WHEN BENTLEY’S CHIEF Designer JP Blatchley and Chief Projects Engineer Ivan Evernden teamed up to work on a secret unofficial project in 1952, they stumbled across something quite unlike anything seen in the automotive world before.
Their aim was to restore Bentley to the pinnacle of practical grand touring – back to the original vision of Bentley’s founder Walter Owen when his cars, piloted by rakish Bentley Boys, regularly embarked on cross-continental jaunts from the Royal Automobile Club to Le Mans in the roaring 1920s.
Using the marque’s 180bhp 4.9-litre straight-six engine, the pair worked on modifying the design of the formidable R-Type Continental, which could comfortably cruise at 100mph for hours at a time. With two more doors and new bodywork courtesy of coachbuilder Mulliner, the Bentley Continental Flying Spur was born 1957. Blatchley and Evernden had, perhaps unwittingly, created the world’s first super-saloon – a formula that would become a firm favourite for those seeking a delicate balance of practicality and performance for decades to come.
Now, as the Crewe-based car maker comes to the end of a year’s worth of champagne popping and centenary celebrations, Blatchley and Evernden’s original creation has moved on – considerably. After the original first graced the roads in 1957, the Flying Spur name re-emerged in 2005. This makes the model basking in the Monaco sun before me the third and most recent iteration. Looks familiar? Well, Bentley would certainly hope so. Born into the same family as the two-door Continental, the Flying Spur is the GT’s luxurious limo sister, which squares up to the likes of Mercedes and Porsche, as well as its plucky British brothers Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce.
Like something from the pages of Casino Royale, I first catch a glance of the new Flying Spur parked outside Monaco’s Hotel de Paris. Naturally, Bond fans will appreciate that in Fleming’s book, 007 blasted off in a 1931 4.5-litre Blower Bentley, not an Aston. The Spur’s jewel-like headlamps glimmer as casino goers and passers-by start to assemble in the city state’s iconic square.
While the surroundings are certainly well suited to Bentley’s latest model, the 626bhp W12-engined super-saloon was created for more than just sitting around outside exclusive hotels looking pretty. With so many twisting coastal passes along the French Riviera to explore, it’s time to hit the road.
What we have today is a lot more fluid and abstract interpretation of the original
After a long, snaking drive up from Monaco’s harbourfront along Route Napoleon, we come across an immaculate S1 Flying Spur, conveniently parked outside a villa tucked away in the hills. With its deep black paint and imperious chrome cheese grater grille, the 1950s S1 is a charming reminder of the new Flying Spur’s roots. Sold for the princely sum of £8,034 in 1957 – the same amount WO Bentley used to start the company in 1919 – the original iteration took its name from an element of Bentley’s Design Director Arthur Taylor Johnstone’s heraldic crest. But despite more than half a century between the two models, Bentley’s current Head of Exterior Design claims there are similarities between the two. “Of course, there are references to the S1 in there – certainly in terms of proportion,” says John Paul Gregory. “If you look at the S1, you start to see almost a fuselage running from front to back. What we have today is a lot more fluid and abstract interpretation of that,” adds the design boss.
With the new Flying Spur project starting from scratch, the engineering boffins at Bentley were able to play around with the foundations of the car. Bringing the front axle forward and pushing back the rear wheels by 130mm, the Spur boasts a luxuriously long wheelbase, leading to that all-important leg room for the lucky passengers in the back.
“The important thing is where that front-wheel or axle position is in relation to everything else. It’s the distance between that and the A-pillar that gives the car this great athletic character,” insists Gregory.
Added to that, the car’s ‘power line’ runs from its train-like front and into the door, while the Spur’s signature haunch over the rear wheels sits lower and closer to the wheel. “On cars in the past, we’ve linked the two and they’ve sat much higher up on the car and been squarer. The one on this car looks much more athletic: it’s like an explosion before the rear wheel,” he says, excitedly sketching the car’s side profile on a napkin over lunch. “We knew that moving the axle position forward would give us the car we wanted – the GT and Flying Spur that we should have always had.”
But Bentley has always been about more than just looks. Like pulling up in Monaco’s Casino Square, when making a statement, you need the means to match and the new Flying Spur leaves nothing on the table in the performance department. While the vast majority of these four-wheel-drive beasts will never make it above 30mph, destined for a life of London chauffeur duties, it’s nice to know that you can have some fun on a rare out-of-town jaunt or cross-continental dash. After all, it’s what this car was born for.
When trundling through the traffic out of Monaco and up to the mountains, the Flying Spur is no more difficult to manoeuvre than your average city car. Save, that is, for the inability to see beyond the long nose. Even the trick retractable Flying B is obscured from view but, let’s face it, that’s more for everyone else to admire anyway, right?
But it’s out on the twisting turns that the Flying Spur plays its full hand. Equipped with a re-engineered version of Bentley’s 12-cylinder engine, the Spur can reach 60mph from standing in just 3.7 seconds and on to a supercar top speed of 207mph. For a car with four seats, a drinks fridge and more gadgets than Bond could ever wish for, that’s not bad going – especially considering it weighs in at just short of two-and-a-half tonnes.
On the inside, the Bentley is a delightful place to be – either watching the world go by in the back or up front behind the wheel. For those in the lap of luxury in the back, there’s a choice of five massage settings and a head pillow attached to the rear headrest.
There’s also mood lighting, a champagne cooler and detachable remotes for the in-car entertainment, should you choose to spec it up. In true Bentley style, lashings of leather are neatly paired with finely burnished wood veneers and diamond-knurled switchgear, all painstakingly pieced together by hand at the Pyms Lane factory. Compared with previous models from Crewe, the new Flying Spur’s interior has a contemporary feel, sporting an almost identical set up to its GT sister.
Of course, the nifty three-way rotating dash module is carried over from the coupé, should you wish plump for the £4,700 extra. Out on the road, the burble of the W12 engine is barely audible save for a sprint in sport mode, when the exhaust note trickles into the cabin. For the most part, the Flying Spur is deftly quiet, adding to the car’s mysterious ability to make even the most arduous of journeys into a revitalising experience.
In an age when carmakers are falling over themselves to make more high-riding SUVs, new entrants into the sleek super-saloon category are seldom seen. Since it first hit the streets in 1957, the Flying Spur has earnestly and elegantly carried out its duties while quietly maintaining its place at the top of the luxury limousine pecking order. While it may lack the theatre of the Aston Martin Rapide S or the sheer status of the Rolls Royce Ghost, at £165,000, the Flying Spur is a well priced, quality competitor that’s impossible to overlook when searching for a top-ranking super-saloon.
Summarising the Flying Spur in a sentence is no easy task but, over coffee at Café de Paris, overlooking the heartland of overpriced opulence, its designer smiles knowingly: “Even if you don’t recognise why it’s quality, you know that it is quality.”
For more information, go to bentleymotors.com