An Eye for Luxury

A prolific collector of Rolls-Royce autos, Rodd Sala has found a true calling in these one-of-a-kind cars.

Rodd Sala has owned more than 1,000 Rolls-Royces over the decades. Some of his collection is on display in the museum-like showroom at Park-Ward Motors in Crystal Lake. (Samantha Behling photo)

Consider, for a moment, the grandest luxury names around the world. There’s Chanel, of course, and Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. And then Rolex, Cartier, Tiffany’s and Hermes. And don’t forget Dior and maybe even Petrossian Caviar.

Yet, in all the world of luxury is there a single name as esteemed, as instantly recognizable, as that of British carmaker Rolls-Royce? It’s been considered the world’s greatest auto maker since before World War II – no small matter, considering that, for decades, many Americans have measured their living standards by the cars they drive.

Yes, Cadillac has a certain resonance, but Cadillac is merely a Detroit legend. The Rolls-Royce name is truly global, the one plush possession of billionaires and heads of state on every continent.

The special-occasion guy who might pop for a $300 bottle of Chanel No. 5 for his wife’s birthday isn’t likely to be found in a Rolls-Royce showroom studying the latest $500,000 Phantom.

Listen closely to Rodd Sala, however, and he will bust the Rolls-Royce pricing myth wide open. Yes, the newest Phantom is priced at a half-million dollars while the leather seats and burl walnut on the dashboard still have that new-car smell. But Sala’s specialty is vintage Rolls-Royce and Bentley (the sibling to Rolls-Royce), 30-and 40-year-old cars with low mileage and affordable prices. How affordable? What if Rodd were to tell you he could put you into a 25-year-old Rolls-Royce, complete with defining vertical grill and Flying Lady hood ornament, for less than you bought your last Honda Accord?

A transplanted Australian, Sala is the owner of Park-Ward Motors, 6115 Lou Ave., in Crystal Lake, where he specializes in the sales of luxury cars, most of them Rolls-Royces built between the 1930s and 2000. His real focus, though, is on the first “modern” car issued by Rolls-Royce, the Silver Shadow, built in England between 1965 and 1980. Many are priced under $40,000, with some going as low as $20,000. Yet they have low mileage, often under 50,000 on the odometer, and run smoothly.

Sala is ready to let you in on a secret. “The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is one of the most undervalued cars to be found anywhere,” he says. “Take it out on the road and most people will assume that you paid $100,000 or more for the car.”

That value assessment can be extended to the full range of vintage Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, from the magisterial Silver Clouds built in the 1950s and available today for $50,000 to the pedestrian-looking Silver Spurs that headlined the brand through the 1980s and ‘90s and now sell for around $25,000 or so.

It’s the most knowledgeable connoisseurs of vintage cars who are likely to take advantage of such upside-down valuations. Most people may only know that current Rolls-Royce models start at $325,000 and beyond. What the ordinary car buyer doesn’t know is that most Rolls-Royces of any era have been acquired by collectors and babied from the day they were purchased. For many owners, a Rolls-Royce is a third or fourth car driven only for special occasions, often accumulating a couple of thousand miles or less each year while getting constant attention from the family mechanic. Yet the depreciation is severe because vintage car buyers are fearful of repair costs on British-made vehicles for which replacement parts are a trans-Atlantic transaction. Sala, however, has a staff of a dozen trained mechanics and an inventory of parts to repair any fender-bender or “failure to proceed.”

Sala has actually spent most of his life thinking about and collecting Rolls-Royces. He is recognized as such an expert that mechanics call from all over the world seeking advice on repairs and restoration projects. With an inventory of 30 to 40 cars in his 20,000-square-foot shop south of Crystal Lake’s downtown (it doubles as a museum, with the public invited to visit on appointment), he ranks among the biggest-volume classic Rolls-Royce dealers anywhere. The marketplace is decidedly narrow, with about 4,000 new Rolls-Royces sold worldwide each year. Ford sells nearly that many of its F-series trucks each day.

Sala was born in 1962 in Perth, Australia, one of four sons born to a father who had emigrated from Italy and who was an engineer, inventor and Down Under employee of the NASA space program through the 1960s and ‘70s working on a satellite tracking station positioned in the region. Rodd was just 9 when he got his first look at a Rolls-Royce. A neighbor’s relative pulled up in a 1967 model in classic garnet color.

“The passenger window was open on that car, and I put my 9-year-old head inside and I was overwhelmed by all the wood, and leather and chrome. I told my parents it looked like a piece of antique furniture on wheels,” Sala remembers. “That’s where the love affair began. A view of that car changed my life.”

