Is that my million--dollar baby?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If it's not one thing, it's another, right? First, the maid takes a day off and no one else knows how to work the vacuum cleaner. Then the gardener quits (and who can you find these days to mow an acre of lawn?). To top it off, the Rolls has a scratch. Not a large one, mind you, and it's tucked beneath the front bumper on the fender. But a scratch on the Rolls is, well, intolerable. So into the shop it goes.

The "shop," the only shop for a Los Angeles Rolls-Royce, is James Young Coachworks. It is the largest and most famous Rolls-Royce repair shop -- if one could stoop to call it that -- outside of London. The owners prefer the term "auto restoration facility." Whatever needs "doing" to a Rolls, any Rolls of any vintage, can be done here to suit the most finicky of owners. Indeed, finicky ranks as the second best adjective, right behind rich, applied to Rolls-Royce owners.

They are, for the most part, members in good standing of the money-is-no-object-if-you-have-to-ask-how-much-it-costs-you-can't-afford-it crowd. Not too surprisingly, many (perhaps most) of them live in Southern California. Over half the Rolls-Royce shipped to the US -- the company's largest market -- end up purring down West Coast freeways.

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And when the purr starts to sputter, when a wheel begins to wobble, if the paint threatens to peel or the leather looks too lean; when the horn won't honk or a latch becomes unhinged -- whatever the problem -- that is when the craftsmen at James Young go to work with their deft combinations of skill and tender loving care.

However, fixing is not necessarily their forte. They change and restore with a passion, spurred on by whatever whim the owner has and bound only by his or her checkbook and certain restriction of taste implicit in the fact "that the car is, after all, a Rolls-Royce," comments service manager John Beaton in a thick Scottish brogue.

Beyond that, says part-owner Preston Tyree, the sky can be, and often is, the limit. "We had one guy come in here who wanted everything to be electric. He didn't want to move out of his seat for anything. We ended up putting 20 electric pushbuttons in the console. We even made it so that he could push a button and the backseat folded out into a bed. The important thing about that, though, was that it had to look exactly like a Rolls-Royce back seat when folded up."

then there was the Hollywood producer who wanted to watch not only television but also his own movies while gliding through traffic. He had James Young install the television in the back seat console and a video tape recorder up front (next to the chauffeur. For those who might have seen it, the car, a blue Rolls-Royce Phantom V, made a stunning appearance in the movie "Two Minute Warning.")

A Corniche (convertible) owner decided he did not like the color scheme of his car, so he brought it over from Hawaii and had it changed. "I couldn't believe it," says Mr. Tyree. "The car had 16,000 miles on it. That's almost new for a Rolls. The guy had it changed from blue to brown, everything: the outside, the top, the interior. It cost him $25,000."

Though the company bears his name, James Young is present in influence only. During his lifetime, Los Angeles, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind frontier town, scarcely tickled the prestige scale that came with a Rolls. Englishman James Young was a coachbuilder for Rolls-Royce during the early part of the century, and the owners, as well as most of the craftsmen here, think he built the best of the Rolls. They borrowed his name as a kind of tribute.

Between 45 and 100 Rolls-Royces rub elbows at any one time on the 1 1/2 acre lot, says service manager Beaton. They range from the 1920s vintage two-passenger Phantom III built for the Prince of Nepal, worth about $250,000 and guarded by a decidedly unfriendly Doberman, to a 1979 Corniche in for a minor tuneup.

"The place is really six little businesses in one," says the firm's public relations man Joseph Molina. "One shop does woodwork, another does leather work [the Connally leather that covers a Roll's seat comes from cows specifically bred for that purpose], another does mechanics, another paints, and another makes gadgets. We even have one room just for pre-World War II engines."

Understandably, parts often prove hard to come by. A Rolls lasts forever, but not always the handle that rolls up the window separating chauffeur from back seat passenger. When the company cannot buy a part, Iancu Filip makes it.

A Rumanian immigrant, Mr. Filip comes from a family that has been in the coach building business for 120 years. He approaches his work at James Young with all the reluctance of a kid in a candy store. "We can build a Rolls-Royce right here if we want," he says, proudly hauling out the numerous latches, hinges, electric motors, and other pieces he has made for the likes of fold-down tray tables and electric windows. Over in the body shop, they can make a new fender; and in the woodshop, front and rear consoles of all shapes and functions are renewed or made from scratch.

