Bentley is always been a distinct brand, although it was linked to and owned by Rolls-Royce for 70 years. When you remember badge engineering and the British industry, names like Austin and Morris, Hillman and Humber, Riley and Wolseley come to the fore, but Rolls-Royce and Bentley were sharing much in the way of chassis and engines from 1933 on, and were unambiguously badge engineered from 1955 to 2003, when the brands went their separate ways again.
This Bentley Mulsanne Turbo, Turbo R and Eight (Eight, not 8) were linked to the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. The Silver Spirit itself was based on the platform of the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Bentley T Series twins, which for 1966 had many features that helped it maintain a claim for being the best car in the world. Significantly, this car was shorter, lower, narrower and more spacious than the preceding Silver Cloud.
The Silver Shadow was a much more up-to-date, even modern, car than is perhaps commonly remembered. Not only was is the first Rolls-Royce monocoque(unibody), with front and rear sub-frames, it also dispensed with the semi-elliptic rear suspension for an independent coil sprung system, linked to a high pressure hydraulic system licensed from Citroen (based on the system in the Citroen DS) to provide self levelling, and also the dual circuit disc brakes.
The ride quality of the Silver Shadow was an impressive step ahead of the earlier Silver Cloud. Unusually, the self-levelling was initially working on both front and rear suspension, and at two different speeds depending on road speed, to level the car after loading and to control roll once underway. The body was actually pressed and assemble by Pressed Steel Fisher at Cowley , Oxford, alongside much more mundane BMC and Rootes products.
The engine was a 6.25 litre version of Rolls-Royce’s V8. The power was usually stated as being “adequate” in any specification documentation but is now accepted as having been around 175 bhp. Later cars had a 6.75 litre, 190 bhp engine, so it was never a fast car, achieving perhaps 120 mph at most. The torque of the V8 gave it a fairly sprightly getaway though. The gearbox was the GM400, with, unusually for Europe, a column selector on the right hand side of the column.
However, by the mid 1970s, only a diehard would call the Silver Shadow the best car in the world. Some of the best automotive craftsmanship in the world, without a doubt, but the best car in the world, against the Jaguar XJ12 or Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9?
The Bentley version, known as the T series, was identical in every respect, except for a lower, less prominent radiator shell and lower profile bonnet. By now, the pre-war image of the Le Mans winning Bentleys was only remembered as history, and sales were perhaps 5% of the total. Rolls-Royce needed to find a purpose for Bentley to avoid it fading into obscurity.
In 1980, the Silver Shadow was replaced by the technically similar Silver Spirit, and the Bentley T series by the Bentley Mulsanne, named after the straight at Le Mans, rather than a series designation, as Bentley had used for 40 years. Was this the first sign that Rolls-Royce was allowing Bentley to re-awaken?
In 1982, Bentley introduced a turbo-charged version of the Mulsanne, known simply as the Mulsanne Turbo, with around 300 bhp. This was a successful venture, in volume and in image building, selling some 500 in 3 years. Not big numbers, but big numbers for a Bentley.
Rolls-Royce obviously liked what they had found: a market for a car with all the attributes of a Silver Spirit except some of the less fortunate image and connotations. By the 1980s, which were of course a decade that celebrated personal wealth, a Rolls-Royce had become a symbol of that excess as much as it was a symbol of breeding and “old money”. A Silver Spirit or Silver Shadow was as likely to be driven by “new money”, by some one who had got a big bonus from the bank and not a directorship; not so much a member of an exclusive gentleman’s club but the owner of a night club. Used Silver Shadows had by now a level of affordability and volume that only emphasised this. The Bentley Turbo opened up a new market with a different image, some how linked to the Bentley’s pre-war heritage.
Bentley built on this with the Eight in 1984, as an entry level model in the Bentley range. All things are relative; I know entry level and Bentley go together like Prince Charles and doing your own gardening and the price of just under £50,000.00 (say £110,000; $170,000 now) doesn’t really fit it either. After all, in 1984 you’d get a nice house for £50,000. It lost a little of the Mulsanne’s full and traditional interior and fittings – steel wheels and cloth upholstery were the most obvious sacrifices, and a mesh grille rather than the usual slats and slightly stiffened suspension were probably gains. But if that’s entry level, please count me in.
In 1987, the Turbo became the Turbo R. R was for Roadholding, not Race. There were more far reaching suspension changes than the earlier Eight or Turbo, with a 100% increase in roll stiffness over the Rolls-Royce, stiffer damping and the addition of a Panhard rod to keep the rear end in check. Wider alloy wheels and tyres completed the changes. Fuel injection was added to the V8, and power was up to 300bhp and torque to almost 500lbft. This was car that could do almost 145mph, whilst you sat in an Edwardian drawing room.
Commercially, this car was a success for Bentley – almost 6000 were built in 12 years, and the Bentley name actually meant something for the first time in over 30 years. So successful was the turbocharging installation that the more sedate Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and longer wheelbase Silver Spur went over to turbo power from 1995.
Longer term, there’s another important by product of the 1980s Bentleys that differed from the contemporary Rolls-Royce. When the engineering conglomerate Vickers wanted out of car making in 1998, the Rolls-Royce car company was sold to VW. But as this company did not own the Rolls-Royce name, having only a licensing agreement with Rolls-Royce Aero Engines, the cars it produced had to be Bentleys, produced in much greater numbers by the VW group to this day, in the same factory in Crewe, in north west England. Rolls-Royce instead licensed the name to BMW, who created a new separate company and brand new show piece factory, near the historic Goodwood race circuit on the south coast of England, for the 2003 Phantom and subsequent cars.