Bentley S1, S2, S3 (1955 - 65) Buyers Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Stuart Grant

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Bentleys offer pleasurable high-speed luxury cruising but repair bills can take the shine off ownership...

Bentley S1, S2, S3 (1955 - 65) Buyers Guide
Bentley S1, S2, S3 Buyer's Guide

 

1955 - 1965 Bentley S1, S2, S3 

No Jeeves, it is not a Rolls-Royce. Yes, we're aware that it resembles in almost every respect its Silver Cloud stablemate but this car was intended for the use of gentlemen who preferred to drive rather than be driven. So polish the winged 'B' if you must while noting the distinctively V-shaped radiator shell, then settle into the rather spacious rear compartment while we explain the mysteries and attractions of 'Series' saloons from Bentley.

When Rolls-Royce acquired the remnants of W O Bentley's failed business, its haste to eliminate any vestige of sporting appeal was close to indecent. Yet, on the far side of WWII and with its parent company brimming with militarily-sourced money, Bentley steadily began to reconstruct a life of its own.

Following the release of its MkVI and later R Type, the brand was able to dramatically outsell the visually similar Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn and offer a two-door Continental version that had no Rolls-Royce equivalent.

Along came 1955 and a generation of brand new Rolls-Royce and Bentley models - much larger and imposing than the 1940s design, powered by a 4.9-litre six-cylinder engine and with automatic transmission as standard equipment. Bentley buyers were offered manual transmission until 1957 but virtually all of the cars sold were automatics. While Rolls-Royce versions were called Silver Clouds, the Bentley didn't rate an evocative name and was known simply as the Series 1.

Bodywork for the new range - referred to in R-R/Bentley circles as 'Standard Steel' - came from R-R's H J Mulliner subsidiary, with rolling chassis available to buyers seeking more individual coachwork. Specialised bodies for S1-3 models were built by a variety of sources including Hooper and James Young. The new car's wheelbase measured 3125mm - up by 75mm on the MkVI - with most of the additional length devoted to occupant legroom.

Timber and leather dominated the enlarged interior, with dials and switches mounted centrally in the dash. The typically huge steering wheel was retained and very necessary in early S1 models that came without power steering. Bench front seats were fitted to pre-1963 cars - S3s using a split bench.

A switch permitted rear shock absorber rates to be adjusted and advanced features (for its time) included windscreen washers and two-speed wipers.

While Rolls-Royce would describe its output simply as 'adequate', the side-valve six-cylinder engine developed an estimated 132kW. For 1959 came the V8-engined S2 with 20kW of additional power and a significant torque increase.

A four-headlamp restyle for 1963 gave the S3 Bentleys a rather ponderous appearance - countered to a degree by engine modifications that delivered an extra 12kW of power. Sales were looking downcast as well and only 1318 S3 saloons were built.

More exotic was the 'Chinese Eye' Continental with its angled headlamps that was built in two-door Saloon and Drophead body styles. Equally rare and a deal more elegant were four-door Flying Spur variations with James Young bodywork.


ON THE ROAD

With 6.2 litres, the V8-engined cars seem sporty enough in specification but working against any serious display of performance were increased weight and a complete disregard for aerodynamics. Acceleration from 0-60mph (0-96km/h) in an S2 took more than 12secs and a brave Wheels magazine road tester managed to extract 185km/h - into a headwind and on a wet road - and believed the car under favourable conditions was capable of more.

British evaluations were less adventurous and 180km/h is generally regarded the S2's upper limit, with the ability to maintain 140-150km/h cruising speeds. The automatic transmission was based on General Motors' Hydramatic - durable and with well-spaced ratios that ensured brisk overtaking.

'Lumbering' is probably too unkind a description of S Series handling but not a long way from reality. All-up weight of V8s is a tad over two tonnes, with suspension attuned most definitely to comfort rather than speed.

Triple circuit brakes - two hydraulic cylinders activating the front drums and mechanical for the rears - ensured that total brake failure was a most remote possibility. Savage treatment under road test conditions generated fade but to nowhere the degree displayed by American cars of similar weight.

For a car of this size, the boot is surprisingly cramped and difficult to load efficiently. Only the top section is available for luggage - the spare tyre, tools and battery being housed on the lower 'deck'. The fuel tank takes 82 litres, giving V8s a touring range of around 400km. That drops dramatically in city driving, which can boost consumption to more than 25L/100km.

Gerard Mahoney has owned our featured S1 for 16 years, the car keeping company with a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud 3. Both are currently for sale and Gerard can be contacted on 0412 165912.

"Smoothness is the thing to look for when buying a Bentley," he advised. "The engine needs to run quietly and with no vibrations, likewise the transmission needs to shift without any vibration or jerking."

