Approaching Rupert and Jan Grey’s remote countryside bolthole, nestled at the end of a quiet and overgrown rustic lane at the foot of picturesque hills filled with nothing but the gentle sounds of a midsummer’s morning, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
And just as you think the scene couldn’t get any more perfect – a vision of the country idyll straight out of Wordsworth or Clare – there, poking out of the barn, sits a battered and bruised 1937 Rolls-Royce, careworn and threadbare; an ageing relic seemingly forgotten by time.
Such is the weathered majesty of the car, the aluminium body worn bare under human touch and layered with a dozen shades of black and silver, that it’s something of a shock when Rupert thumbs the starter, churning the big 4257cc straight-six into life with a gentle cough and the quiet clatter of pushrods.
“It’s a 25/30,” he shouts as he reverses out of the barn, “not one of the expensive models. I refer to it as the common man’s Rolls.
“I polish it once every six months or so and the patina is just gorgeous, though the pigeon shit is a pain; they keep coming in and I keep throwing them out.
“The only part that I know isn’t original is the rear driver’s-side wing, because it got knocked clean off by a London taxi in the early 1970s. It was lying in the road.”
“It was commissioned by a Lady Edgecumbe in 1936,” he continues, “and eventually it ended up in my father’s hands. He was a doctor in London with a private practice in Kensington.
“I think he liked the idea of having a Rolls-Royce to visit his upmarket patients. I would go with him as a child, and my job was to unscrew the angel and follow him into these fabulous houses.
“While he went upstairs I would sit with the servants: I have a very clear memory of sitting and talking in these extraordinary kitchens.”
Grey’s father kept the car until his death in 1982, when the down-at-heel Royce, a perfect picture of faded grandeur, passed to his son.
“It was still sort of running,” Rupert says, “but he hadn’t done anything significant to it for a long time – it was pretty clapped-out.
“I did a lot of work on it, replacing a cracked head and various other things, and it worked fine for another 15 years. Then it began to need serious money spending on it, and was off the road for about a decade.”
While the Rolls-Royce was in dry dock, Grey plied his trade as a lawyer and photojournalist, travelling the world – often with Jan and their young family in tow.
Their adventures took the couple and their three daughters – Katherine, Rose and Carmody – everywhere from Fiji to Bangladesh, including expeditions to the headwaters of one of the most remote rivers in Borneo and a river crossing in Sumatra.
The Rolls-Royce, meanwhile, never ventured further than France for the occasional family holiday.
“The idea to take the Rolls across India had been brewing for a long time,” Rupert explains. “I was in Counsel’s Chambers at Gray’s Inn when I met a chap who told me the tale of a maharaja who came to London in the 1930s.
“He went to the showroom in Berkeley Square and got a cold reception because of his appearance, before asking the salesman how many models he had and promptly ordering one of each. He was so incensed at his treatment that he converted them to dustcarts.
“That thumbing of his nose at the Empire, as it then was, sparked my interest.”
With help from a member of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club and countless marque fans dotted across India, Grey began to chart their route through the continent.
“About six months before we left the car was working pretty well. Then, during the cold winter of 2011, I forgot to put in coolant and it froze.
“All of the core plugs were forced out by the ice, so I realised it was a full rebuild job and we didn’t have very long to do it.
“We found a brilliant guy in Waterlooville, Jim Stokes of Jim Stokes Workshops, who loved the idea and rebuilt the car right down to the gearbox.
“It cost a small fortune but we were much comforted when Jim said he would personally fly out and fix it if anything went wrong; his parting shot was that the car was in the same condition as when it left the factory at Derby.”
With the mechanical components overhauled, including fitting the clutch from a London cab – the best in the business, reckons Grey – the pair began final preparations for the journey ahead.
“We couldn’t tie stuff on to the boot because we couldn’t see it: you never know who’s riding on the back or removing things,” he says, gesturing backwards through the incredibly small rear window.“
I was worried that an adventurous child would fall off and be injured without our knowing, so we adopted a policy of never opening the boot, except when we were stopped and using it as a table.”
“We were inspired to fit a roof-rack by an engaging antiques dealer who I used to know,” explains Grey. “He had a place in Wales and would deliver furniture on the roof of his 1970s Rolls-Royce.
“He and his Rolls lurched down rough country roads, chests of drawers straining at the ropes. I just thought: ‘This is real style.’”
Because the roof was never designed to carry any great weight it had to be reinforced with structural steel, a beautifully angled piece of which is delicately filleted into each A-pillar.
“You can’t see it; it’s very cleverly done. The rack had to be made from lightweight aluminium to minimise the risk of overturning, a rule I picked up on Land-Rover expeditions in rainforests.”
Modifications were also made to the left-hand front wing, with a recess formed to accommodate an extra spare wheel in a mirror image of the factory set-up, while deadbolts were fitted to each front door to prevent them being opened by mistake.
“I was worried – rightly, as it turned out – that children would jump on the running boards. They would hang on to the doorhandle, which could have sent them flying.”
After a year’s delay the car finally made landfall in Mumbai in 2012, arriving in the midst of a biblical monsoon followed by baking heat.
“We spent three days extracting the car from customs, which occupied the most unlikely few days I’ve probably ever had in my life,” says Grey.
“It was completely gripping: there wasn’t a computer in the entire place and we had to get 27 signatures from 27 babus [clerks].
“When we finally emerged the streets were six inches under water, but as we reached Gujarat the rain gave way to intense sun. The rear bonnet vent spring never worked – we propped it open with a cork after quickly drinking a bottle of wine!”
Meanwhile their godson, Oliver McGarvey, was scheduled to join the tour having recently left film school in Paris.
