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classic cars

A 1977 Silver Wraith II sold for $74,500 when it came out and now can be found used for $20-30,000.

When Tony Tracy was famous inside Indy car racing as Paul Tracy's larger-than-life father, he drove a GMC pickup truck. His Rolls-Royces were reserved for special occasions.

When Paul Tracy won the 1993 Molson Indy, the brown Rolls-Royce Camargue parked along with the paying customers was his father's. As a new car, a Camargue sold for $147,000 in 1975. How much Tony paid he wouldn't say, other than he got it for a bargain price.

Tony Tracy hasn't changed. He picks me up in his 1977 Silver Wraith II and again, he couldn't go wrong. "Driving this car," he says beforehand, "you'll be so comfortable, you'll think you've gone to bed."

Such turns of phrase are transgenerational. With a fearless attitude, Paul Tracy has become the most refreshingly honest and outspoken TV commentator in American racing. Tony himself picked up the gift of gab, one supposes, growing up in Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

Driving by a Petro-Canada station, he says, not for the first time, "Know why they named it that? Pierre Elliott Trudeau Ripped Off Canada, that's what it stands for."

And, "I wouldn't buy a new car today," Tracy says. "They're drive-by-wire disasters. Something goes wrong, you go to the dealership, they get on the phone to head office with the VIN number, some guy there says, 'Replace these parts' and you pay thousands, you've got no choice."

"The last new car I bought? Probably an Impala. With them you hit 'em with a hammer, they start."

He mostly drove GMC pickups during his son's racing career because his company, Trabur Painting, was under contract to GM Canada. Tony was a hands-on boss with paint on his pants and tools in the truck – his company had the original contract to paint the CN Tower.

English cars were always in his dreams, though.

He bought his first Rolls, a 1960 Cloud III, nine years after arriving in Canada with John Diefenbaker as prime minister. Its presence would be one reason, the storied smoothness of the big inline six another.

The man responsible for this Rolls's appearance, John Polwhele Blatchley, as a younger man designed the cowling for the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used in Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. His Silver Cloud, from which the Wraith was derived, ruled the motorways from 1965 through 1980. The Wraith may be far more modern than the Cloud in appearance and specification, yet presence and smoothness remain core attributes.

"They called it the Wraith because its wheelbase is longer than the Cloud's," Tracy explains.

Turn the key and it's as though the engine has been running all the while, but silently. Look to the tachometer to be sure, only to discover there is no tachometer. Some say the earlier six-cylinder was smoother, but the L410 V-8 does purr. The gear selector works electronically, effortlessly, engaging the GM-sourced (Tracy points out) Turbo Hydramatic 400 automatic transmission. Nothing about the Rolls is as intimidating as my memories of Princess Margaret ordering coach-built favourites beyond the imagination of maharajas.

This Wraith is not huge by current standards: the hulking, $329,900 Rolls-Royce Ghost Series III is 230 mm longer, 32 mm higher. Even the current Mercedes-Benz S-Class exceeds the Wraith's dimensions. But is any car finer, more completely hand-built, than the Rolls that sold for $74,500 in 1977 and now can be found for $20,000-30,000? My, how it floats, and how it steers. Rolls-Royce entered the 20th century with the 1965 Ghost's V-8 engine, monocoque construction, rack-and-pinion steering and disc brakes, and by 1977 they knew something about road-holding as well as ride.

"You could put a cup of coffee on the front bumper, drive to Niagara Falls, and drink it on arrival because the car stays level in all circumstances," Tracy says. "It's the same suspension on a Rolls as on a Citroen: hydraulic. When you get in, you can feel the car move to accommodate you."

Tracy has a to-do list that'll keep him busy through the winter: The brakes are done but he's in for refinishing the wood, addressing a rattle or two, perhaps even replacing the Everflex roof covering (on period American cars the counterpart is vinyl).

My favourite single thing: the seats. Their Connolly leather is cracked with age, but they feel like new. Not cushy, hardly plush, they're totally supportive and nothing short of refreshing. Tracy's promise was that I'd find the Wraith as comfortable as going to bed, but the fact is, this betters many a mattress in my past.

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