Mar­que Guide...

From the stan­dard steel sa­loon to the early days un­der VW con­trol, we look at the main­stream post-war Bent­ley mod­els

Classics Monthly - - Contents - WORDS IAIN WAKE­FIELD & PAUL WAGER

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.

MULSANNE –1980-92

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.

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