The Flying Spur hasn’t been at its best in recent years, but as the storied model turns 61, things are finally looking up for the littlest Bentley sedan.
For starters, the all-new 2020 Spur looks like a proper Bentley again—grand, muscular, imposing—rather than the awkward cousin of a Volkswagen Phaeton. The new car is, however, still a far cry from the coachbuilt original that to this day defines the brand in the mind of those who work at Bentley’s home in Crewe, England.
A pristine first-year 1958 example from Bentley’s own collection is perched on a white pedestal, sun-dappled in the afternoon light, outside an ancient Chateau somewhere near the French Riviera. There we find Flying Spur product line director Peter Guest admiring the work of his mentor, George Moseley, who led the development of the original Flying Spur. It’s an appropriate setting for a car that, when new, would have cost £8034—10 times the average UK salary at the time. (In America today, the equivalent price would be roughly $500,000.)
“The stories about the development of this car are absolutely astonishing,” Guest says. “Back in those days, there was literally just George Moseley and a couple of draftsmen and that was it.”
Guest studied car body engineering under Moseley at the University of Hertfordshire. Moseley worked for H.J. Mulliner, one of the preeminent UK coachbuilders at the time. Officially, the Flying Spur was the name given to H.J. Mulliner-bodied—and only Mulliner-bodied —four-door Bentley Continentals. According to Bentley, of the 432 original S1 Continentals (two- and four-door) that were produced, Mulliner bodied 217 of them.
In its day, the Flying Spur was relatively fast and light. Early S1 cars were powered by a 4.9-liter straight-six good for 180 hp, while later S2 cars got a much more muscular 6.3-litre V-8—the great grandfather of the engine found in today’s Bentley Mulsanne.
How the Flying Spur was made
“Bentley would provide the rolling chassis—engine, steering wheel, cowl panel—and then the coachbuilders would put on the body and interior,” explains Guest.
Moseley and two or three draftsmen came up with basic design and layout, in full-size drawings of the side, front, and rear of the car. From there, “everything would be pure sculpture,” says Guest. They’d create a wooden buck in 10 sections, and then a team of craftsmen would have to figure out how to make the body. Aluminum was easier to get than sheet steel after the war, so that’s what they used for the Flying Spur, according to Dave Kinney, publisher of the Hagerty Price Guide.
“The body craftsmen would have started as apprentices at 14 or 15 years old and work at it their whole lives,” explains Guest. “You probably had 10 sheet-metal workers producing a body like this: six to 10 hours just to produce a single panel, each one produced in seven- to 12-inch sections, each one hammer formed, welded, and pinned.”
On a steel-bodied car, the gaps and imperfections would have been loaded with something like 100 pounds of lead. On the Flying Spur, everything was trimmed and welded from aluminum.
The body alone would have taken 400–500 hours to make, Guest estimated. The panel gaps put modern cars to shame; they are barely wider than a fingernail.
While the Flying Spur is undeniably gorgeous, it is cramped. At 5’11” my knees are splayed either side of the steering wheel and my head grazes the roof. People were smaller back then. “They were trying to make a guy who was 5’3” feel good,” says Kinney.
Sitting inside the finished product is like landing in a mid-century London gentleman’s club; you half expect the ghost of Winston Churchill to harrumph into the passenger seat smoking a fat cigar. The dashboard and door trim is solid oak. The metal hardware is polished stainless steel and chromed brass. It smells musky and rich, like old money.
Flying Spur collectibility
“The Flying Spur really defined that combination of power, performance and luxury that Bentley sedans have today,” says Guest. He looked to the original for inspiration when developing the 2020 Spur.
“Early Flying Spurs are sought after, as they are very useable,” says Kinney. “S Series Bentleys are not finicky cars, are comfortable high speed (for their time) tourers, and will transport four people and their stuff in style.”
Just be wary of non-Mulliner bodied cars that have “grown” the Flying Spur name over the years, Kinney advises.
In general, most coachbuilt European cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s are collectible. “[Flying Spurs] are blue chips, absolutely no doubt about it,” he continued. “They’ve aged very well. Personally, I didn’t like the look of them in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now? Let’s call it a standard bearer—rather than an icon—of 1950s coachbuilt design. They continue to look like old money, which I think is important in a car like this.”
The S Series Bentleys were the last to have a separate chassis. According to the company, the Flying Spur was part of “the last flourish” of the coachbuilt era.
“In the ‘60s, the cost of labor increased dramatically, so the cost of building these cars by hand in the UK became much more expensive,” says Guest. “Most all of the independent coachbuilders were taken over by the main manufacturers by the mid-late ‘60s.”
61 years on, the Spur’s spirit endures
Fast-forward 61 years and we find an all-new Flying Spur that is definitively mass-produced, rather than coachbuilt. Worldwide, Bentley sold 10,500 cars last year.
For 2020, the Spur has at least regained some of the swagger of the original thanks to the fact it now shares an architecture with the Porsche Panamera, rather than the Phaeton-based platform it used since 2005.
The 6.0-liter twin-turbo W-12 motor—which makes 664 lb-ft of torque from 1350 rpm—helps the car feel lithe, but most credit must go to the chassis. Recent technological advances have made sports cars better, sure, but they’ve been transformative for luxury cars over the past, say, five years. Active anti-roll bars, next-gen pneumatic suspension, rear-wheel steering, smart all-wheel drive: these things now work together in computer-controlled harmony to make this gargantuan Bentley feel much smaller than it really is on a twisty road.
Because of those new bones, this Bentley is very game when you’re in a hurry. Lay into the throttle mid-corner and instead of hellish understeer, it digs in, and holds its line as 5374 pounds of metal slingshots out of a bend. It’s delightful. There’s less of a compromise between handling and comfort than ever before, albeit for a price.
The new 2020 Flying Spur starts at $214,600 before destination. Unless you really prefer the look of the Continental coupe, there’s really not much point in foregoing the Spur’s extra two doors.
Seeing the new and old Flying Spurs next to each other, the lineage is obvious. Despite being separated by six decades, the cars wear familiar character lines, including the muscular rear haunches and the arc that runs back over the front wheel.
Of course, the body of the new car took significantly less than 500 hours to make; it was stamped out of aluminum by machines, rather than painstakingly hammered and rolled by hand. For that reason, as beautiful as it is—and it really is—the new Flying Spur won’t likely ever be as collectible as its coachbuilt ancestor. That said, Bentley’s latest ever is a luxury machine that is through and through worthy of the Flying Spur name.