Acceptable in the 80’s

Forty years since the launch of the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and its siblings; time to reassess the marque’s least loved car.

1980 RR Silver Spirit/ Spur. (c) cars addiction

The late 1970’s was a challenging time for Rolls-Royce Motors. The company had been floated off in 1973 at the insistence of the British Government which, two years earlier, had rescued its parent company, the eponymous aero engine manufacturer, from bankruptcy and wanted it now to focus solely on its core business.

Rolls-Royce Motors was to all intents and purposes a one-model company. The Silver Shadow, in standard and long wheelbase forms, was the mainstay of its range. It had been launched in 1965 and was the company’s best-selling model ever. It was the first Rolls-Royce to feature unitary construction and this largely killed off the trade in bespoke-bodied coachbuilt versions that companies such as Hooper and Mulliner had previously offered. There was a badge-engineered Bentley variant of the Silver Shadow, dubbed T Series, but sales were tiny and inconsequential.

The Silver Shadow was heavily updated in 1977 when it gained new bumpers similar to the energy-absorbing items fitted to US versions, albeit rigidly mounted. It was renamed Silver Shadow II in SWB and Silver Wraith II in LWB form. To the casual observer, however, it remained the same car launched twelve years earlier and its relative ubiquity was starting to undermine the exclusivity potential buyers associated with the marque. Early examples were falling into the hands of used car dealers and scrap metal merchants or, even worse, being sprayed white to service the wedding hire trade.

A new car was needed but resources were very limited, so a plan was devised to rebody the Silver Shadow in a more contemporary style. The designer of the so-called SZ generation model was Fritz Feller, an engineer who was Austrian born but British by naturalisation. Feller produced a design that was undoubtedly crisp, modern and assertive, and much more imposing than the Silver Shadow, albeit without the latter’s delicacy of detail. Still, it was bang on the money for the decade to come, when more was more, and greed was good.

Underneath the new bodyshell was a largely familiar mechanical package: the venerable 6.75 litre all-aluminium pushrod V8 engine mated to a GM supplied three-speed automatic transmission. The Silver Shadow’s hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension with gas-filled shock absorbers was also carried over. The SWB model was dubbed Silver Spirit, while the LWB model carried the Silver Spur moniker.


The Silver Spirit and Spur continued with few changes for almost a decade before the Series II models were launched at the Frankfurt Motor show in 1989. The revised cars featured automatic ride control, which was a system of continuously adjustable shock absorbers, ABS and updated Bosch fuel injection. A GM supplied four-speed automatic transmission finally arrived in late 1991.

Series III models arrived in 1994, featuring minor cosmetic tweaks and engine upgrades. A turbocharged version, dubbed Flying Spur, was launched in the same year, as was the Silver Dawn, a US market special edition of the Silver Spur that introduced a 2” (50mm) shallower radiator grille, a smaller Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, closer fitting wraparound bumpers and a new sail panel carrying the repositioned door mirror in place of the deleted front quarter light. These modifications, along with the turbocharger, would be standardised across the range a year later with the launch of the Series IV models.

That pretty much concluded the substantive development of the SZ series Rolls-Royce models, which continued unchanged until they were discontinued in 1998. By that time, the rectilinear style that was fashionable at launch looked rather unsophisticated and certainly outdated. Tellingly, when designing the Silver Seraph successor to the Spirit, Rolls Royce looked back to the Silver Shadow for inspiration.

Arguably, the most important role played by the SZ generation model was the revival of the moribund Bentley marque. The 1980 Mulsanne was, initially, no more than a badge-engineered version of the Silver Spirit. Two years later, however, a turbocharged version was launched with a 50% increase in power over the standard car. Rolls-Royce versions would not get the turbocharger for over a decade so, suddenly, the Bentley had a real advantage to promote over its in-house rival.

At the other end of the scale, an entry-level model, dubbed the Eight, was launched in 1984 with a sub-£50k price, some £6k cheaper than the Mulsanne. Further changes would be introduced to distinguish the Bentley models including alloy wheels, body-coloured grille surrounds and slats, mesh grille inserts, and twin round headlamps instead of the original large rectangular units. The latter, together with the more rounded grille, gave the Bentley versions a quite different and more dynamic character compared with the rather inert looking Rolls-Royce models.

The car that really cemented Bentley’s renaissance was, however, the 1985 Turbo R, which replaced the standard Turbo model. The ‘R’ stood for roadholding and the new model had retuned suspension settings and rode on wider alloy wheels, the first Bentley to have these fitted as standard. The improvement in the car’s handling was transformational: it was finally a super-sports saloon worthy of the Bentley name and heritage. Performance was given a further boost with the addition of fuel injection in 1987.

With the Turbo R as its ‘halo’ model, Bentley’s revival continued. Moreover, the Bentley aged better and looked far less dated by the end of its production run than the more rectilinear Silver Spirit.

