When a couple of dozen Rolls-Royces purr up to a club meeting
Fitchburg, Mass. — What's a snazzy new Pontiac Trans-Am, a Dodge Ramcharger, or an old nondescript red ragtop doing in a place like this?
Sitting on the road outside, that's what.
But a short trip up the driveway of the elegant white house, complete with a player piano inside and a small electronic organ out, sits a bevy of Rolls-Royce automobiles, with one of them dating back to 1926.
It's the monthly meeting of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club, New England region.
Two signs on each side of the blacktop drive proclaim: ''RR and Bentley only on premises. Thank you.'' It was signed G. Martel.
Gerry Martel, owner of the Fitchburg Music Store and an automobile buff from way back, is host to the day's gathering.
Besides owning a 1954 aluminum-body Bentley himself, one of 207 made by Rolls-Royce and once owned by Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, Mr. Martel also has a 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud; an ''R-R station wagon'' - that's right, a station wagon - which started out as a '72 Ford LTD Country Squire; a boat-tail Auburn of 1936; and the Martel Continental - a '78 Chevrolet Corvette with a specially designed body by Steven Prescott Avery.
You'd never recognize there was a Corvette under the skin.
As for the ''Rolls-Royce wagon,'' Mr. Martel says that the people at R-R ''slapped my wrist but said I'd done a good job.''
''I bought the Rolls-Royce nose, fenders, bumpers, etc., from a dealer and 'interpreted' them into a 1972 Ford Country Squire,'' Martel says. ''Rolls-Royce said I could build 10 - and I built nine and sold them to people in Florida and California who already owned R-R sedans but wanted something distinctive in a wagon.''
Before the afternoon was over some 20 or 25 Rolls-Royces came up the drive, most of the owners wanting to ''shoot the breeze,'' compare notes, and learn how to make minor, or maybe even major, car repairs.
The September meet will be much more technical, says Don Marquis, chairman of the group, who owns a motel on Cape Cod.
Harvey Yazijian, who was with the New England Telephone Company for many years and is president of the club, drove up in a 1934 fixed-head coupe, the body built by Windovers.
After a while Paul Walter, a development engineer retired from Wyman Gordon of Worcester, Mass., a major defense contractor, and now a farmer in New Braintree, Mass., dropped by. His car? A 1926 R-R roadster that needs some work, he says, but which looked pretty good to me. He paid only $800 for the car in 1952, but it required major restoration work at the time, including the rebuilding of the floor and roof because the car had been through a fire.
Mr. Walter does all his own restoration work on his cars - some 20 of them, but only one is a Rolls - because, he explains, ''it's my hobby.'' After weeding the garden or getting in the hay on his 400-acre farm, he then hops over to one of his many cars and increases the value by upgrading it.
Besides the Rolls, he has a 1911 Oakland, some Whippets and V-16 Cadillacs, an array of early Fords, and a steam car.
''A White steamer, or maybe a Stanley?'' I ask.
''Don't know,'' he replies, explaining he had never been able to trace its origin.
''I do all the restoration work myself,'' Walter explains, ''usually spending about two years on a car to bring it up to snuff.'' The Rolls-Royce fixed-head coupe took six years, he adds.
John Weidman, a sculptor, dropped by. He had done some of the artwork on the Martel grounds. The alfresco organ continues to play and the attendees go on munching.
Indeed, everything seems well in the R-R family. Yet the manufacturer itself is going through a depression of sorts as sales drop off and the distributor cuts back on its estimate of US sales this year from an earlier 1,300 to about 1 ,000. And that's a lot of money on either side of the Atlantic.
At a base price of $111,000 for the two-year-old Silver Spirit - and the Camargue and Corniche convertible many tens of thousands of dollars upstream - there is a huge bundle of money at stake.
Rolls-Royce isn't perturbed by the situation, though. In typical British fashion, and with a stiff upper lip, it will simply wait out the downturn - and go merrily on its way.
Meanwhile, it was a good day at the Martel residence here, some 50 miles west of Boston, and the Rolls-Royces soon headed for home.
And I end up walking down the driveway to my car.
Pity it isn't a Rolls.