From the standard steel saloon to the early days under VW control, we look at the mainstream post-war Bentley models
Post-war Bentley’s from the MkVI to the new era under Volkswagen.
T he modern Bentley company under its Volkswagen ownership may be a very different beast from the staid company we can recall from the last half of the previous century but in reality its products now are closer in spirit to the original cars produced when the firm was in control of its founder W. O. Bentley.
The much- publicised wrangling between German suitors that saw the RollsRoyce and Bentley brands separated for the first time since 1931 also spelled an end to Bentleys as simply rebadged Rolls- Royce models.
It wasn’t always like that though. Pre-war Bentleys had a proud tradition of engineering excellence and motorsport success but by the early ‘ Thirties it wasn’t enough to keep the firm afloat financially and in 1931 Bentley voluntarily entered receivership after defaulting on mortgage payments.
It was expected that aero engine maker Napier would acquire the firm and an announcement to that effect was even made in the press, but at the last minute a counter-offer was received from an enterprise calling itself the British Central Equitable Trust, which was accepted by the receiver.
That company turned out to be a front for none other than Rolls- Royce, which had bought Bentley purely to remove a competitor from the market. The firm’s premises in Cricklewood, north London was sold off and production of Bentley cars even ceased for a couple of years. The Bentley company itself was liquidated and a new firm, Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd formed. Meanwhile, W.O. Bentley was contracted directly to RollsRoyce but by all accounts it wasn’t a happy time for the famous engineer and he left as soon as his contract released him. Sadly, he was then forced to hand back his Bentley company car, which must have been the final blow and W.O. went off to join Lagonda.
This ushered in the era of badge engineering that persisted until 2004, with Bentleys being something of a poor relation to the mainstream Rolls- Royce brand. Ironically, this was a situation that was reversed later when the sporting Bentley models started to outsell the R- R-badged cars.
Car production had of course been halted during the Second World War while Rolls- Royce’s aero- engine expertise came to the fore but work on the cars had carried on when time and resources permitted. In 1945 Pressed Steel was asked to produce a steel body for the firm, the idea being to use the same design for both Bentley and Rolls- Royce models with only minor changes to accommodate the different radiator grilles. The result was the Bentley MkVI, launched in 1946 as the ‘Standard Steel saloon’ and the new model rapidly brought Bentley up to date in line with more mainstream manufacturers.
Mk VI – 1946-52
Until this point, all Bentley cars had been delivered only as a rolling chassis, the convention being that the buyer would then specify their own bodywork. The MkVI was a product of the times: the war wasn’t long over and the climate of austerity made ostentatious displays of wealth undesirable.
The neatly proportioned lines of Mk VI and its less symbolic Bentley grille allowed the new car to slip by without creating much more fuss than a Jaguar or an Alvis. A Rolls-Royce equivalent was launched very shortly afterwards as the Silver Dawn.
Power for the Mk VI came from a 4.6-litre straight six which was a development of the powerplant the firm had
used since the ‘ Twenties. A four-speed gearbox transferred power to the rear wheels and the Mk VI’s traditional construction featuring a separate chassis with a central lubrication system, servo powered brakes and independent front suspension.
S1/2/3 – 1955-65
Produced in three series, the Bentley S1 appeared in 1955 and was launched in parallel with the Rolls- Royce Silver Cloud. Once again, standard bodywork from Pressed Steel was employed, although retaining a separate chassis allowed the increasingly less popular option of coachbuilt bodywork.
The two cars were launched simultaneously, marking the point where Bentleys finally ceased to be separate models. Initially the Bentley model continued to be the more popular but as the country’s economy recovered, the balance began to change and by the end of the decade, it was the Silver Cloud that was selling in larger numbers.
One minor distinction remained, though: the Silver Cloud was available only with the licence-built Hydramatic automatic, while the Bentley was offered with a manual gearbox until 1957. The Continental coupé remained an option, while the straight-six powerplant was carried over from the older model. In 1960 however, a big change happened with the introduction of an all-new engine.
