Bentleys In My Life
Living With “SZ” Series Cars
by Richard Alexander
As a child, I am told that my first word was ‘Car’, followed by ‘Bentley’, and whilst that is a good story, it may well be apocryphal.
My Father had, in the early ‘50s, the first car I can remember, a Derby Bentley and he followed that with a MkVI, then an S1 and finally a T2. In the meantime he had purchased a 1929 4½ litre which, in 1984, he passed to me because “I am not playing with it enough”. Maybe this explains one of the reasons why I have had Bentleys.
However, like my Father, I have always appreciated good solid and sound engineering and found Bentleys fitted this very well being almost over engineered and solidly built and, they conveyed a sporting image based on their racing successes of the 1920s and ‘30s. The car has, what I would call, a proper engine room in that all the workings are there to be seen, easy to work on and can be understood with carburettors and magneto ignition and, all the drivetrain is clear and accessible. Whilst I am no mechanic, I love working on the car fettling whatever needs to be done and this satisfies my latent mechanical side and gives great pleasure when it all works. The Vintage is a joy to drive and changing gear, either up or down silently with a crash box adds to the fun. It is used whenever I can come rain or shine and does many miles each year including, some years ago, having driven to Le Mans a few times - it was interesting talking to some American tourists that they were amazed to hear that we had driven all that way rather than trailer the car. I also know that it gives pleasure to others to see the car out and about and, on motorways, something of a surprise when I go past modern cars. Although it has spent some time in hospital in the care of experts, it is now, and with an overdrive, great fun to drive, even on motorways. We believe that the mileage counter has gone round the clock and so it now has nearly 200,000 miles under its wheels. Thus I have outdoor motoring.
As for indoor motoring, in 1998 I was able to purchase my first “modern” Bentley and found a very good 1985 Eight at P & A Wood in Essex. The Eight was first produced in 1984 (1734 made) for the “Younger Executive” and had fewer, or less expensive fittings to reduce the price - mesh grill with chrome shell, no picnic tables on the back of the front seats nor overlay carpets for example. However, we now know that the mesh grill was to become a standard on many future cars as this was a nod to the Vintage cars and possibly made the cars more appealing to those looking for a sporty feeling. Initially I was looking for an S3 but at the time, they were either very expensive or, would cost a great deal to bring up to standard. I was convinced by friends that the Eight would be very suitable and after a friend had tasted* the sump oil and found it to be satisfactory it then, with a few items sorted, entered my garage. Over the years it needed very little serious work, other than replacing the head gaskets. There were some minor things which needed attention, but as the car was already thirteen years old when I bought it, this was hardly surprising. We did some 95,000 miles together and I became very attached to the Eight.
The car performed very well although the specified Avon tyres soon showed up weaknesses, mainly that they did not last very long and I also found the pressures too low which, I was told, was for comfort, not “driving”. I was recommended to try Goodyear Eagles and increase the tyre pressures; putting an extra 6lbs in the front and 4lbs in the rear much improved the roadholding and cornering. When I sold the car, they had done over 20,000 miles with plenty of remaining tread (pity they don’t make them anymore). The acceleration was more than adequate for a car of this weight even though it was a three speed box. The cabin was very good although two things struck me - no Bentley motif anywhere and, no tachometer - maybe they were part of the reduced price; I did change the steering wheel for a leather one, which had a motif, as I found the original with its hard plastic somewhat slippery - another price reducer? Whilst the seats could be set to any position, memory had not yet arrived but the climate control was very good and comfortable. Most of us like to look in the engine room and the Eight was open to view and because it was still normal aspiration and ignition, it could be understood. On good clear runs up the motorway with cruise control, 22mpg was about the average return. I always felt that, on arrival at my destination whether it had been 20 miles or over 100, as though I had not really driven at all, but been wafted.
In 2013 after 15 years, and although the Eight was still in very good condition, it became obvious that I was spending money on mainly the bodywork and, parts were beginning to need replacement but for a by then, 188,000 mile car, this was to be expected - I am told that some Eights have nearly 300,000 miles on the clock and never needed any serious work. But, my heart ruled my head and I found it difficult to contemplate a replacement. However, casually browsing through some reputable Bentley dealer web-sites, I saw a Turbo RT (SWB) with reasonable mileage - I went to have a look.
