Driving cover. The List. A vivid memory of a Rolls-Royce in the Sixties left our reader yearning to experience lambswool luxury for himself – but sampling modern Bentleys left him with the blues. Will a drive in a Bentley S2 Continental Flying Spur ward them off for good? The List Bentley S2 Continental Flying Spur. Your dream drive made real. This Continental Flying Spur cures a reader’s Bentley blues. A chance encounter with a Rolls-Royce in the Sixties left Tony Barton wanting to experience what he calls a ‘proper Bentley’ ever since. Will an S2 Continental Flying Spur satisfy his curiosity? Words Sam Dawson. Photography Alex Tapley.
‘You can tell how bespoke the engineering is’
Have you ever seen that Bond film You Only Live Twice?’ asks Classic Cars reader Tony Barton as he stands on the gravel driveway behind Stratton Motor Company’s premises just south of Norwich, admiring the gleaming Wine Red Bentley Continental S2 Flying Spur we’ve arranged for him to drive. It’s an unusual introduction, but Tony is an extraordinary man – and every car that interests him comes with a surprising anecdote attached.
‘Driving up here to Norfolk put me in mind of a previous trip, back in the Sixties with a friend of mine, to meet Ken Wallis,’ Tony continues. ‘We were put in touch with him via my electrical engineering and Royal Navy connections, and came to fly his autogyros. He designed “Little Nellie”, the autogyro used in that film. He lived in a big old manor house in the countryside not far from here, with a vast hangar in the grounds. He opened the doors, and there were rows of these aircraft flanking a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, of the same era as this Bentley. We were there to fly and have a drink with him afterwards, but I always fancied a drive in that car.’ Roger Bennington, director of the Stratton Motor Company, smiles in recognition. ‘Ken was a regular customer of ours,’ he confirms. ‘More recently, I drove for a wedding-hire company that ran a couple of more modern Bentleys,’ Tony continues, ‘but they were unusual models with a disappointingly hard ride. You could identify them by their wheel type, apparently, but they weren’t what I expected of a Bentley. That’s why I want to experience a Bentley of this era, and the Continental was always the most desirable of them all.’
1961 Bentley S2 Flying-Spur road test
Tony settles into the Continental’s vast, opulent interior and with a wry grin starts looking for things to criticise. ‘You can’t adjust the seat height, can you?’ he asks. ‘And look – it has manually wound windows!’ He underlines the irony of his jibe by turning the driver’s-side chrome handle with its smoothly silent, well-oiled action. Electric windows are so de rigueur in everything short of the lowliest base-model supermini nowadays that perhaps we’ve forgotten that there is even a luxurious way to hand-wind them. Basking in this Bentley’s sumptuous cream leather cocoon, it actually feels far more appropriate to wind the glass down at your own leisure via a tactile and weighty handle than it would be to jab at a plastic button.
Tony clunks the ‘surprisingly fierce’ column-mounted automatic shifter into Drive, and manoeuvres the vast Continental on to the fast-moving A140. Other drivers in their modern cars instinctively slow down and wave the Bentley into their paths, beaming at the sight of its shimmering brightwork and curvaceous wings. Despite the Continental’s sleek four-door coupé shape, its massive steel wheels and HJ Mulliner’s adherence to an old coachbuilder’s convention regarding the relative proportion of wheel size to cabin height mean it’s actually as lofty and imperious as a modern SUV; a factor we’re reminded of as Tony draws us up at a set of traffic lights alongside a current-model Range Rover.
1961 Bentley S2 Flying Spur road test
‘This is what a British luxury saloon should be,’ says Tony, comparing the Bentley to the bulky 4×4 alongside. ‘For me it’s the proportions, the lofty driving position and the ride quality that are most important in a luxury car. After seeing Ken Wallis’s Rolls-Royce, and chauffeuring an Admiral – the Commodore of the Royal Navy barracks in Portsmouth – in his Humber Hawk, which he let me take home with me. Both cars had that combination of well-judged proportions, lofty driving position and ride quality, and made me want to own a Jaguar MkVII, which seemed to be the sportiest of them all. But back then the most I ever spent on a car was £35-£40 so I couldn’t really aspire to one.
‘Those 4x4s might be good off-road – and I’m not knocking them, I’m considering buying a Jeep because I live on a farm – but they certainly don’t have the sense of smoothness of a wellengineered saloon. I would like to be able to raise the seat so I could see the tops of the front wings but the Bentley is surprisingly narrow, making it much easier to manoeuvre than one of those modern things. Then again I’m used to large vehicles – in the Navy I often drove a 60-foot-long aircraft recovery vehicle.’