“Left or thrown out – I’m not sure which,” laughs Grey, “but he turned out to be a brilliant filmmaker. At first we said no, but he was persuasive and we love him, so we agreed that he could join us for a couple of weeks. Of course he made himself indispensable and was the best company. So he stayed for six months.”
Grey’s fears of the Rolls-Royce overheating continued as the trio reached the region’s largest city, Ahmedabad, coming to a standstill in suffocating heat, stuck behind lorries abandoned by their drivers.
“The temperature gauge got up to 100 and I knew if it got much hotter the engine would be damaged, and if I turned it off it wouldn’t restart until it cooled,” recalls Grey.
“At which point the crowd realised we were there. At first they thought it was marvellous, but gradually the mood became hostile.The temperature gauge continued rising. At that moment the truck in front of us moved and we shot away at full throttle. We don’t get nervous very often, but we were nervous then.”
From there, the explorers embarked on an epic journey north and east, through Udaipur, Jaipur and Lucknow before striking into the Himalayas and climbing towards Kathmandu, a section of the journey that proved the biggest challenge for the Barker-bodied Rolls.
“It was fine at altitude,” says Grey. “It rocketed up the Himalayas – and indeed down again! Descending 8000 feet in two hours, of course the brakes started making a massive protest.
“We got to where we were staying and I took off all four wheels to adjust the drums. Jim had taught me how to do it but I’d never actually done it, let alone four of them in the middle of India.”
As the weeks rolled on, Rupert and Jan began to acclimatise to a slower mode of transport and a quicker pace of life, immersing themselves in the sights and sounds of the vibrant country.
“We had the windscreen open, and sitting in the front of a car like that with the world floating past you was magical,” he says.
“We never went particularly fast, we just sort of floated along, Jan watching out for mad drivers and I for the massive potholes and sleeping policemen that are endemic on roads on the subcontinent.
“The smells of India would come through the car – the open drains, the scent of blossom, market stalls, roti cooking on open fires and that sort of thing.
“We ate almost entirely at street stalls during the day and often at night, unless we were staying somewhere posh. Of course the only time you get bellyache is when you have a posh meal.”
Staying in maharajas’ palaces in Rajasthan, cheap hotels in Uttar Pradesh and timber-framed houses high in the Naga Hills, the Greys marked the halfway point in their journey in Bangladesh, where both passengers and their machine were welcomed as guests of honour at Chobi Mela, the great international festival of photography and human rights.
“That was the highlight of the journey,” says Grey with a smile. “I had been going to it for years, and many old friends and fellow photographers were there.”
The event was founded by close friend of the couple Dr Shahidul Alam, a photographer and activist jailed and tortured for posting an interview on Facebook, and who in 2018 became a Time magazine Person Of The Year.
“During the procession he sat on the roof smiling, like a Buddah; it was marvellous,” says Grey, who admits that the combination of vintage Rolls-Royce and English aristocrat was perhaps an unlikely symbol at a human rights festival: “But it just worked, everybody loved it.”
The family left the festival on cloud nine, but quickly found themselves under one while hurrying through the night to make it out of Bangladesh before their visa expired, as a hartal was declared for the day they were due to cross back into India.
“A hartal is a political strike,” explains Grey, “but we were not aware of it. Nobody can take a mechanically propelled vehicle on the road, and if you do you become extremely unpopular to the point of potential violence.
“We stopped to ask the way and a crowd gathered, which gradually began to grow more fractious. I edged slowly forward and there was a lot of shouting. Katherine, Carmody and Rose, who’d joined us for the month, were in the back.
“Shouting turned to gesticulating and the crowd came round to the sides of the car; suddenly there was a gap in front of us. I got out of there so bloody fast you have no idea. A few hundred yards later we passed a police station, where we pulled in and kept out of sight for a while.”
Navigating India’s roads proved a challenge in the Rolls-Royce, not least due to the locals’ enthusiastic disregard for any form of regulation or traffic law, with near-suicidal overtaking manoeuvres an everyday occurrence.
But despite countless battle scars picked up during the adventure, it wasn’t always the 25/30 that came off worst.
“We caught a rickshaw – one on each wing,” says Grey. “I was drifting along very slowly in a traffic jam, telling a story to our daughters in the back, when suddenly there were shouts of protest from the front.
“I turned around to find the Rolls’ bumper had caught two motorised rickshaws, one on each side, and was slowly turning them around: instead of going forwards they were going sideways and in danger of tipping over.
“Of course they were full.There must have been 10 people in each one. We got out and had to lift them off the bumper. No damage was done and we laughed about it afterwards, but at the time I felt like an idiot.”
The pair parted with the car at Kolkata, travelling by train to Bangalore in southern India while McGarvey retired his trusty Royal Enfield support vehicle and accompanied the Rolls-Royce in an alarming dilapidated truck along the coast, to be reunited a few days later.
The trio motored from there to Mumbai via Goa. As the trip drew to a close, more than 8000 miles had been covered during six months.
Photographer Grey captured thousands of memories, from the slums of Mumbai to the palaces of the maharajas using his trusty trio of Nikon FM2s and a digital Canon D7, while others were simply etched into the grey-and-black bodywork of the storied Rolls-Royce.
But perhaps the most vivid images are yet to come.
After returning to the UK, McGarvey began editing his footage and, following years of tireless work and with Sharon Stone as executive producer, his imagery and recordings have been brought to life in a motion picture documenting the family’s adventure: Romantic Road.
Will seeing their epic trip from an outside perspective give them a greater understanding of India?
“I don’t think I will ever claim to have an understanding of India,” says Grey. “It’s so complex, so varied, and so different in its parts. We were in love with it when we started and we stayed in love with it throughout.”
Images: Max Edleston/Rupert Grey
Romantic Road is due for cinematic release in the UK on 8 October – find out more here.