Mechanic gives American accent to old Rolls-Royces

Saturday, December 25, 2004
Michael O'Malley Plain Dealer Reporter

Berea- Auto mechanic Charlie Barnow, on a lunch break at a beer joint called Polish Village, puts down a sloppy joe to answer a long-distance call on his cell phone.

It's a guy from New Jersey who wants Barnow to put a new Chevy engine into a vintage Rolls Royce. Ten minutes later, he drops the sloppy joe again to answer a West Coast call from a doctor who wants his Rolls fitted with a Dodge V-8.

Barnow, a Berea native who works out of a shop on Depot Street, has a national reputation as a conversion specialist, marrying one type of automotive system to another.

He spent 35 years in the Hollywood, Calif., area building special cars and blending parts from different auto makers - such as Toyota with Ford, or GM with Jeep. His work was prominently featured in dozens of national car magazines.

Now, at age 68, Barnow is back in Berea, tapping into a national market of frustrated Rolls-Royce owners wanting to swap the complicated British technology under their hoods for simpler American horsepower.

"When you see his work, it's amazing," said Tim Olson of Chicago, who hired Barnow to put a new 350-horsepower Chevy V-8 in his 1967 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.

Some Rolls owners are aghast at the idea of desecrating an upper-crust car with a common engine.

But because Rolls-Royce mechanics in America are as rare as dukes and earls, practical travelers like Olson prefer cruising with a Chevy 350 - fixable by any gas-stop mechanic - than with an expensive alien engine.

One engine valve on a Rolls costs $130. A Chevy valve costs about $8.

"If your Rolls-Royce breaks down along the highway, who's going to fix it?" asks Rolls-Royce mechanic Jim Jaworski, 64, who's working with Barnow on the Olson job. "Where are you going to get the parts?"

Jaworski says the Rolls engine, if maintained properly, will run forever. But because of Rolls Royce myths - lifetime guarantees; no need for oil changes - a number of the older cars have been neglected.

Also, because they are collector cars, they sit for long times in storage, which is not good for an engine.

"I'm in business because these cars sit so much," said Jaworski, who conducts Rolls-Royce workshops.

He said swapping neglected Rolls engines for new Chevys keeps the classic cars rolling. Most of the Rolls-Royces he works with were built before 1990.

"The idea is to keep these cars on the road," he said. "Hey, it's a Rolls. You don't cut it up for scrap."

Jaworski and Barnow are a couple of old Berea hot rodders whose heads have been under car hoods for a half-century.

Barnow, the quiet one, builds cars. Jaworski, the talker, fixes them. Both look like old professors poring over schematics and manuals.

Barnow designs parts on a computer screen in his shop and sends the drafts to an Elyria company that makes them out of wood and then to California, where a company casts them. Finally, they're shipped to a company in Columbia Station for tapping and drilling.

Changing the engine in a Rolls requires converting the brake system, which can be a royal pain.

Barnow says the British over-engineered the brake system, making it extremely complicated. "The brake lines look like a telephone switchboard," he says. "People wonder why a brake job on a Rolls costs 10 grand."

The American engines don't quite fit in the British cars. Barnow cuts and reforms the new engines rather than the car frames to make them fit. That way, if a customer wants to return the car to its British pedigree, the Berea boys can yank out the Chevy and drop the Rolls back in.

Other mechanics around the country have tackled engine swaps on Rolls-Royces, but few have the credibility of the Barnow-Jaworski team, says Rolls owner Olson, whose car was half apart last week on Barnow's garage floor.

Olson said he found Barnow's Web site on the Internet and flew to Cleveland with his mechanic last July to check him out.

Barnow and Jaworski picked them up at the airport in a Rolls and took them to lunch at Polish Village.

"We immediately realized these guys knew what they were talking about," said Olson. He expected to be formally wined and dined for his business, but raised an eyebrow when Jaworski wheeled the Rolls up to the side door of the neighborhood saloon.

"They were obviously not trying to sell me on anything," he said. It became even more obvious when Olson had to pay for his own lunch. "We split the bill," he laughed. "Not that I'm complaining."

Olson's car should be completed by next month. The cost? "I don't know yet," said Barnow.

Ballpark figure? "I have no idea," said Olson. "That's one question you don't ask."

He can figure on at least $20,000.

On a recent day, Barnow is standing under the Silver Shadow, which is hoisted high on a lift, checking the Chevy's fit. He likes what he sees - shiny engine chrome reflecting a freshly painted underbody, the big 350 bolted into the engine hold.

"Not bad for a couple of backyard mechanics," he says.

Barnow estimates he has done 3,000 conversions, including engine swaps, two-wheel-drive to four-wheel, gasoline to diesel, foreign systems to American and vice versa.

He rebuilt his first car - a '32 Buick - when he was 15. Jaworski was under a hood at 14.

"The hot rodders stuck together," said Jaworski, having yet another lunch at Polish Village and swapping stories with Barnow about their wild road antics in the late 1950s. The old professors were hell-raisers back then, keeping the police in a sweat.

Jaworski still has a 45-year-old photo of his old garage wall papered with speeding tickets.

Barnow was one of the first overnight guests in the new police station built in the mid-1950s. The cops gave him one phone call. He ordered a pizza.