Not all Bentley’s Flying Spurs have been as beautiful or graceful as the ’50s original. Can the new one rediscover the great name’s form? Words Gavin Green. Photography Sam Chick.
Return to elegance Bentley Flying Spurs
Bentley design director Stefan Sielaff likes to look back before moving forward. So when he and his team began conceiving Bentley’s new high-performance luxury saloon, the next-generation Flying Spur, they studied the car that started the bloodline. ‘We always look to our heritage before designing new cars,’ says the affable Bavarian, at 57 just five years younger than that first Flying Spur. ‘It would be a big mistake to blow this away and ignore 100 years of history. Customers expect vehicles that are true to Bentley’s heritage. Those old cars also have a lot to teach us.’
It’s easy to see similarities between the 2020 Flying Spur – sales begin early next year – and the S1 Flying Spur, unveiled in 1957 (this example was built in 1958). On both cars we find tiny front overhangs, long bonnets and tapering tails that finish well aft of the rear wheels. Note the flowing front wings and long, strong shoulder lines (or ‘power lines’ as Sielaff calls them). And the pronounced rear haunches, rounded and muscular.
The S1 Flying Spur was a rare exception to this wretched tale of post-war decline
These cues convey speed and sportiness, says Sielaff. Bentleys are not just about luxury, unlike their former housemates Rolls-Royce. They’re performance cars, and have been since WO Bentley’s first prototype 100 years ago. Bentleys began winning at Le Mans just eight years later.
The similarities, old and new, continue. Note the vertical vanes in the grille, stainless steel on the old timer, chromed plastic – disappointingly – on the new one. (Only Rolls-Royce does proper stainless steel these days.) Sielaff describes the vanes as part of Bentley’s ‘genetic code’. Note, too, the Flying B mascots on both cars, regularly updated since the ’50s and now redesigned for Bentley’s 100th anniversary. We also see chrome strips that run down the centre of the bonnets of both cars, so very ’50s Bentley.
The two cars have a significant similarity: they both use someone else’s underpinnings
Inside there are the same organ-stop vent controls, which glide with such delicious and feelsome fluidity, and the same chrome bullseye vents – although new vents now reside in the centre console of the 2020 car. There is finely stitched leather of pleasing tactility and fragrance, plentiful wood (koa on the new car, walnut on the old, though many other veneers were available then and now), and classical analogue-style instruments, blackfaced and bold. On the old timer they’re Smiths, so wonderfully evocative of the ’50s and ’60s, and as much a part of mid-century British motoring as Dunlop tyres and Castrol oil, flat caps and hedgerow-lined roads. On the latest car they’re new-fangled TFTs but designed with period-piece graphics and colours. ‘I love the meeting of high-tech and playful old tech. Modern Bentleys may look true to their past,’ adds Sielaff, ‘but they’re now technically cutting edge.’
With one notable exception. Like most VW-owned brands, Bentley is still an electric car laggard, although a V6 plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles are coming. (A battery-electric Bentley will be with us by 2025, the late-arriving Bentayga hybrid lands later this year and, over the next 24 months, plug-in hybrids will be offered across the range, including the new Flying Spur.) For the moment, we find the same massive 6.0-litre 626bhp Crewe-built twin-turbo W12 in the new Spur’s nose, identical to the lump found in the new Continental GT. This is the main reason why the Flying Spur is the world’s fastest production saloon (207mph) and one of the most accelerative (0-60mph in 3.7 seconds). It’s a luxury car that can fly like a supercar. Its enormous maximum torque of 664lb ft comes in well before 2000rpm and keeps punching heavyweight-hard beyond 4000rpm.
It’s a superbly refined and powerful engine, even if it is about as 21st century as the Flying Scotsman. As an environmental sop, it does serve up cylinder deactivation, running as a 3.0-litre V6 when not hurried. The two cars have another significant similarity: they both use someone else’s underpinnings. The new Spur sits on the VW group’s MSB architecture, developed principally by Porsche for its latest Panamera. The S1 sits on a Rolls-Royce platform, shared with the 1955 Silver Cloud. It is a simple steel box-section frame, heavy but rigid, as Rolls’ are). The undistinguished but meaty mechanicals – 4.9-litre straight-six engine that can trace its ancestry back to the 1920s, coil front suspension and live axle rear – were also taken straight from Rolls-Royce. Also shared was the four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, supplied by General Motors.
