BENTLEY DNA -- 1960 Bentley S2 Saloon

BENTLEY DNA -- 1960 Bentley S2 Saloon


Quiet Driving Fun and a Monument to Longing

The Bentley archive, which boasts a dynamic, 90-year history, is adorned with a star-studded line-up of well-established models. Among them, the S-Type, which appeared at the end of the 1950s, with its monumental body and rolling contours, left a lasting impression on enthusiasts. The S2, which opened the door to a new era for Bentley with the mounting of a V8 engine under its bonnet, is a particularly elegant model that combines a traditional chassis with a beautifully crafted engine.

Text: Takuo Yoshida
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi
Photo: Hidenobu Tanaka
Cooperation:WAKUI MUSEUM 

Shining Gold Bullion

It was a Bentley!?

In the bleak, grass-coloured landscape of Honmoku at that time, when there were still many empty plots of land, the Bentley S-Type looked like a gold nugget that had suddenly emerged from the earth. The rear glass was covered in black film, but a peek inside through the front window revealed a subdued, dark red interior. I thought at the time that the world had a strange sense of style that was beyond my comprehension, but I still felt a kind of unfathomable awesomeness in the presence of that automobile.

What would it feel like to drive this car? I was more interested in seeing who owned it, but the restaurant, now a much more modern establishment, was famous for its dark interior, so I had no idea who it belonged to. As an extreme car enthusiast even back then, I had a strong feeling that I would only approve of a car if the owner was well dressed, quite apart from the coolness of the car itself.

More than 20 years have passed since then, and I’ll finally get behind the steering wheel of the Bentley S2 tomorrow evening. I spread my tweed jacket and moleskin trousers out on the table like a stylist, taking pleasure in checking the colour combinations. I’m not overly nervous, as I’m used to driving old cars, including a few Bentleys. However, I still think it is important to be well dressed when test-driving a proper car, even when you are only pretending to be the owner. The S2 is supposed to have a spacious pedal layout, so I chose a pair of chunky Church’s semi-brogues.

Luxurious Appearance

The Bentley S2 that emerged from the dark garage looked jet black at first, but as my eyes settled, I realised it was a navy blue. Thick and massive, with the intonation of a great wave on the beach, the body looks like a work of art, boldly carved from an ebonite block, like a fountain pen. It did not give the impression of a steel plate pressed in a mould and welded together. Bentley Motors at the time of the S-Type's production was known to apply dozens of coats of lacquer, which may have been the source of its massiveness. However, the press peaks, not coachlines, which rise vigorously from the edges of the front bumper and are drawn in waves to the rear bumper, have stood the test of time.

Taking a look around the body, one might notice the absence of production-oriented panel dividing lines. How did someone create the subtle curve of the rain drip at the edge of the roof, for instance? It looks as if such elements were carved out of solid steel. Industrial products are often preconceived in the way they are made, with the large ones being rough and the small ones delicate, but this is not the case with the Bentley. Despite its monumental scale, every inch of the Bentley is extravagant.

It’s not that I’ve been obsessed with owning a Bentley since I first saw the ‘gold nugget’, but one day I thought I would like to own one, and have decided on a standard steel-bodied S-type with a V8 engine. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is that if you’re taking the plunge and staying at Claridges in London, you should definitely go for a full-course dinner at Gordon Ramsay's.

The S-type is the most popular of the classic Bentleys, but with a more reasonable price tag than the coachbuilt versions. Even so, the styling is more dignified than that of the T-Series, which has a monocoque body and a sleeker look. Despite its antiquity, the technology is post-war and uncomplicated, and maintenance costs are said to be reasonable (by these astronomical standards). It may not be suitable for the novice, but it certainly offers a satisfying taste of Bentley's charm. And yes, Series 2 and later models are powered by the all-aluminium V8 engine, a classic that has lasted right up to the present day.


Understated yet Abundant

Standing in front of the small, navy blue monument, I could hardly get my hands on the chrome door handles, but first I opened the massive rear doors. The faint aroma wafting through the interior gave the illusion of having blundered into an antique shop. The large rear seat looked more like a sofa in a classical hotel lounge than that of an automobile.

Even if I put on a tweed jacket and tried to look like a country gent, I realise that, even when I sit in the rear of the car, I must look like the chauffeur, the actual owner having stepped away for a break. In this car, if you are not old enough to have a bit of grey hair on your head, you’re more than likely to feel overwhelmed.

The seat surfaces are handsomely upholstered in Connolly leather and the cushions are sufficiently resilient. There is plenty of space between the two front seats, as well as the front and rear lengths of the seat. In addition, the angle of the backrest is much lower than the front, so that the person sitting in the rear seat can assume a relaxed position even if they are feeling tense, which is a feature this automobile offers its passengers.

The light inside the car is exquisite. While there is no privacy glass, the light entering the interior is well modulated so that, for instance, the picnic table and the book you are reading are illuminated, but the passenger's face is hidden in the shadows, so there is no glare. The thick C-pillars with mirrors inside ensure the right degree of privacy. Despite the generous interior space, the rear doors are small in relation to the front ones, which is an example of distinctly British understatement.

