Curbside Classic: 1959 Bentley S2 – New Wine In An Old Bottle

It’s doubtful that those who created the V8 that was pioneered in this Bentley ever imagined, even in their wildest dreams, that it would be remain in the marque’s employ until the year 2020. Sixty years of loyal service is well above and beyond the usual call of duty for an automobile engine – an impressive feat by any measure. So let’s take a closer look at the first car that featured this great technological wonder of the Elizabethan age: the luscious Bentley S2.

The S2 and its Rolls-Royce twin the Silver Cloud II were transition cars in many ways. They were initially designed as the S1 and Silver Cloud I, in effect moderately modernized and larger versions of the company’s first all-steel saloon, the Bentley Mark VI / Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn. For a new car in 1955, the S1 / Silver Cloud I was rather old-fashioned, but that was always the way with blue-blooded British barges in those days.

When Rolls-Royce bought Bentley in 1931, the junior marque initially kept its sporting pedigree. This was gradually whittled down, especially after the war; Rolls and Bentley became quasi twins, with fewer and fewer differences between the two.

The factory-made “Standard Steel Saloon,” a post-war innovation, was pretty much identical no matter the grille, but the twin marques still had shades of personality: Bentley kept a modicum of sporting spirit thanks to the lowered Continental R, which was a genuinely fast variant of the Mark VI, while the longer Rolls-Royce Wraith was the chassis of choice for coachbuilt limos.

But as the ‘50s wore on, the differences between the two marques became purely a matter of a radiator shell and badges. By the time the S2 / Silver Cloud II was launched in 1959, the only tangible difference between a factory-bodied Bentley and a Rolls was exactly that. The small ₤50 premium commanded by the R-R variant was alleged to be justified by the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, which was more expensive to make than the winged “B”.

The Bentley S2 mirrored the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud in every way, even though the Bentley catalogue displayed what they termed a “Continental” chassis. The same chassis and the same coachbuilt bodies were also available with a Rolls grille. Unlike the S1 Continental, whose 6-cyl. engine had a modified head and higher compression to improve performance, the new V8 was to be identical no matter what badge it wore.

The famous V8 can now be seen as a triumph of British automotive engineering, but it had an uphill start. Work on this engine started in 1953, even as Cadillac started really dominating the luxury car scene worldwide, imitated by Lincoln and Chrysler. Just like Packard, BMW and Daimler, R-R figured that the V8 solution was inevitable – if for no other reason than to keep a slice of the US market. Packard and BMW launched two very different (by equally ill-fated) modern V8s in the mid’50s; Daimler and Rolls unveiled theirs in 1959, but the hitherto rival British companies diverged in every way, including their V8s.

Daimler had a “small car” program alongside their limos, so they went for two V8s – a 2.5 and a 4.5 litre – with a hemi head. The larger engine produced 220hp, but ultimately, Daimler were bought off by Jaguar even as the V8 cars were marketed, which ultimately meant that the Daimler V8’s life would be cut short: ten years later, they were gone.

Contrast this with Rolls-Royce’s long and careful planning of what they internally called their “L” engine, which was in development for twice as long as the Daimler V8s. This showed that the company knew they had to hit a bull’s eye or face Packard’s (and Daimler’s) fate, but also that they had fewer financial and time constraints than some of their unluckier rivals.

That is not to say that there were no constraints – to the contrary. The “L” engine was constrained by the S / Silver Cloud chassis and body, both of which had to be kept as were to keep costs under control. This meant a rather narrow V8, as well as using the same radiator as used by the 6-cyl. it replaced. It also needed to be at least 50% more powerful, at least as quiet and not ridiculously expensive to build.

Some choices were almost obvious, such as opting for a higher displacement. Others, such as an all-alloy construction, was more daring, but still paid off. The old F-head 6-cyl. weighed in at 150hp (gross) for 4.9 litre, whereas the V8 produced about 200hp for 6.2 litre, and was 30lbs. lighter than the six.

The Rolls-made GM Hydramatic 4-speed was perfectly suited to send all that to the cart-sprung live axle in the back. Again, the S2 / Silver Cloud was not supposed to break new ground as such, just provide an adequate vessel for the new V8.