The ’50s were not a good time for Bentley. By then, Rolls-Royce had owned Bentley for some 20 years (following Bentley’s bankruptcy) and year-by-year Bentley’s individuality was being emasculated. By the ’50s, its cars were mere badge-engineered Rollers, as Bentley’s Rolls masters were discovering the money-spinning opportunities of selling two separate prestige brands that shared identical parts. They hadn’t yet sussed the brand-destroying downsides. Or if they had, they seemed not to care.
Indeed, the standard S1 Bentley saloon (on which the first Flying Spur was based) was even identical in design to its Silver Cloud donor vehicle, apart from radiator grille and badging. Rolls-Royce Motors kept undermining the Bentley name until Britain’s two most famous luxury car brands were separated in the ’90s and sold to rival German giants (BMW and Volkswagen respectively). Paradoxically, the Germans helped these regal British brands rediscover success, and their precious Britishness in design and engineering philosophy.
The S1 Continental Flying Spur was a rare exception to this wretched tale of post-war decline (there were a few other high points, from the marvellous 1952 R-Type Continental – Sielaff’s favourite Bentley – to the muscular 1985 Turbo R). The Silver Cloud/S-series Bentley had a separate chassis – Rolls’ and Bentley’s last – and this allowed British coachbuilders to perform their hand-wrought magic. Separate chassis allowed for bespoke bodies, and the shapely form of the S1 Continental Flying Spur was the work of HJ Mulliner, the eminent Chiswick-based coachbuilder later sold to Rolls-Royce, and now Bentley’s in-house tailor-made brand.
Some 217 wealthy patrons clad their S1s with Mulliner coachwork, more than doubling the cost of a standard Bentley-bodied car. The name Flying Spur also came from Mulliner, given by its managing director Arthur Talbot Johnstone after the heraldic crest of his clan (Clan Johnstone of the Scottish Borders): a winged spur.
Fortunately, Bentley of 2019 has more independence than Bentley of 1957. Unlike ’50s Bentley Motors, today’s has its own design and engineering teams. For the latest Flying Spur, out goes the old VW Phaeton-carryover platform – on which the old Spur always sat a little unhappily, as did the previous Continental GT – and in comes a new one, co-developed with Porsche. While the Phaeton platform was a hand-me-down, the Bentley engineers helped create this architecture. They got what they wanted, not what was available, improving the style of the car, and no doubt the dynamics.
Sielaff mentions the longer dash-to-front-axle distance, ‘the biggest single reason for the improved styling’. The new car has its front wheels 130mm further forward, increasing the wheelbase. The front overhang is shorter, overall length and width much the same. (Shame they didn’t have the same freedom with the Audi-supplied platform for that styling tragedy that is the Bentayga.)
Of particular note on the new Spur is the new four-wheel air suspension and 48-volt electronic anti-roll control to reduce bodyroll and boost ride suppleness. Hugely effective in making the Bentagya handle where it really shouldn’t, the system effectively allows the car to engage its anti-roll bars during cornering, for control and stability, and de-couple them the rest of the time for increased pliancy and amazing ride comfort. On the Flying Spur the upshot should be superior handling, better ride, greater agility, steering feel and traction. Experience on the new Continental GT – which uses the same system – shows it works extremely well. In the Flying Spur we also find an engine sited 150mm further back – better for styling and driving dynamics – and a new eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It’s the excellent Porsche PDK system, customised by Bentley for higher torque.
Engineer Simon Blake, head of body and trim, says the new Flying Spur is ‘in a different stratosphere compared with the previous model’. Comfort, performance, handling and ‘convenience’ (read connectivity) are all massively enhanced, says Blake. New technology such as four-wheel steering, a first for Bentley, enhances agility, useful on a 2.4-tonne car. As before, all-wheel drive is standard, biased to rear-drive in the Sport mode. The body is aluminium and its panels are super-formed – so they’re heated to 500°C before being shaped. This allows for more complex and sharply defined body lines, especially important for aluminium, which can be harder to sculpt into crisp, shapely forms.
If some of this tech sounds familiar, that’s because this architecture and super-forming process was first used on the latest Continental GT, launched last year. The platform is the same, and so is the front suspension. The wheelbase has been increased by a hefty 344mm, length by 450mm. Rear suspension is unique to the Spur, though the configuration is borrowed from the two-door.