The front seats also have a luxurious aesthetic, with a symmetrically crafted burr walnut dash panel and Connolly leather upholstery. What may be surprising is that the leather used across the seat is from a single sheet. This use of leather, as opposed to vinyl, is not usually found in automobiles. In older Bentleys, the entire seat surface may be covered in a single sheet of leather. It suggests that there is no limit to excellence.

The front seats are of the integrated bench seat type, but the seat backs are split to the left and right and can be angled slightly so as not to interfere with the rear passengers’ comfort. However, it is more aesthetically pleasing to have the seatbacks angled in a uniform manner.

I twisted the ignition key in the centre of the dash panel, the starter motor roared for a moment and then the 6.25-litre V8 immediately started idling. This power unit is the progenitor of the Bentley V8, which is still in service but is mooted to be on the verge of retirement. The subtle sounds and vibrations transmitted into the cabin were full of charm, perhaps because it was fitted with a distributor, carburetor and other auxiliary equipment which is no longer familiar to the modern driver.

I moved the slender gear shift lever, which is on the right of the steering column, and the weighty, silent sports car was off and running.

In the Sound of Silence

I gently press the organ-type throttle pedal, and acceleration follows with a strong torque. There is no rev counter, so I can’t tell the exact rpm, but it shifts up around 2000 r.p.m. I can see that there is plenty of torque from just above idle, so there's no immediate upshift faltering, but you can feel the gearbox working mechanically around your knees at the moment of shifting. The S2, like a modern Bentley, allows for easy cruising. However, it is the classic model's unique character that makes the mechanical report more directly felt.

The slender steering wheel is accurate with the gearbox in good condition and proper alignment, so the car presses straight ahead quite normally. The power steering assist is strong, but is outdone by the weight of the car, and, as a result, the driver can feel the tyre condition quite well. This makes it easy to ascertain the correct cornering speed.

The braking system is quirky, which was characteristic of Bentleys of the time. It employs a mechanical double-pressure system, which means that it works best when the engine is running at high revs ?i.e. at high speed ?and is less responsive when it slows down. In other words, the system is least effective when the vehicle is running slowly and just before coming to a stop. However, this prevents the engine from shaking the passenger's head when braking, so it could also be appreciated as an intentional engineering consideration.

It is easy to describe driving a sports car with a lightweight, precise chassis and a sharply responsive engine as ‘stimulating’. Oddly, though, it seems difficult to describe the opposite - a leisurely feeling - in the same way. Surprisingly, driving the Bentley S2 was far more than ‘stimulating’ for me, and nothing short of pleasurable. I can’t deny that my boyhood aspirations may have led me to over-glamourise this encounter. However, when it comes to classic cars, there is no better way to fancy oneself as a romantic.

The act of driving a Bentley, now and then, reminds us that there is such a thing as the sound of silence, and that we can find fulfilment even at absolute speed.

----- This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 002 (2009). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.

The first Bentley standard model to be equipped with the all-aluminium V8 OHV unit still used today. It was also a badge-engineered car with a body shared with the R-R Silver Cloud II, 1,865 units of which were manufactured between 1959 and 1962. A small number of coachbuilt specials were also produced, including an H.J. Mulliner drophead coupe (15 cars) and a James Young four-door saloon based on the LWB model (5 cars).

The V8 unit, which fits in the long engine bay, is a classic that has been handed down to modern Bentleys.

V8OHV units are installed on modern models such as the Arnage T/R, Brooklands and Azure. Beautiful enamel paintwork and 'BENTLEY' relief on rocker covers.

The chassis plate had long been on Bentleys, which had been under the R-R umbrella since 1931. Conduit St. is the place where Bentley was founded.

 The boot space is not high, as the fuel tank and spare tyre are under the floor, but is deep enough to take advantage of the elongated design.

The collective instrumentation, which has the same design as the R-R Silver Cloud, combines the ammeter, water temperature gauge, fuel gauge and oil temperature gauge into one. The rev counter, which has long been a Bentley tradition, is not installed.

The rear seats are upholstered in sofa-like Connolly leather and have a well-made picnic table. The S2 is a driver's car, but it is also well equipped for show driving.

Door armrests were used from the 1930s to the T2 era in the 1970s. They are of course upholstered in Connolly leather and can be adjusted up or down according to seat height and reach length.

On the rear quarter pillar, there is an illuminated vanity mirror with cigar lighter, as on current Bentleys. An ashtray is installed above the picnic table.

A luxurious interior lining made of walnut, which is characterised by its beautiful wood grain, assembled with parquet. Wood with such fine grain is said to be quite difficult to find these days.

From the S2 onwards, the manual gearbox was discontinued and only a four-speed A/T was available, so there are only two pedals, A and B. The brake pedal, engraved with a ‘B’, is a tradition that has been carried over to the current model.

When opening the heavy door, the subtle aroma wafting through makes you feel as if you’re entering an antique shop.

The dash panel, composed entirely of fine walnut veneer, is breathtakingly elegant: in keeping with R-R/Bentley tradition, all wood panels are symmetrical from the centre.

The seats, which prioritise comfort over hold, even on the driver's side, are characterised by their flat shape. The right side of the seat is worn by the driver getting in and out of the car, which is also a sign of its age.

Perhaps the act of driving a Bentley is to know that there is a sound of silence.