Through the lights, we pass out of Long Stratton and into open countryside, the road flanked by national speed limit signs. Tony progressively pushes the accelerator into the deep carpet and muses on the Continental’s attributes as a driver’s car.
‘Although the steering has a lot of play in it – and I suppose that’s just typical of the car’s era – you can tell how bespoke the engineering is,’ Tony remarks. ‘So many manufacturers these days, even those building luxury cars, use generic off-the-shelf components to reduce costs but they don’t end up with the same sense of purpose as something like this. Everything about this car seems to have been designed to make it comfortable. Also, while there’s no overdrive the gear ratios are so long that when I put my foot down I know if I kept it there we’d soon be the other side of 80mph. And yet the acceleration remains smooth at all times.’
1961 Bentley S2 Flying Spur road test
There is one thing that detracts ever so slightly from Tony’s enjoyment of the car, which becomes more noticeable as we turn off the A140 and head towards Tibenham Airfield on much slower, winding roads. ‘There’s a hard clunk when the automatic gearbox changes up,’ he points out. ‘At higher rpm you don’t notice it so much, which makes me think the car must be geared for maintaining high speeds and oil pressures. I think the perfect place to drive this car would be on an Italian autostrada, or a journey over the Swiss Alps.
Actually, 15 years ago I got a government grant to expand my electrical manufacturing business into Hungary. I would regularly go out there, flying into Budapest, hiring a car and driving for several hours to the factory. The airport hire-car firms inevitably had Fiats and VWs, but it would have been magnificent to have this Bentley waiting for me in a hangar in Budapest. Actually, no – I’d drive it all the way from England, it’s so effortless! When I worked in Germany I used to drive across Europe in my Rover SD1 V8, cruising at 110mph on the autobahn.
‘I’m not sure I’d cruise that quickly in this Bentley just yet. You have to learn the handling characteristics of each car first,’ says Tony as he points the vast bonnet down the narrow lanes, in search of a petrol station now the light has illuminated on the dashboard. ‘Cruising at 40-50mph is best for this – you can work out things like braking, steering and throttle response without getting into trouble.’
We draw up on the forecourt of a filling station in the village of Attleborough, where Tony shifts the Bentley back into neutral for the first time and marvels at its composure. ‘Just listen – its idle is silent,’ he whispers. ‘They used to say you could balance an old threepenny bit on the bonnet of one of these and it wouldn’t fall off. I can believe that.’
The Bentley is attracting a lot of attention on the forecourt. One man walking by with a newspaper under his arm approaches us for a closer look, drawn in by its lustrous colour and sense of quality. ‘They don’t make ’em like that any more; you must be so proud,’ he says, assuming it’s Tony’s car. We smile politely, but in reality we’re both feeling slightly silly because we can’t find the control for the fuel filler flap. It’s locked and can’t be opened from the outside. There’s no key-latch in it, and despite trying every lever under the dashboard and rummaging around under the seats, there’s nothing obvious to unlock it.
Eventually, Tony finds the release lever in the boot, which seems like a strangely inconvenient location for a car that’s all about making life effortless. Then again, for something you’ll use a lot in a car that does 13 miles per gallon, there’s a nice surprise – the fuel cap itself is a beautifully knurled and weighty chunk of aluminium that spins off its screwthread with the same damped precision as the window-winders. We brim the tank, and we’re away again.
‘It’s a refreshingly positive car to drive,’ Tony remarks as we set off down the sweeping B1077. ‘It’s thankfully nothing like that modern Bentley I drove at the wedding firm. It’s not trying to be sporty, and yet it doesn’t wallow or lurch in corners either. It’s got very compliant handling and goes where you point it, and the engine’s torque means it’s always responsive with lusty acceleration but it never loses that sense of refinement.’
Tony thinks back to his days ferrying the Admiral around in the Humber as we pass through the village of Old Buckenham. ‘It makes me realise just how special the Bentley is. Given the popularity of things like Humbers and even Cadillacs back then, I don’t think handling was considered important in a luxury car, so this Continental must have been a revelation.’
He’s right. The Jaguar MkVII he never got his hands on also hinted strongly at the rapidly changing direction for luxury cars in the Fifties and Sixties, moving away from the chauffeured behemoth and towards a new market of enthusiastic ownerdrivers. The Continental S2, with its coupé shape and small rear doors, typified this new ideal that’s still with us today at the top of most high-end manufacturers’ ranges.
‘I’ve remembered another encounter with a Rolls-Royce, actually,’ Tony remarks as we head south towards the ancient town of Diss. ‘Back in the late Sixties when my business started doing well, I bought a secondhand Aston Martin DB2/4 from a man who’d replaced it with a new Rolls-Royce. He certainly appreciated the space and luxury, but I remember him complaining that the air conditioning he’d specified knocked five brake horsepower off, which was noticeable when going up hills or cruising on motorways in something so heavy. How far we’ve come, eh?’