There was a 127-inch wheelbase version on offer providing an extra 4 inches of legroom, usually ordered with a separation window. Surprisingly few people were tempted: of the 2300-odd Bentley S2 chassis produced between 1959 and 1962, only 57 were LWB. Bentley owners usually preferred driving their cars, not playing with the picnic tables in the back. Chauffeur-employing clients preferred to ask for a Silver Cloud II instead.

Speaking of production numbers, it is noteworthy that the Rolls and the Bentley variants were made in roughly equal numbers, with the Rolls coming out slightly ahead. Up to the Silver Cloud / S1, the balance was clearly in Bentley’s favour; with the Silver Cloud III / S3, Rolls-Royce became the clearly dominant marque. So the S2 also represents a transition in Bentley’s history – a rather nefarious one at that: it heralded the marque’s near-death experience, which was narrowly avoided in the ‘80s thanks to the advent of turbocharging. But that’s a story for another post…

As alluded to earlier, it seems the new V8 was not exactly trouble-free, at least initially. Early cars, like the one we’re examining in quite a lot of detail today, suffered from valve gear and camshaft issues that, left untreated, lead to an alarming increase in oil consumption. The issue was addressed with a number of changes to the camshafts and valves, but it was not a fatal defect and some cars were able to reach decent mileages with the original engine intact.

Therefore, not every S2 / Silver Cloud II (and early Phantom Vs, as those also debuted in 1959) was diligently given a replacement head and camshaft, so there may be some out there that will require that operation even nowadays. At which point the question might become: why not just put a 6.75 litre turbo from a Mulsanne in there instead?

Not that the original twin-carb 6.2 litre V8 was incapable of shifting the two-toned S2’s two-tonnes relatively briskly: top speed was claimed to be near 115mph, when the 6-cyl. cars that came before could hardly be expected to reach 100mph without the aid of favourable winds and a slight decline in elevation. With the V8, the manufacturer’s claim that the power was “sufficient” was true once again.

If you could look past (or actually preferred) the ‘40s styling, a ’59 Cadillac could not claim to possess much of a technological edge over the Bentley. Power steering, power brakes, V8, automatic gearbox — the S2 had it all as standard. One could even specify power windows and A/C in the options list.

Sure, a Cadillac could have more gadgets, like the famous Autronic-Eye, power seats, power radio antenna, cruise control and the like. And it could seat six. But in terms of fit and finish, the British car was in a league of its own.

This is another one of the treasures I have found in the trove of British classics I frequent regularly – I found this Silver Dawn there, for instance. The guy who owns this S2 has a massive specialized museum/repair shop just outside Tokyo, but he brings in cars to his home frequently, so I often go by there and take a gander, as it’s close to my digs.

This Bentley stayed there for about a week; I visited it at least three times, just to continue admiring it and take more photos. I was also hoping that the cars that were parked next to it could disappear so I could get a nice profile shot – which is exactly what ended up happening, though for some reason, the chrome wheel covers were off the S2 on that particular day.

John Blatchley allegedly designed this car extremely quickly, doing a rough last-minute sketch for the brass’s approval after they dismissed his more modern-looking efforts. Be that as it may, the S / Silver Cloud’s profile is gorgeous and superbly proportioned (especially without a pillar in the way); the front end is stately and striking.

But although it’s difficult to imagine how the rear end could be better resolved than it was, this is the car’s least appealing angle, in my view. The bulk of that trunk, necessitated by the high waistline and separate fenders, makes the tail look too heavy.

All in all, these cars are a unique mix of dated post-war styling and thoroughly modern mechanicals, minus the suspension and brakes, which would have to wait until the Silver Shadow / T1 dragged Rolls and Bentley into the contemporary age proper. The ultra-rare Flying Spur and other custom-made Continentals may be deemed even more desirable and prettier than this venerable Standard Steel Saloon, but just as the best booze comes from old caskets, this S2 aged like a fine claret. Cheers!


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1959-’62 Bentley S2 • Tut 4!, by Daniel Stern

Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: 1959-1962 Bentley S2 Continental Flying Spur – The Beautiful Beginning Of The Longest Produced V8 Engine Ever, by PN

CC Biography/Design: John Blatchley of Rolls-Royce, by Don Andreina