It’s markedly more handsome than the previous Spur, smoother and shapelier. Eagle eyes may spot the taller and more upright front end, despite that sleeker style. ‘It looks more statuesque and majestic,’ says Sielaff. ‘Those vertical vanes also give more presence.’
Inside, the dashboard and upper facia are identical to the latest Continental GT. There is also a Conti-like central rotating display that can serve up three trad instruments, a large touchscreen or a minimalist plank of varnished wood, as you please. Sielaff calls the latter the ‘digital detox’ mode, ‘perfect after a hard day’s work’.
The centre console is different from the two-door car’s, wider and ‘floating’ between the two seats. The front section of the cabin has a different character from the rear, and that’s quite intentional. The front envelops the driver and front passenger, and the seats are low, boosting intimacy between driver and car. In the rear it’s more expansive, more like a lounge. ‘Owners are both drivers and rear-seat [chauffeur-driven] passengers. It’s cosy in the rear and commanding in the front,’ explains Sielaff. The rear has a new five-inch touchscreen that can control seats – including massage – plus heating, ventilation, lighting, audio, side blinds and roof blinds.
Craftsmanship remains a Bentley hallmark, and Sielaff and his team were keen to convey this. Stroll through the Crewe factory and you’ll see carpenters and leathersmiths, metal workers and fabricators – never mind that the bodies-in-white are all shipped in from Germany. When you have a century of hand-wrought tradition at your disposal, you want the customer to appreciate it – otherwise they may just as well buy a robot-made Mercedes or BMW and save thousands. This is especially true for Bentley’s cheapest saloon (although cheap is relative: don’t expect much change from £170,000 for the W12 version). The target customers are wealthy S-Class and 7-series owners seeking something more distinctive. China and the USA will be the biggest markets.
Three-dimensional quilting in both leather and – more radically – in wood are offered. Mulliner bespoking is of course available – picnic tables, marquetry, special leathers, you name it. Myriad colours and trims are also on offer, varying from what Sielaff describes as a ‘black spec’ – without much brightwork, sportier, and likely to be more popular in Europe and the more tasteful parts of America – and the full bling ‘chrome spec’ featuring maximum brightwork, favoured in the luxury-loving Middle East and China. For those who want to go even further, there is an extraordinary new diamond-knurling pattern on the redesigned central air vents. There are 5331 individual ‘diamonds’ on what must be the world’s showiest air vents, and certainly the most elaborately finished. Sielaff says it is his favourite cabin detail, and one of the most painstaking to engineer and design.
Perhaps the biggest change – old versus new – is the assistance systems. The old S1 Bentley didn’t even have standard power steering. Now, cameras all around the car provide top-down views, can help park and see traffic when reversing. There’s traffic assist, city assist, blindspot warning, pedestrian warning, traffic sign recognition and night vision.
There’s also a truly fabulous sound system, the top-of-the-range 18-speaker 2200-watt Naim unit. Mind you, I bet any ’50s buttons-and-knobs car radio would be easier to use.
Panamera platform brings lots of good news, not least elegant proportions
The new car’s markedly more handsome than the previous Flying Spur, ‘more statuesque and majestic’ says Sielaff. ‘B is for Bentley, C is for Crewe, D is for dinosau…’ How dare you! Front aspect is pure Continental, down to the ‘whiskey tumbler’ headlights
2020 Flying Spur
Price £170,000 (est, on sale early 2020)
Powertrain 5950cc 48v twin-turbo W12, 8-speed twin-clutch auto, all-wheel drive
Max Power 626bhp @ 6000rpm,
Max Torque 664lb ft @ 1350rpm,
0-62mph : 3.7sec
Max Speed 207mph
Efficiency 20mpg (est), 320g/km CO2 (est)
1958 S1 FLYING SPUR
Price £7994 (in 1957, equivalent to £190k)
Powertrain 4887cc straight-six, 4-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Max Speed 180bhp,
Max Speed 119mph
Plenty of old in the new, on the outside at least.
Digital driver’s display does at least show classical instruments on its very contemporary screen. The hybrid’s coming. But for now just wallow in an unapologetically 20th century approach to motoring