However, once we enter Diss’s medieval heart, its tiny streets by the old Corn Hall organised into a one-way system to avoid gridlock, Tony threads the near-18-foot Bentley down the alleyway-like St Nicholas Street with relaxed ease. ‘You see, it’s relatively narrow,’ he notes. ‘But it certainly doesn’t feel it inside. I know modern cars have thick doors because of side-impact bars and the like, but it’s a shame they’ve made cars so lumbering. This car is proof you can make a big car surprisingly wieldy.’
It’s a style Tony appreciates. ‘If I won the lottery I’d certainly have one,’ he says. ‘I’d keep it for special occasions, to waft along the south coast in. I think mine would probably be a drophead coupé, and I’d get the seat altered to raise it slightly, but I really am reluctant to hand back the keys now. It’s just so lovely to drive.’
Thanks to the Stratton Motor Company for providing this 1961 Bentley S2 Continental Flying Spur, which is currently being offered for sale at £125,000. Visit strattonmotorcompany.com.
‘I’ve driven modern Bentleys but they were disappointing, which is why I wanted to sample one from this era’
TONY’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
Aston Martin V8 Volante ‘It might be the best car that Aston Martin ever made’
Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 W116 ‘It’s just such an interesting idea – nearly seven litres of high performance in a luxury saloon’
Aston Martin DB6 Vantage ‘I owned a DB2/4 in the Sixties when the DB6 was current – it would be interesting to try the traditional DB line’s ultimate evolution’
Alvis TD21 ‘I have a particular liking for British luxury cars, and this one typifies the breed…’
Alvis Speed 20 ‘…or perhaps this does. I’d love to find out!’
Frazer-Nash BMW 328 ‘I owned a 1935 example for a short while in 1958 when I was in the Navy. Mine was bought from a breakers’ yard – I’d love to try a good one’
Rolls-Royce Corniche ‘Roof down, touring the English Riviera – perfect’
Triumph 2000 Roadster ‘Another bought from a breaker’s yard in the Fifties that I’d like to revisit, complete with dicky seat’
Jaguar MkVII ‘I always aspired to own one but just couldn’t afford it at the time’
‘Everything about this car seems to have been designed to make it comfortable’
TONY BARTON’S CAR CV
A working life at sea and a successful career in electrics has made for a fascinating car history
‘Incredibly it was ex-1935 Le Mans. When I was stationed in Portsmouth, there was a breaker’s yard on Southampton Road, and when the MoT test came in there were fears of a crackdown that caused people to offload old cars very cheaply. I went to my wedding in it in 1958.’
‘Another breaker’s yard car, again from 1935. I bought it for £12 but bear in mind that £8-£12 was the average weekly wage back then. I kept it until the early Sixties.’
ASTON MARTIN DB2/4
‘It was the 1954 Motor Show car, bought secondhand in the Sixties. Back then I could drive it from Lowestoft to my house in Kent in three hours flat!’
BMW 2002 TII
‘I went to a promotional track day held at Brands Hatch when this car was launched. BMW gave me one for the weekend and on the way home I found myself doing an indicated 125mph on the M20.’
BORGWARD BIG SIX
‘I’ve never seen another one in the UK. I kept the owners’ manual for posterity.’
‘I’ve just sold it to an NSU collector. My daughter passed her test in it, but over time the chassis rotted through. I chopped it in two and kept it on pallets in my barn. I just never got round to restoring it.’
‘I found it abandoned on the hard shoulder of the M25 with no numberplates. I checked with the police, removed it, fitted the engine from my father’s old 1275GT, re-registered it and my daughter ran it for years.’
Imposing enough to prompt even modern Range Rovers to dive out of the way. 6.3 litres of creamy V8 deliciousness straight from the Crewe dairy. Sam and Tony hope their bank cards are easier to find than the S2’s fuel filler release switch. Badge-engineering done the ‘proper’ way. Our burgundy Bentley gives its modern descendants a sobering lesson in luxury. Sam hopes the Continental can cure Tony’s weddinghire Bentley blues.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1961 Bentley S2 Flying Spur
Engine 6230cc V8, ohv, two SU carburettors
Power and torque 200bhp @ 4500rpm; 332lb ft @ 2500rpm
Transmission Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Brakes Drums front and rear, servo-assisted
Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar. / Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Z-bar anti-roll bar, lever-arm dampers.
Steering Worm and roller, optional power assistance
Weight 1916kg (4225lb)
Performance Top speed: 119mph; 0-60mph: 12.9sec
Fuel consumption 13mpg
Cost new £8119
Current values £75,000-£175,000