At 50, Still a Modern Continental

The Bentley S2 Continental is a legitimate heir to the lineage of the R-Type Continental, one of Bentley's legendary models. The stylish coupé body, shaped by the skilled coachbuilder H.J. Mulliner, is so modern that it has become an inspiration for the contemporary models. Historic Bentleys are often described in terms of their remarkable presence, but there is also something quite interesting about their performance on the road, though this is not as widely heralded. In this article, we take a closer look at the true qualities of the Continental's driving performance, which are entirely befitting of its name.

text:Takuo YOSHIDA
photo:Hidenobu TANAKA
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi
Co-operation:Wakui Museum

■Bespoke Origins
At the time of the launch of the ambitious new Mulsanne, we were also informed that the life of Bentley's traditional V8 engine had been extended. This was good news for me, as until recently I had been waxing sentimental about the possibility that Bentley's iconic 6.75-litre all-aluminium V8 engine might be coming to an end. Personally, I’ve never felt the need to change anything in particular about the reliability or power characteristics of the Bentley V8. This famous vehicle has a history of increasing power as desired over time, particularly as its weight has gone up. The British know that when it comes to creating a new vehicle, it's not right to just revamp everything. We Bentley enthusiasts need to know that as well. Perhaps what was actually up for discussion this time around was how to meet exhaust emission regulations. But isn't that precisely what modern technology should have no difficulties addressing?
I’m now behind the steering wheel of a Bentley S2 Continental. I can't think of a good way to describe this vehicle's particular origins into something more modern, but I suppose I can use the clothing-industry analogy of the difference between ‘ready-to-wear’ and ‘bespoke’. Similarly, in the Bentley S2, the Standard Steel type, both chassis and body are exquisitely built by the craftsmen at the Crewe Factory.
The old Continental range, on the other hand, is often classed as ‘coachbuilt’. This refers to a rolling chassis with tyres, engine, and other parts, directly off the line at Crewe, combined with a special body made by a leading coachbuilder. In the past, when automobiles were replacing horse-drawn carriages, the mechanics who produced the internal combustion engine mechanism and the coachbuilders who had built the carriages were working under the same brand name. This is a legacy of the very best, even though only a handful of manufacturers were still doing this in the 1960s.
When you place an order with your preferred automobile manufacturer, they will ask, "To which coachbuilder would you like the rolling chassis delivered?" You then go to the coachbuilder and order the body. From there, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to drive the car yourself or leave the steering to the chauffeur, what kind of styling you would like, how big the boot should be, and so on. Nevertheless, it seems that, traditionally, most of the chic customers who went to the coachbuilders wanted a modern body that would be at the forefront of fashion. The Bentley S2 Continental was no exception, and was often brought to H.J. Mulliner's workshop to be finished in the company's house style. A gent of a certain stature would have got his bespoke suit from a Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole, his shoes from George Cleverley's and would have strolled over from Regent to Conduit Street and ordered a Bentley as a Christmas present to himself. I'm sure there must have been chaps of this ilk.
The Continental, with its name derived from ‘continental’ Europe, is a special one for the British.

■Solid Heritage and Quality
 The Bentley S2 Continental I drove most recently has a body made by H.J. Mulliner, the most popular coachbuilder for Bentley Continental and one that has even influenced original design work within Bentley. This is to say there is little doubt that the design is of the very highest standard. For example, the styling of the brand new Bentley, the Mulsanne, is officially said to have been influenced by the old 8-litre, but isn’t the S2 Continental situated between that 8-litre and the Mulsanne? Even if some of the icons are influenced by the 8-litre model, it is the S2 Continental that it most closely resembles, right down to the overall silhouette. In short, the S2 Continental is so modern that it’s hard to believe that it was built in the early '60s: in fact, it feels as if it has jumped ahead in time by 50 years or so.
Compared to a Standard Steel Bentley, the body of the Continental looks somewhat austere, but even so, compared to a modern automobile, the Continental's body is highly sculpted. It is a work of art, shaped by craftsmen from a single sheet of aluminium. Wooden moulds were used, but it was the skill of the craftsmen which painstakingly fit them into these moulds with tools such as hammers and rollers that are no longer used in modern automobile construction. The S2 Continental is and always has been expensive, but about half of that is the cost of the craftsmen's labour. Only those who can sense the value of that time and deep expertise can appreciate the vehicle's true worth.
The dark green body is upholstered in tanned Connolly leather, and while it is rare to find a vehicle with its original leather still intact after 50 years, the S2 Continental was certainly upholstered in high quality leather. There are many criteria for recognising this, but I look at the surface of the leather. The numerous pores that seem to multiply on the surface indicate that it is indeed the grain side of the leather. If the leather is replaced with cheaper leather or painted during restoration, you won't see these tiny pores.
Sitting back in the spacious driver’s seat, I could see that there was plenty of head clearance. That's because the height of the bulky Standard Steel and the slender Continental body differs by only 26 millimetres. Moreover, in the case of the Continental, there is almost as much room because the craftsmen have three-dimensionally upholstered the ceiling linings to ensure head clearance. Although it’s a two-door model, the rear seats also have enough head clearance to live up to the Bentley name (although it might be difficult to wear a bowler hat), leg room, an ashtray for one extra-fat cigar per person and a picnic table in burr walnut finish.