While warning against buying a Bentley if you can't afford proper and regular maintenance, Mahoney also offered a reminder that specialised insurance is a must as well.

"The heated back window got broken and a replacement - one of just two that were available - cost my insurance company $4500," he said.


BUYING

Before even picking up the phone to enquire about an 'S', make sure there's a Bentley/Rolls-Royce specialist available to undertake a comprehensive pre-purchase inspection.

S1 and S2 cars can be found in running condition for less than $25,000 but these will need considerable work to ensure reliability. One advertised overseas at US$19,500 came with a $39,500 estimate for basic refurbishing. A better tactic is to seek out locally-available cars in the $40-70K price range, undertake a thorough inspection and negotiate a realistic price based on the cost of any work required to ensure long-term reliability. S1 models are generally less expensive than V8s and very good cars have sold for less than $45,000.

That price range applies only to Standard Steel saloons. Two-door Continentals are difficult to acquire for anything less than $70,000, with those that have been restored to 'show' standard topping $150,000. Convertibles are very scarce and can cost double the price of a fixed roof Continental.

Seeking out a good car isn't especially difficult. S1 and S2 sedans frequently appear in the market, with S3s more difficult to find but generally in better condition than the more common earlier models.


BUYERS CHECK POINTS

Body & Chassis

High-quality components and construction mean nothing once rust has taken hold of a Bentley. Body mounting points are the first spots to check as repairing corrosion here could instantly double the cost of a $20,000 'bargain' Bentley. Acid leaks from the rear-mounted battery can weaken the chassis beneath the battery box and add another $5000 to the repair bill. Bubbling at the point where front and rear mudguards join the main body is common and usually indicative of more serious deterioration beneath the paint. Doors, bonnet and bootlid are aluminium, so check for dents. Chrome is very expensive - a pair of rear overriders currently on offer via the club at $900. Rust repair sections are available but check on the potential cost - including labour - before taking a risk on a rusty car.

Engine & Transmission

Corrosion of aluminium engine components due to poor cooling system maintenance is common and financially disastrous. Check for sludge around the radiator filler neck and contaminated oil. Knocking from inside the engine points to deterioration of the pistons or cylinder liners, while persistent tappet noise indicates worn hydraulic lifters and a potential $5000 repair bill. Professional V8 cylinder head restoration can cost $10,000 per pair, but a set of allegedly 'remanufactured' heads was recently offered to on-line auction buyers for US$950. Club contacts can provide useful sources of affordable spares. Harsh up-changes and acrid-smelling oil signify a transmission that's overdue for an overhaul.

Suspension & Brakes

Series I cars use a pedal-operated system of chassis lubrication while subsequent models need attention to their 27 grease nipples every 5000km. Uneven tyre wear demands investigation as front suspension and steering repairs can gobble masses of money. Rattling from the front end is likely coming from kingpins that have worn due to lack of lubrication. Excess play at the steering wheel indicates wear in the lower column joint. The brake servo system is complex and prone to problems and new brake drums cost more than $1000 each. Individual rear spring leaves can crack and damage is difficult to spot without putting the car on a hoist. Reconditioning the original lever-action rear shocks on our featured S1 cost $900. Swapping from the huge crossply tyres to radials isn't recommended as the handling can be dramatically upset.

Interior & Electrics

Retrimming a Bentley in authentic materials will cost the better part of $25,000, so cars featuring worn leather and tatty timberwork need to be priced accordingly. Most detail items are available through specialist spares suppliers, however relatively small components can be expensive. Make sure that the heater and air-conditioning - where fitted - are working as both systems are difficult to repair. While inside, lift the carpets and check the under-felt and sound deadening for dampness which can quickly fill the interior with an unpleasantly musty smell.


SPECIFICATIONS

1955 - 1965 Bentley S1, S2, S3 

 

BUILT: 1955-1965

PRODUCTION: S1 - 3107, S2 - 1922, S3 - 1318 Continental (all models) - 1131

BODY: steel and aluminium, separate body/chassis, four-door saloon, two-door convertible (S1-3) two and four-door sedans, two-door convertible (Continental)

ENGINE: 4.9-litre in-line six-cylinder side valve or 6.2-litre all-alloy V8 with overhead valves and single downdraft carburettor

POWER & TORQUE: not quoted (see text)

PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h - 12.2secs. 0-400m - 18.8secs (S2 V8)

TRANSMISSION: four-speed automatic

SUSPENSION: Front - independent with wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar and telescopic shock absorbers. Rear - live axle with semi-elliptic springs, torque tube and lever action shock absorbers

BRAKES: all drum with power assistance

WHEELS: 15inch steel wheels with 8.20x15 crossply tyres

CLUB: Bentley Drivers Club of NSW. www.bdcnsw.com.au

 

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