1997 Bentley Turbo R. (c)

Of the Silver Shadow and T-Series generation cars, only 7% were badged Bentley, 2,280 out of a total of 32,337 produced between 1965 and 1980. Of the SZ generation cars (excluding extended wheelbase coachbuilt versions) 41% were badged Bentley, 13,256 out of a total of 32,475 produced between 1980 and 1998. Moreover, Bentley sales grew steadily throughout the model’s lifespan, whereas the Rolls-Royce versions sold strongly during the 1980’s but declined thereafter.

The next time you see a down-at-heel and unloved Silver Spirit, and there are plenty around, think about the pivotal role it played in rescuing Bentley from oblivion, for good or ill of course depending on your opinion of the Volkswagen-era models. Will the Silver Spirit ever enjoy the renaissance that has seen the values of good (and increasingly rare) Silver Shadows rise in recent years? Time will tell, but like other 1980’s trends, fashions, attitudes and social mores, perhaps it is best left in the past.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

12 thoughts on “Acceptable in the 80’s”

  1. The Turbo, and the R, were excellent buys 15 years ago.
    Always regret failing to get one, due to lack of parking space.
    Haven’t checked yet to see if they too have risen in price.

  2. Ooh, you’ve stirred some old thoughts there, Daniel. I remember a school yard argument over Rolls-Royce and Bentley being “different “ car companies with me stating they were the same and my adversary arguing against. Passion ran deep thirty some years ago! I also seem to remember a class mates dad having a Spirit in bright red. Spent most of its life on the drive; was that due to being broken or out of fuel? Either way, I think the Roller was more status symbol of the Top Trump card game brigade (Of which we were fully paid up members) – what could beat that engine size figure?
    As you conclude with, best left back in that decade.
    But I never knew the “R” in Bentley speak meant road holding. I guessed at Racing, or possibly Rude.

  3. I always saw the SZ-generation as notoriously anti-designed. I can understand the brief for designing a Rolls for the eighties would be a hard task, but the result is lacking any sense of coherense or beauty. It’s a slab sided mess with no thought of even a beginning or middle or end. Like the oft quoted notion from Churchill about the pudding having no theme. What it does have is an imposing heft, and the design is hiding nothing of it, it is an imposing design if nothing else but its size. And I agree, it only came to its own with the Bentley grille, preferably in British Racing Green.

  4. Good evening, gentlemen, I’m a bit late tuning in today. I’m a bit more sympathetic to the SZ series than you, Ingvar. It may be anti-design, but it is consistently so, hence I think it works on its own terms at least. Is that what happens when you get an engineer to design a car?

    Andrew, a Spirit in bright red? That must have made quite a statement at the school gates! If I were to go for that colour on an SZ series model, it would be this one:

    A two-door Bentley Turbo R from coachbuilder Hooper. That’ll do nicely, thank you!

    1. I think the SZ series is okay – it’s quite tidily done.

      Hooper did some odd work, including this Corniche with Silver Spirit front and rear ends. I think it’s amazingly bad.

      Mind you, their 1950s ‘Empress’ models were a bit of an acquired taste. They revisited the concept in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with strange results.

    2. Hi Charles. Yikes!!! Both of those are just horrible. So much expertise and craftsmanship wasted on such mooses. The Corniche mutant looks like it’s sagging at both ends and the rear view of the Empress is risibly awful: the rear track looks way too narrow, but that’s the least of its problems. Thanks for sharing!

    3. That one is new to me. It´s quite pleasing though very conventional. Compare with the train-crash of the Camargue and see what one should and should not do. That said, I still like the Camargue though I have the luxury of not having to pay to run one or to have been jeered at in the 1970s if I´d bought one.

  5. My pet peeve with the SZ, that the front quarterlight is not aligned with the window, plus the slight uptick in the rear quarterlight.

    1. I’ve always thought that the uptick in the rear quarterlight is just about the only bit of ‘styling’ on the car! On the Series IV car, the front quarterlight is replaced by a sail panel carrying the repositioned door mirror.

  6. You might find it odd, but I don’t hate the Spirit. It does look a bit American (in a Toyota Crown S110/S120 way), but, in my eyes at least, only the Hooper conversions approach a fraction of the vulgarity of the abominations favored by tax-dodging and Golden Dawn-funding residents of Athens’ poshest suburbs. What I like about the Spirit is its clean, fuss-free lines and restrained adornments that make it look purposeful rather than chintzy. If I had the parking space and the wherewithal to cover the tax (road and income) and maintenance burden that comes with a car like this, I’d gladly have a 1990-1993 example, albeit with a Harvey-Bailey handling kit, upgraded brakes (traffic in Athens is hell), and an early-model steering wheel.

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