Even a mess such as the Silver Shadow out back that looks as if it backed into some giant Cuisinart, is not hopeless. At least not for a price somewhere in the tens of thousands. The difference between James Young and other restoration shops is that the whole job can be done under one roof. And owners who possess a not altogether rational attachment to their autos feel secure in the knowledge that Beaton, a factory-trained mechanic, and his assistants display the requisite reverence. One gentleman arrived to inspect his newly-painted (25 coats) Rolls with a magnifying glass, spending the better part of an hour searching for flaws. He found none, at least according to Mr. Tyree.

Although customers may saunter onto the lot to inspect their cars at any time , it's not always advisable. A Rolls-Royce in mid-restoration is not a pretty sight. The interior might be gutted and strewn among tools, wood shavings, and seat remnants. The fenders might be off, the paint stripped to bare metal, or the engine missing. "People bring us their babies," says Mr. Molina, and seeing them in less-than-elegant attire is an unwelcome jolt.

The piece de resistance at James Young Coachworks, though, is the Rolls-Royce limousine. The shop is one of the few places, probably the only place, in this country where an individual can order a limo graced by the famous Flying Lady. The Rolls-Royce company in England judges US safety "crash" tests to be an insult, according to James Young Coachworks, and therefore will not export its limousines across the Atlantic.

Despair not, O wealthy one. Preston Tyree can solve your transportation problems. At any given time, he has on the lot about 10 Rolls-Royce Phantom V limousines. They were built by the original James Young Coachworks in the early '60s, and for a modest down payment, say $50,000, the new James Young Coachworks will rebuild one from the inside out, to suit any specifications. A new interior, a new exterior, tinted windows, telephone, TV, refrigerator: whatever the heart desires (although they did turn down a jacuzzi request).

A rebuilt James Young Coachworks Rolls-Royce Phantom V limousine even comes with a warranty to match the factory's. Once again, if you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can't afford it, but since you asked, the price tag definitely lives in the high rent district, somewhere between $100,000 and $150, 000, depending on the accessories.

A James Young body also belongs to the more classic Rolls-Royce tradition. Long, sweeping, curved lines with a humpback trunk. Not the straighter lines, squared off at either end, that the English firm introduced in the '70s. So the limo "made" in Los Angeles really is not available anywhere else.

On top of its restoration and customizing business, James Young Coachworks does a thriving trade in pre-owned (never "used") Rolls. Although inflation has taken a mild toll on sales, the trend shows a steady upward direction, says sales manager Robin Taylor. "People recognize that it is an investment. A Rolls appreciates in value, a claim not many other manufacturers can make. It won't appreciate for the first couple of years, but you know that the factory is going to raise its prices every few years, so you can count on the value of your car going up between 8 and 10 percent a year."

Mr. Molina calls the cars "rolling real estate."

What kind of person buys a Rolls-Royce? "All kinds," says Mr. Taylor. "We get people in here who have saved up for years for the goal of owning a Rolls. We get a lot of new money, too, people who have made it in business and are anxious to show off their success . . . It's interesting, though, that most of the people who come in here feel they have to have a reason for buying the car. It's almost like they feel they have to have an excuse." A significant portion of his customers are salesmen and real estate agents, anxious to impress clients with a sign of success.

The company is owned by three people, brothers Preston and Greg Tyree and a colorful multimillionaire named George Rabinoff. The Tyrees run the company while Mr. Rabinoff stays in the background. "He is a car collector who, basically, had so many cars he turned his hobby into a business." The Tyrees have been buying and restoring cars since they were in high school. "We got tired of sending cars from shop to shop for different jobs and losing money while waiting for them to finish," says Preston, so they began their own business.

They started James Young Coachworks in 1977 with a small, one bay shop but soon expanded to the current location with over a dozen bays. Word of their operation spread quickly, and their list of customers reads like the guest roster for the Academy Awards presentation. Business must be good since Greg Tyree was in the midst of closing a deal on a $250,000 house while I was there.

Not bad for a pre-owned car salesman.

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