In Chester County, a Rolls and Bentley repair team

Rich Frawley and Judith Skillings with a '35 Bentley in the couple's Parkesburg, Chester County, shop. The Frawley Co., started in 1984, does mechanical repairs and tune-ups, not body work.
Rich Frawley and Judith Skillings with a '35 Bentley in the couple's Parkesburg, Chester County, shop. The Frawley Co., started in 1984, does mechanical repairs and tune-ups, not body work.
Posted: September 09, 2009

They met at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine. Judith Skillings was a Mount Holyoke student working as a bartender at the officers' club. Richard Frawley was a Navy flier. He was bewitched by her sass; she fell in love with his ready smile and quiet competence.

After they married, Frawley was assigned to teach in the Navy ROTC program at Villanova. They lived in a rented gatehouse in Bryn Mawr. He earned a master's degree in biology, and she attained hers in library and information science.

One day in 1976, a friend told them about an old Jaguar stored in a barn in Berwyn. Skillings, who thought Jaguars were the pinnacle of automotive sophistication, was eager to inspect the relic.

The Jaguar was something to behold, all right, but it was the car next to it that held Frawley in thrall - a 1934 Rolls-Royce.

There's some lapse in memory about how much they paid for it - $1,000, $3,000, $6,000? - but this much is certain: Surrendering to heady impulse, they bought it.

"I was attracted to its styling and mechanical complexity," recalls Frawley. "It looked like fun. Then we got it home and realized how bad it really was."

Nevertheless, the Rolls begot a passion that begot a business - the Frawley Co., devoted to the mechanical restoration, repair and service of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars made before 1981.

"It's a hobby that got out of control," says Frawley - for both of them. Skillings is equally devoted to the business. When not managing accounts and handling customers, she occasionally times engine valves and rewires electrical systems.

Nothing cosmetic

The Frawley Co., launched in 1984, is located in a former machine shop in Parkesburg, Chester County. Frawley, 62, and his two full-time mechanics specialize in bringing mechanical systems up to snuff. They do not do cosmetic stuff.

They are to the grease monkeys at the corner gas station as a Silver Wraith is to a Camaro. Mike Farrell, 59, is a refugee from the corporate world with an MBA. Stan Scantlin, 60, is a master engraver who created bank notes for the U.S. Treasury.

During the last 25 years, Frawley and his associates have worked on more than 260 cars, representing 28 distinct models of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, ranging in vintage from 1913 to 1980. Their customers hail from all over the United States and the world.

They have applied their skills to exquisite vehicles owned in the past by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Mary Martin, Tony Curtis, and the ruler of Bhopal, India.

Some cars are dropped off for a lube and tune-up that might take mere hours. Others might need extensive work and remain for years. Many have been restored to Concours-quality perfection.

"Most of our customers drive their cars and want to go places and enjoy them," says Frawley. "They're not just trailer queens or status symbols."

Lots of mileage

One customer, a woman in her 60s who lives in Exton, owns a 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Since its last overhaul, she has added 50,000 miles, recently driving the burgundy beauty to New Orleans and back.

Typically, those who love these distinctive cars own several. "Owning only one is unusual," says Skillings, 59. A customer in Western Pennsylvania owns six R-Rs, at least one of which is usually in Frawley's shop.

Skillings is more than her husband's partner and helpmate. She is also a car enthusiast herself. Her relationship with British cars began in her teens when she inherited her brother's MGA.

She has retained her maiden name partly because it's also her nom de plume. While removing rust from a cylinder head one day, she realized something about the blasting cabinet where she was performing the task - "You could fit a body in here." That macabre thought inspired Dead End, the first of three published murder mysteries featuring Rebecca Moore, a former reporter who takes over a classic-car restoration shop.

Occupying a preponderant amount of square footage in the shop at the moment is a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, bright yellow, locomotive long, with an open top, a regal ride suitable for Jay Gatsby. Owned by a man in Texas, it is ready to depart after four years of mechanical rehabilitation. So far, it has yielded no dead bodies - not even any interesting bloodstains.

"When it came in, it was a disaster," Frawley says. "It hadn't run in 30 or 40 years."

Frawley smokes a pipe and has the thoughtful manner of a professor. At one time, he aspired to be a veterinarian. He has no formal training as a mechanic. Instead, he gained experience by working for four years for an auto restorer in West Chester. When he went solo, he rejuvenated Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars in the basement garage of his home in Exton.

"He's intuitively mechanical," Skillings says of her husband. "He can look at something and understand the theory behind it."

Fun for him is troubleshooting, attempting to diagnose the myriad ways things can go wrong with these marvelous cars that in many ways are needlessly intricate and overengineered.

Example: The Rolls braking systems are notoriously complicated. To get the brakes redone can easily mean a bill of several thousand dollars.

"I spend half my time correcting things," Frawley says. "When a mechanical system doesn't work, a lot of times it's because it's been modified. So I have to figure out: What did some fool do to it?"

So far, familiarity has bred content – "it's a rare day when I don't learn something" – and Frawley's ardor for these peerless classics is undiminished.

"What appeals to me most is the craftsmanship. Mechanically, these cars were made to be used, and they used the best materials. They deserve their reputation as the finest motorcars. They are very reliable, and before World War I, they were exceptional, way ahead of their time."


If you know of any interesting stories or characters that capture life in the suburbs, contact Art Carey at 610-313-8106 or acarey@phillynews.com.

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