspaper. Instead, the 1924 Silver Ghost was listed under ‘used cars’, and when a local police officer saw Cullen and his father getting the car home, he asked if they had paid for it, or been paid to take it away.

“That was the culture in the ‘50s,” Cullen explains. “The V8s were coming in, and the antiques were something — get rid of that, get that off the lot.” But Cullen’s interest in classic Rolls Royces had been piqued from the start.

While Rolls Royce was and remains particular about matching engine numbers, transmission numbers, and chassis numbers, they were gearing their marketing towards the interchangeable nature of the car’s bodies. Some families had a winter and a summer body, and some simply upgraded to the newest design, which added value to the luxury car, priced between $16,000 – $18,000 new, when a Ford at the time would cost just $400. But to the Cullens, having an easy to replace body, could not be measured in dollars. Instead, it meant the future of their father-son project.

But just as their chassis was anything but ordinary, the body came with a story of its own. It had belonged to a man named McCormick, a then publisher for the Chicago Tribune, who had the car bullet-proofed, after the Tribune’s writing on Al Capone and the Chicago gangs had gotten a reporter fatally shot, just three blocks from the newspaper’s office.

The car’s body, picked up in St. Louis, had inch and a quarter glass in the windows, and steel around the doors and the roof, a valiant attempting at bulletproofing a convertible. And, while the bulletproofing eventually went, the body did not. They kept the body on the car throughout its multiple restorations, and it remains today – the first car that Cullen helped to rebuild, and still a large part of his collection.

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“In the 50s, restorations were cleanup efforts. You’d basically clean up something, and then you’d have it run,” Cullen explains. “It really wasn’t the same kind of restoration work that we do today.” It wasn’t the same kind of restoration that Cullen did in the 1980s and 1990s either, when he brought the car back to former glory, winning it acclaim as the best Silver Ghost in the country.

It seems many of the treasures that pass through Veasey Cullen’s collection come with a story. When he was still very young, he visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn with his father. There he saw a classic Rolls Royce chassis, one of what used to be called pre-war cars, which he remembers quite clearly. In 2005 that same Rolls Royce came up for sale, a 1913 L & E Tourer, London-Edinburgh Tourer, named after a style of performance racing at the time. The car had been worked on by the highest caliber mechanics, and Cullen knew it was a solid, well-cared for automobile, . So he bought it – the Rolls Royce he had seen as a young boy in the Henry Ford Museum.

Along with it, he got a history of the Ford Museum, how the car had been donated in 1941, and then, in the late sixties, the Museum was interested in going to all American automobiles, and it went through several hands, before ending up in his collection. The L & E chassis was designed for speed, capable of reaching nearly 101 miles per hour.

“Could you imagine that? And, of course, you’re sitting out in the middle of the air and you got these little twelve-inch brakes behind you,” Cullen says, laughing. “It probably took them half a century to stop it.” There was no stopping Veasey Cullen though, as he worked tirelessly to prepare the L&E for this year’s Amelia Island Concours that took place in March.

For Cullen, working on the cars, whether it’s the 1924 Silver Ghost in a Buffalo, NY winter, or the rare L&E Tourer for a high-class concours, is half the fun. His workshop is an organizer’s dream, with binders and manuals dated and filed, hundreds of cubby holes and drawers, for every loose pin, bolt, or nut that he might find a car for. A dentist by day, Cullen finds that the best way to fix a car is to not do anything at all. He says that many people fall into the trap of taking apart the cars first, and then they’re stuck trying to rebuild the puzzle. He avoids the mystery by meticulously photographing his projects as he goes, so he never has to guess where a part might belong.

“[Rolls Royce] just went ahead and did everything as perfectly as they could,” he says. “And so I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve enjoyed the machining and making things and trying to do it their way.” Doing it their way hasn’t always been easy, however, and Cullen admits that the most difficult part of working on and restoring classic Rolls Royces has been to reach the caliber of the original car.

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“That was probably the biggest challenge,” he says, “to make sure it’s done the Rolls way.” Cullen has gone on many tours with his cars, and often times when cars have trouble, it’s in the spot where the owner tried to fix or modify something themselves, instead of adhering to the original design of the car.  “One guy said, ‘it’s pretty hard to outthink Rolls Royce.’” Cullen recalls, “Because they made such a quality product that was so well thought through.”

Rolls wasn’t always the perfect machine, however. While they saw enormous success during the early part of the 1900s, by the late 20s and early 30s, they began to seem out of date. They had been far ahead of their time for the Great War decade, but when they entered the American market, following the war’s end, they were surprised to find just how advanced the engineering in American cars had become.

“American was alive with engineering innovation and Rolls was sort of stagnant at that point,” Cullen says. “That’s been interesting – to try and understand a little bit of the history, what to do and mechanically how to solve problems.”

In addition to getting involved mechanically, Cullen had participated in several classic rallies and tours. The biggest so far has been the Alpine Tour, a reenactment of a classic Roll Royce endurance and skill contest that sent drivers through the Alps of the Austria-Hungary Empire. In 1912, under the hand of a driver named Ridley, the car failed to complete a hill climb, and several passengers were forced to get out. This embarassed Rolls Royce so much, that for the 1913 trials they reengineered their cars, adding a four speed gearbox and larger carburetor, as well as other modifications to increase speed. It did the trick. In 1913 Rolls Royce placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, then claimed they were the best in the world and refused to compete again. In 1993 there was a reenactment of the Alpine Tour, and everyone there enjoyed it so much that in 2003 Cullen shipped his car to Felixstowe, England, crossed the channel and went through Europe, driving through the Alps in a run of about 3,000 miles.

“It’s a pretty severe test of a car with those hills… You’re talking about some pretty serious hills,” Cullen says of the tour. “But it was just a wonderful way to see Europe, just a wonderful way to tour.” He enjoyed the trip so much that he went back in 2013, taking a different route after the car had been shipped to England. And he has no intention of stopping. Currently on his desk is a pamphlet about a 30 day Silver Ghost Tour in Ireland. And while he expresses some reservations about driving on the opposite side of the road, Cullen is excited to tour in a new place, with a historic car.

“The Silver Ghost is the longest running model style of any car ever made. It was six months longer than the Model-T Ford,” Cullen says, referring to the 1913 and 1924 Silver Ghosts in his collection. “It was the first model, the first big model, major model, that Rolls produced, it was one that was pretty successful for a lot of years.” He adds that part of the draw is being surrounded by like minded car enthusiasts, also of the belief that cars shouldn’t remain in the garage all year round. “This group likes to get out and drive the cars,” he adds.

RR2When he drives to work, Cullen takes his F350 pickup truck. But when he comes home, he has his choice of four Rolls Royces and two Mercedes, to drive or restore, and for now he claims he has a full plate, though recent restorations of the Amelia Island model has lessened the load a little. But for Cullen, a car enthusiast with the passion and excitement for history and restoration, there will always been another project on the horizon, another tour to take or new element of the car’s history to discover.

“I get the pleasure of working on them myself, I get a lot of different kinds of jazz,” Cullen says. “To me, setting a car up so it really performs like that is really fun.” But Cullen acknowledges that there are many types of car enthusiasts.

I have a lot of the original technical sheets, because I was young and interested, always interested, and it’s sort of fun to know about that,” he says. “So I say, follow your passion, follow what you like and just enjoy it.”

 

Images provided by Veasey Cullen. 

Special thanks to Matt Ringler for his excellent videography. Find his work here