“Bentley makes its mark”. By Archie Vicar.
From the Motorist’s Compendium and Driver’s Almanack, Dec 1959. Photographs by Marmaduke Orpington. Owing to the poor quality of the original images, stock photography has been used.
Bentley seem to be finding their feet again after a spell in the shadows of their owner, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. This month it is our privilege to be invited to test drive the evidence of this resurgence, the S1 Continental Flying Spur.
First might I present a little history for younger readers. Bentley started offering steel bodywork in 1946 and many coachbuilders have been continuing to offer their own versions of these car, as if a ‘standard’ Bentley wasn’t sufficiently prestigious. But these later cars have apparently lacked a certain something. For this author, if were one to search for a proper expression of a coach-built Bentley one would have to go back to the Thrupp & Maberly 1938 Bentley 4 1/4 Litre all-weather touring car.
As recorded in the notes of a Bentley works manager at the time, (E.W. Hives) a Bentley should “answer to the moods of the driver… be driven fast with safety, or tour without fuss and noise… maximum speed should not be obtained at the expense of acceleration… controls, steering, and brakes shall be light to operate, and the braking shall be adequate for a fast car… maximum speed of the car on the road should be 90 mph, 75 mph in third gear…” And the Thrupp and Maberley tourer certainly met those demands.
In recent times things are a little different. In 1952 the R-type was presented to the world and it had bigger engines than its predecessor. But these cars were really not quite what Bentley customers wanted, as indicated by disappointing sales.
Rolls-Royce’s idea to make Bentley more palatable to its clientele is to take some of the most successful elements of the Rolls-Royce style and then to carefully apply them to Bentley vehicles. With that in mind the 1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and Bentley S1 have a passing resemblance to each other – just a shade – but at least this strategy has stemmed the losses as more than one third of Rolls-Royce cars are now Bentleys.
Mulliner Park Ward have also prepared some bespoke designs for among the most discerning of Crewe’s customers, people for whom Pressed Steel’s versions are not quite up to snuff.
To describe the S1 Continental Flying Spur one could interpret it as some manner of comfortable large saloon with a decent turn of speed. Providing the power is a 4887 cc in-line, six-cylinder engine; pleasantly it is of the inlet-over exhaust design. We were not able to get detailed figures on the engine’s performance but Bentley wrote to tell us that it is “quite enough”.
The engine’s bore is 3.7 inches; the stroke is 4.5 inches, allowing first, a long and low bonnet and two, adjustment for the provision of low-end torque at lower and therefore more relaxing engine speeds. The compression cleaves to Bentley standards, a ratio of 6.6:1. Twin carburettors of the SU type are fitted and have been since 1957. They are impressive devices.
On a technical note, a Hobourn Eaton pump provides hydraulic power to the vehicle. The pump is located on the front of the engine and is driven by a belt. This belt operates an actuating cylinder which is attached to the chassis front cross-member (see technical essay on p.117 by L.H. Martins) and is secured to one of the arms (forged, of course) which forms an idler lever in the steering linkage. In the unlikely circumstances of the the belt breaking or the hydraulic fluid escaping (ask Citroen!), the steering reverts safely to unassisted action. It would be jolly heavy though were this to occur.
Let us take the car on a testing tour to see how it copes with the conditions now prevalent on Britain’s increasingly crowded carriageways.
Compared to the S1 saloon, and also the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, the Continental seems a bit too low and cramped for my liking. I would contend that the owners of Daimlers and Humbers may find the step up to Bentley S1 Continental Flying Spur ownership a bit of a step down. The seating is just low enough to suggest an unhappy resemblance to a sporting car.
Moving off, the vehicle pulls forward much the same way as a Jaguar or even Cadillac does. It even has power steering which is a feature much in vogue on the other side of the Atlantic. I judged the power steering to be slightly over-assisted and to prove this I managed to bash the car’s offside against a bollard outside the Hawkstone Park hotel as I was starting up after a long and heavy lunch with Bentley’s marketing man.
Driving to Stanton-upon-Hine Heath showed the problems of a large powerful car when one tries to follow England’s smaller country lanes. When driven at even a moderate pace, the S1 Continental Flying Spur tends often to come into contact with branches and projecting stones on walls. As a consequence, the driver’s door and rear wing became somewhat striated. This did, however, allow me to assess the remarkable depth of the paintwork because even quite severe gouges failed to reach the metal below. The car may actually be made of paint.
The Spur has a four-speed transmission that takes some of the effort out of driving but also much of the pleasure. Between Myddle and Cockshutt, the car attained a good speed and was easily able to overtake dawdling drivers encountered on the way. The gearbox is quite willing to change up and drop down without too much noise though I dare say the engineers at Chrysler won’t find the smoothness of their excellent Torqueflite in any way challenged. I might respectfully suggest Bentley look into the use of this system as it would save money that could be used to make their Rolls-Royces just a tad more distinguished from their Bentley brethren.
Regarding the suspension quality, the Continental is about as good as Citroen’s daring DS and perhaps better than Jaguar are managing at the moment. This writer found the ride was almost undulose and without wrinkles, being nearly entirely without noticeable contrasts between the uppermost and lowermost peaks of the vehicle’s oscillatory motions as it moved longitudinally in respect to the road’s direction.
We drove some 50 miles onward to Bangor-On-Dee and found an evening meal at a nearby hostelry. The local brew is potent stuff but very hard to resist. It helped refresh us and to regain our composure after the strains of conducting the Bentley in the foul autumnal rains of October. The roast venison was superlative. Moving on from Bangor-On-Dee with regret, we had planned to do some hill tests in Gwydyr but again, the over-light steering confounded my intentions.
It must be said that Bentleys are of stout construction as, despite the speed of the prang, neither I nor the photographer came to any harm but the vehicle itself was immovable, having become partly submerged in the muddy banks of the Dee. We therefore failed to proceed. Climbing out of the rear doors which were above the water line we walked back to the hostelry and waited for the staff from Bentley to come and recover the car. This incident reveals for this writer the importance of what some marques consider trivial details such as properly effective windscreen wipers and properly firm, unassisted steering.
In all, despite the vicissitudes of the later part of our tour, I can confidently aver that the Bentley would have made short work of the hill-climbs as the engine displayed considerable vigour, even to the extent of continuing onward into the river rather than veering left as was required. I would note that for practically-minded drivers, the luggage capacity of the Spur is somewhat deficient, verging on the unacceptable. I found the ashtray placement merely average. We had to stop twice to empty the driver’s ash receptacle in one day test.
That said, the Bentley is very clearly labelled a Bentley and indeed has badges proudly mounted fore and aft to this effect. And that, at the very least, puts paid to accusations that Bentley’s name is being watered down in the name of expediency. As Walthorn said, “the difference can be but as minuscule as a grain of sand but the consequences as profound as mercury”. Any driver of the 1938 Thrupp & Maberly Bentley 4 1/4 Litre would doubtless agree!