Built in 1997, I have very good reason to believe that it is only one of two SWBs and the other is LHD. There were 250 Turbo RT (LWB) built although they were never called “LWB” because it was the standard production car, but the two SWBs are not listed as they were, apparently, special orders. At first glance, I saw no significant differences to the body of the Eight as it is, I believe, the same chassis and body. On closer inspection, there are a number of noticeable changes including the front with two distinct headlights as opposed to two under one cover and, larger air dams; the radiator is the same mesh grill and also the shell is again chromed (both of which I prefer). There are further ‘tweeks’ to the body which do make it ‘different’ to the Eight. The car is based on the Turbo R and features the Continental T powertrain which gives 400bhp and 590lb ft at 2100rpm. It does have a couple of advantages over the LWB, one being that in having 3½ inches worth of less steel in the length, it has less weight. It has many other improvements over the Eight by having an extra 12/14 years of further advances in development and such like, never mind the Turbo.
So, a test drive. I first noticed that the steering was slightly heavier but it suited the car. Driving in traffic was very comfortable and it was easy to place the car, but then it has the same dimensions as the Eight. Out on the open road I put my foot down and it was backs pushed into the seat and watch the speedometer very carefully as you very quickly hit the legal limit (0-30mph in 2 secs; 0-60, 6½ secs). I have driven a number of modern Bentleys, including GTs and a Mulsanne, but this was impressive, very impressive. Wow, this car can Move! Whilst the power it develops is spectacular, the torque is amazing. This was definitely a ‘driver’s’ car far more so than the Eight. I can’t say I fell in love with it there and then, but it certainly grabbed my attention such that, after a few days of thinking and talking about it, I decided it was to be mine.
I have now had the Turbo RT SWB for 16 months (@ Sept 2014) and enjoying it very much indeed. If you want a comfortable cruising car, you have it and, if you want to ‘drive’ the car which I do, you can, so you have the best of both worlds. The cabin is again what you would expect from Bentley and considerably up-graded from the Eight including memory seats and a tachometer; but then it was to be expected being 12 years younger. One gauge which is missing, and I can’t work out why, is the outside temperature although there is a warning for below 3° centigrade; I found this very useful in the Eight. The gearbox is four speed and changes without perception and adapts very well to the style of driving - I have never yet had to engage Sport because the power is instant with no lag at all. The whole car gives you a feeling of well-being because you know it will deal with any situation without fuss - the traction control has activated a couple of times, but that was on loose surfaces - honest! The active ride allows corners to be taken without drama and thus gives you confidence. And, whilst you have all that extra power and acceleration, I have found no real difference in fuel consumption - if you behave yourself; a good 20+mpg can be expected on a clear run. One slight downside is that if you wish to look in the engine room, there are covers everywhere so you can’t see anything, even if you knew what was what regarding electronic ignition and fuel injection. Whilst I enjoyed driving the Eight very much, it is true to say that the Turbo RT is better in many respects mainly because it is more of a driver’s car and I know I will still be enjoying it many years hence.
The car spent a couple of weeks (mid 2014) at P & A Wood for a full service and examination and, a number of major, and minor, faults and problems were found. The main fault was that the front springs had gone soft lowering the car by some 1½” (not that uncommon apparently). Although the car was going well, I never realized that many of the items they listed needed attention. It says something that only the true experts would find these, but thank goodness they did. It therefore pays to get those with full knowledge of your cars to give them an in-depth health check every-so-often. I do like my cars to be “right”. It should now see out my driving career and hopefully be able to be passed on, like the Vintage, to my sons.
I think what impresses me most is when you realize that although the engine is the same V8 as in my Eight, it is based on the engine designed by Jack Phillips in 1959. It has been progressively up-graded over the years and is the oldest engine design in the world still being manufactured.
* I do mean “tasted” and not “tested”. If the oil is sweet, keep looking but if sour, walk away.
This article first appeared in October 2014 “SZ Magazine” - after I had my arm twisted!