■Modernity, Half a Century Ahead of Time
I turned the key stuck in the centre of the thick dash panel and woke the Bentley V8. The five-digit odometer may have made one round, but there's not a hint of turbulence in its idling, keeping a solemn idle at around 700 r.p.m.
I lightly lowered the shifter on the steering column with the index and middle fingers of my right hand and began driving the S2 Continental. My first impression was one word: nimble. It’s a Bentley speciality model and weighs around two tonnes with a driver, yet it glides smoothly, as if it were on oil. Even though you are not deliberately pressing down on the throttle, the speed picks up rapidly. It's almost impossible to think of a word for it other than ‘nimble’.
Somehow, this is far from the image I had in mind. I thought it would be heavier and the driving would be slower, like moving a small mountain. I made this assumption because of my experience with the Standard Steel Bentley S2 I had driven previously. I had assumed that since the same S2 chassis and V8 engine were used, the driving impression would be almost the same as the Standard Steel, even if the S2 Continental weighed slightly less. Comparing, for example, steel and aluminium as body materials, it would be anyone's guess that aluminium is much lighter, but there are two reasons for selecting these aluminium panels. One is to make it lighter and the other is for easier processing. One-off racing cars are built in aluminium for the same reasons. In the case of the Bentley, however, the latter is the dominant factor, as the difference in weight between the Standard and Continental is a mere 63 kg, according to some sources.
The legendary R-Type Continental, for example, was not only lighter, but also had a specially tuned engine that made it noticeably faster. The S2 Continental has certainly carried on this tradition. It is very nimble. Looking at the specification sheets side by side, there is only one factor that makes it faster than the Standard: the final ratio, which has been increased by 2.92 compared to the Standard's 3.08. Normally, a Continental type would have a lower final ratio if it had been intended to go faster, but Bentley has gone the other way and increased the final ratio, making it more ‘top-speed’ oriented. The four-speed automatic transmission gives the impression of connecting to the upper gears one after another, while the torque engine picks up speed at low revs. The perfect balance of powertrains gives the S2 Continental its distinctive, sporty feel.
However sporty a Bentley may be, it is bound to feel suitably sluggish along winding Japanese roads such as the ones in Hakone. ‘Sporty’ here means stress-free driving at high speeds on moderately undulating roads, such as British B-roads. Provided you drive with respect, the S2 Continental is very dutiful and you hardly feel any sway back, even in S-curves. As usual, the seating position is as high as that of a lorry, but the roll centre isn't as high. The chassis, body and driver corner as one - this is the essence of a grand tourer, which can cover more than 1,000 kilometres a day without tiring the driver.
Surprisingly, the Continental series has had mechanical shock absorber switching mechanisms since the '50s, just like the modern Continental GT, and the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ was clearly noticeable on this S2 Continental. The Bentley S2 Continental is indeed a modern Bentley in every sense, with a driving ‘feel’ that is completely satisfactory on modern roads.The Bentley S2 Continental is a visionary car that is more than half a century ahead of its time, and it is simply astonishing.

About 1960 Bentley S2 Continental Coupé by H.J. Mulliner
The successor to the R-Type Continental, Bentley's masterpiece from the early 1950s, the S-Type Continental was based on the S-Type Saloon chassis. 1959 saw the introduction of the S2 Continental, which combined the S-Type chassis with a newly-developed V8 engine to create an outstanding blend of tradition and innovation. The S2 Continental is still very popular even today. The body was built by various coachbuilders, but those made by H.J. Mulliner have remained the most popular.

Luxurious instrument panel with walnut veneer that extends all the way to the left and right doors. With a high seating surface, a wide field of vision and ample legroom, it has all the qualities of a high-performance GT.

Generously sized but not too resilient, the front seats can withstand sporty drives. The seat back is low, but it makes you want to ride with your back straight.

Although it is a two-door model, it is fitted with a fine rear seat, as is typical of Rolls & Bentley. Needless to say, there is an ashtray for each passenger. Even at speed, the rev counter is mostly below 2000 r.p.m. The engine response is sharp, however, and the report from the throttle pedal is clear.

This image shows the thickness of the walnut veneer used for the instrument panel. The section where the instrument panel sits is painted brown and then varnished.

Large trunk space with depth and height. The bar placed in the middle is the air supply provided at the far right. Underneath, the floor is divided into several sections, where the spare tyre and jack fit.

A Bentley Motors chassis plate from Conduit Street is attached to the bulkhead. Note the proud 'Made in ENGLAND’.

The bonnet opens independently on the left and right sides. The thick FRP air cleaner covers can be lifted and wired to allow mechanics to access the carburettor.

A well-tuned Bentley engine is not weak when it starts, even if the starter motor is waning. The bore stroke of the 6.2-litre-era V8 is perfectly oversquare, so even below 3000 r.p.m., the response is surprisingly sharp.

Bulkheads are traditionally painted in a greenish white. This is because the bulkheads are not part of the body, but part of the rolling chassis that Rolls-Royce & Bentley build in-house.

Track Width Front:1524mm
Track Width Rear:1524mm
Dry Weight:1918kg
6223cc V8 OHV
4-Speed Automatic
Final Drive Ratio:2.92
Front:Double Wishbone+Air spring
Rear:Multilink+Air springs

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 003 (2010). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.