At the time a V8 was relatively unusual in the UK market but the old straight six was reaching the limit of its development and even the standard steel bodywork was sufficiently heavy to blunt performance. Bentley/ Rolls also had ambitious plans for the US market where the V8 was commonplace, while the alternative of using the
Phantom’s straight eight unit would have created a massively long car at a time when roads and city centres were becoming more congested.
Rolls- Royce’s aero engine expertise came in handy for the new engine, which was manufactured with a weightsaving alloy block. The finished unit weighed slightly less than the six- cylinder engine and was also compact enough to fit the engine bay of the S-Type/ Silver Cloud without the need for expensive bodywork revisions.
The V8-powered cars were known as the Bentley S2 and Silver Cloud II and although they offered noticeably more lively performance, both models were criticised for a lack of refinement relative to the old six- cylinder cars. It was partly to address these complaints that a revised Bentley S3/ Silver Cloud III was launched in 1963, distinguished by their twin headlamp arrangement paired with smaller radiators. The V8 engine benefited from detail improvements, including a pair of two- inch SU’s and higher compression.
The S-Type and Cloud were discontinued in 1966, by which time they were beginning to look increasingly dated in the face of the competition. Rivals like Mercedes and even Jaguar with its big MkX were now using monocoque construction, independent suspension, disc brakes and increasingly sophisticated power plants.
Despite sales of the T-Series cars having been so small, the Bentley name continued in the guise of the Bentley Mulsanne, a heavily revamped model that was launched alongside the Silver Spirit in 1980. The T-Series and Mulsanne really did offer little more than badging and radiator grilles to set them apart from the Rolls- Royce models, but a turning point came in 1982 with the Mulsanne Turbo.
A higher-performance version of the long-serving V8 engine had been mooted back in the ‘Sixties and the first tests involved a Silver Shadow fitted with a turbo conversion by the renowned Broadspeed firm. The engine responded well to extracting some 50 per cent additional power and was duly launched under the Bentley badge – the idea being that it was more suitable for a performance- orientated car.
Budget constraints meant the car initially ran with carburettors and near-standard suspension making the handling somewhat erratic but its ludicrous combination of bulk and pace was a hit. Accordingly the Mulsanne Turbo was developed into the Bentley Turbo R in 1982, the Mulsanne name being dropped. In this form it gained thicker anti-roll bars, revised damping and spring rates and different suspension geometry. The result was impressive and suddenly Bentley was back in the game, helped by the ‘entry level’ Bentley Eight, which sported features like a wire mesh grille and was intended to entice younger buyers into the
Bentley/ Rolls brand. This model was later renamed the Mulsanne S in 1988.
In 1992 the Continental name returned once more for a coupé version based on the Turbo R and the same year the Mulsanne S and Eight were replaced by the Brooklands. Meanwhile, the Turbo S and the Turbo RT took the engine up to a handy 400bhp, which was enough to give the 2.5-tonne saloons sports car pace and a four-seat convertible model based on the extended platform of the Continental R badged as the Azure came on stream in 1995.
The result in the market was significant and by the late ‘Eighties, Bentley sales surpassed Rolls-Royce for the first time since the ‘Fifties. Clearly, the era where Vickers had thought seriously about binning the famous brand was thankfully over. The Mulsanne/Spirit saloons were replaced in 1998 by an all-new design that had the distinction of being the first Bentley/Rolls-Royce to use bought-in engines.
CONTINENTAL GT – 2003–11
Meanwhile, the first all-new Bentley to be launched under Volkswagen ownership was the Continental GT of 2003, which used the German firm’s complex 552bhp twin-turbo W12 engine. This was subsequently developed into ever-faster variants and the GTC convertible.
The Continental GT (which is looked at in more detail on pages 144-15 as this issue's Emerging Classic) also formed the basis of the four-door Continental Flying Spur launched in 2005, essentially a four-door version of the same car. Thoroughly modern high-tech cars, these offer a credible alternative to Porsche and Ferrari... and bring Bentley a long way from the days of the badge-engineered T2.
The MkVI had a separate chassis and was powered by a 4.6 litre straight six.
The stylish S2 Continental is now highly collectable.
Bentley entered new territory with the Mulsanne Turbo.
The Continental GT ushered in a new dawn for Bentley under VW ownership.