As a teenager, Sala’s older brothers were drawn to fast hot rods. He preferred big, stately luxury four-door sedans. Before he had a driver’s license, Rodd regularly caught a bus into downtown Perth to peruse car dealerships and collect brochures. The Rolls-Royce showroom was his favorite destination. Salesmen didn’t know what to make of the precocious car-loving youngster, though at age 14 Rodd’s father allowed him to pick out a new sedan for the family: a Holden Premier.

“I rode my bike down to the dealership at the age of 14 and I negotiated the model, and color and price by myself,” Sala says. Just three years later, his dad bought him a used car of his own – a Holden Statesman de Ville that was the equivalent of a Cadillac (it was made by the Australian division of General Motors). A few years later, he acquired his first European car, a used 1979 BMW 733i.

Then came the big leap: Sala’s dad sold his technology business and shared the proceeds among his sons. In 1984, at the age of 22, Rodd bought a 1977 Silver Shadow II, with a white exterior and burgundy interior. “I felt like King Farouk driving it down the street,” he says.

Sala was just warming up. He began to acquire a succession of used Rolls-Royces, fixing them up and then selling them at a profit. He was hardly in his mid-20s when Park-Ward was born in Perth with an inventory of a dozen cars or so. “All the small secondhand dealers in town got to know me well,” he recalls. “I was doing deals.”
He was also doing deals with new technology companies his father was starting up, rising to CEO while still making time to open his little dealership every Saturday. Within a space of two decades he had owned more than 200 Rolls-Royces. “I regarded myself then and now as a collector who also happens to buy and sell,” says Sala.

After a tour working in London, Sala was in Chicago on business in 2005 when he met a northwest suburban resident. They soon married and he relocated to the area. They settled in a big house in Barrington Hills where Sala reformed Park-Ward with a small inventory of three cars. His world turned upside down, however, as the 2008-2009 recession wiped out much of his personal savings and the marriage devolved into divorce. No fan of Chicago’s climate, Sala might have decamped from the area but for his sons, Joseph, 17, and Oliver, 12, who live much of each week with their mother in Lake Zurich. Sala lives in Algonquin, 5 minutes from Park-Ward, and rents out a baronial five-bedroom house he still owns in North Barrington.

Joseph “gets the marque,” says Sala, but Oliver, like any youngster, is wrapped up in schoolboy sports like baseball and basketball. He’s taken for granted the Rolls-Royces. Until recently, that is. “I now pick him up at school in a Rolls-Royce and his friends ooh and aah over the cars he gets to ride in,” says Sala. “I think he’s starting to understand how special these cars are now.”

Special and luxurious, yes. But also a hard business. Profit margins have been shrinking for years as buyers have grown practiced at comparing prices online. Every time Sala posts a ’79 Silver Shadow for sale at $39,000 (the original price at retail was around $90,000), prospective customers are comparing it to similar models in St. Louis, Atlanta and Miami. Other dealers don’t put in the same degree of elbow grease to get the cars in top condition. Sala says most of his trade is with men between the ages of 40 and 70 who have the itch to own luxury with a story and history behind it.

Sala, who has headquartered Park-Ward in Crystal Lake since 2016, when he moved from smaller facilities in Cary, cuts a dashing figure around the shop with a thick crop of swept-back salt-and-pepper hair and blue jeans topped by a blazer. His office has a distinctly British look, with leather books set into thick mahogany paneling and a collection of Scotch and other whiskies ready to pour. The tanned, deeply lined face and the raspy voice betray an addiction to Marlboros as well as Italian pipes.

Sala’s interest in Rolls-Royce and Bentley ceases around the year 2000, when the original company split up and sold its business to Volkswagen (Bentley) and BMW (Rolls-Royce). He is desultory in his opinions about the quality of recent models, which are mostly produced in Germany and merely assembled in England.

“The Rolls-Royces of today are cheaply made, with poor craftsmanship,” Sala asserts. “The Rolls-Royce of today is a glorified BMW. The German company is simply riding on the Rolls-Royce name.”

And so Sala contents himself with his own collection from a classic era. On Saturdays, his off day, he’ll often come by Park-Ward and recline in one of the leather chairs in the center of the showroom. “I never get tired of admiring the lines of these magnificent motorcars,” he says. “We aren’t likely to see cars this fine ever built again, and I see it as my role to keep them alive.”

H. Lee Murphy is a Geneva-based writer and proud owner of two Rolls-Royces.