Curbside Classic: 1964 Bentley S3 – Grille Engineering

When Rolls-Royce took over Bentley in the mid-‘30s, each of the two marques had a clear role and segment. Rolls were very large and opulent, suitable for chauffeur-driven limos. Bentleys had smaller engines and a sporting heritage. After 1945, the two marques became clones technically, but Bentley kept a sporty model in the Continental and LWB models were still the purview of Rolls-Royce. By the time the brand new V8 came to be in 1959, though, the Bentley marque started to lose what remained of its character. But at least the grille stayed.

Still, the S3 is an important car in Bentley’s history for at least a couple of reasons. In 1962, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III and the Bentley S3 were launched at the Paris Motor Show. Compared to the previous models, the new Rolls-Bentley offered a number of minor improvements, such as a slightly lowered grille, new seats, a tad more (undisclosed) power from the 6.2 litre alloy V8 and, most noticeably of all, quad headlamps.

The quads, which were included in all S3 variants, were a first that ended up lasting quite a while. Rolls finally ditched them completely when they went all square in the early naughties, but Bentley kept them for a while longer. Indeed, there are still remnants of them in present-day Bentleys.

Unlike Rolls-Royce, which had the old-fashioned Phantom limos at the apex of the range, Bentley only had the one model. So when the Silver Shadow clone T1 took over for MY 1966, Bentley waved goodbye forever to a number of older technical features, such as body-on-frame construction, drum brakes and the live rear axle that were used on the S3.

The S3 is also important because that was when the last vestiges of Bentley’s individuality were shed away. Initially, Bentley still had the Continental, which still were strictly coachbuilt cars, unlike the standard steel saloon we have here. The Continental chassis was technically identical to the standard S3, except for the lower scuttle and the steering column having a steeper rake to accommodate the lower beltline and roofline of the Continental designs.

For a while, this remained a Bentley exclusive, but in 1964 the Continental chassis, along with the body designs that were either executed by Mulliner-Park Ward – i.e. Rolls-Royce’s in-house coachbuilder – or James Young, became available with an R-R badge. The grille-engineering of Bentley was now complete.

By 1964 then, Bentley had come full circle to being an exact clone of Rolls-Royce. The writing (or rather the badging) had been on the wall for a while, but it took a surprisingly long time for every single model to be available with either grille. Except for the Phantoms, which remained a Rolls-only affair.

Bentley survived and initiated an unlikely re-birth in the ‘90s, only to be de-coupled from Rolls-Royce and inheriting the bulk of the family fortune in the process, albeit under German ownership. Nobody could have ever predicted that in 1965. Or even in 1985.

But no matter what grille is in the front, these are incredible cars. And not just in terms of comfort or snob-appeal: they performed well, too. Despite the Silver Cloud III / S3’s bulk and almost complete disregard for anything approaching aerodynamics, contemporary testers could get them to go from 0 to 60mph in under 11 seconds.

Naturally, that was not the point of the S3. Dignified, if rapid, progress in near silence was what the car promised its well-heeled owner. Let’s step inside.

Nobody does traditional English boudoirs like the folks at Crewe. It’s a little odd how huge and ancient-looking that truck-like black bakelite steering wheel is for a ‘60s luxury car. Yes, the car was made to look traditional and all, but surely, they could have made the wheel a bit more attractive – or at least smaller. Power steering was a thing by this point.

The rear seat was set back compared to the S2, adding a couple of inches of legroom to the rear passengers. After all, they were often the ones who paid for the car, so they could use a gesture beyond vanity mirrors and picnic tables.

It strikes me that, with its solid engine, bullet-proof Hydramatic 4-speed and relatively uncomplicated chassis, this might be the best generation of Bentley from an owner’s point of view. Subsequent models have earned a reputation for being extremely expensive and complex to repair and maintain. The V8-powered S-Types aren’t exactly cheap either, but far more straightforward.

The issue might be finding one: only 1285 Bentley S3 standard steel saloons were made between late 1962 and September 1965. An additional 25 long-wheelbase cars, with a 10cm longer rear door but otherwise identical to our CC, were also built. About twice as many Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud IIIs were made, reflecting the Spirit of Ecstasy’s greater popularity, especially in the all-important US market.

And that’s the limit of grille-engineering: if one of the twin marques is much more popular than the other, what is the point in having two marques? Bentley had a measure of fame in Western Europe, but globally, the Rolls-Royce name enjoyed much greater renown. In the ‘70s, Bentley hung on by a thread, with their output going down to about 10% of R-R’s. Kudos to Rolls for not having done away with the winged B mascot circa 1980 – or even much earlier.

All things being equal – which, when discussing Rolls and Bentley standard steel saloons of the ‘60s, they certainly were, the S3 does have the edge over the Silver Cloud III. The Rolls grille’s uncompromising rectilinearity doesn’t really mesh well with John Blatchley’s swoopy lines. Because it’s just a matter of grilles and badges, the Bentley wins. Hands down and wings up.

What was the point of the Bentley S3? To prove that Rolls-Royce designs looked better with a smoother nose. It took a very long time (and the addition of a turbocharger) for the buyers to tend to agree, eventually bringing the zombified Bentley marque back to life. The darkest hour was just after the Silver Dawn.