When was the last true Bentley built?
Automotive gatekeepers are many, and they are equally uncompromising. Some might point to the production of the Last True Bentley as 1997, when the brand finally split from Rolls-Royce and fell to the plundering Germans at Volkswagen. (Rolls-Royce, snapped up by BMW, also fared better than the rest of the British motoring industry.) Others opine that the Last True Bentley was built before Rolls-Royce took over the company in the midst of the Great Depression, proving that even the Bentley Boys—the gentleman racers who, behind the wheels of mighty Blower Bentleys, took on trains and Le Mans alike—weren’t immune to misfortune. Maybe this mythical Last Bentley departed with founder W.O. (Walter Owen) himself, a fount of pipe-smoking engineering genius, after he got sick of his new corporate overlords and left to roam the British automotive landscape unfettered. You get the idea.
But maybe it’s this. The Bentley Continental S3, as it was known, was the last purely coach-built Bentley. And it took two British coachbuilders and a Scandinavian to design with something this dramatic.
Park Ward had been under the Rolls-Royce fold since 1939. Two decades later, H. J. Mulliner & Co.– which started building horse-drawn carriages in 1897 – was merged into the aristocracy. Until then, Henry Jervis Mulliner’s company was the last fully-independent coachbuilder in the world: Away from the shackles of managing companies, free to work for any carmaker, to build on any chassis. But by then, as it turns out, Mulliner focused almost exclusively on Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. With the decline of truly indulgent coachbuilding, really—it was only a matter of time.
So the foundation was set for something spectacular. The other piece of the puzzle was the S2.
The Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II and the Bentley S2 rolled out in 1959, both fundamentally the same, and both fundamentally the same as their predecessors – the Silver Cloud and the S1, which debuted in 1955. Proof that badge engineering’s scourge was not limited to economy cars. But what was interesting enough to necessitate the name change was V-8 power: other than an unusual Rolls experiment in 1905, it was the first true V-8 for both companies. The Silver Cloud II and Bentley S2 launched an engine that’s still in production to this day (in the Bentley Mulsanne). But the big news was the revival of the “Continental” name—this grandest of tourers, a car to gobble the miles between nations, a four-wheeled private airplane for a changing world.
Vilhelm Koren was tasked with designing the Park Ward variant. He had impressed Rolls-Royce executives with an Alfa Romeo design study at the Turin Auto Show, and became a full-time designer by 1960.
What he designed brought Bentley into the Jet Age: Lines as straight and quick as a Lockheed Constellation on takeoff. Bold, defiant. Scowling lidded eyes up front—imagine seeing them appear in your Jaguar 3.8’s rearview. You’d be honored by its presence, its rarity. What’s more, the modern lines belied higher gearing and compression ratios, producing north of 200 horsepower from the 6.2-liter aluminum V-8.
In 1962, the car received a round of minor upgrades, evidently enough to change the name, and the S3 rolled out with the Silver Cloud III. Don’t ever suggest that things never change in England. Four headlights distinguished the pair’s still-heavy styling. Koren updated the coachbuilt variant accordingly, canting them downward toward the center, and one of the most distinctive luxury cars of the 20th century was born.
Just 26 were built in total: A combination of dropheads (convertibles) and fixed-head coupes. The Rolls-Royce variant was built until 1966 and carries a more upright grille, which seems at odds with the car’s overall sleekness. If you want one, you had better saved up a quarter of a million dollars, and a trip to Europe is in order.
Recently, Charles Morgan, he of the Morgan Motor Company, now turned television presenter and arbiter of all things suitably British, highlighted the car as part of a YouTube series. On video, and especially in motion, it is gorgeous. In the hipster enclave of Shoreditch, London’s answer to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Morgan sought out the fashionistas and our fair generation’s insufferable youths to see whether a car like the S3 Continental still held cachet. It seemed to speak more to car culture as a whole rather than this particular Bentley, but this car has a charm all on its own. With no expense spared, even a car from fifty years ago is a work of art.
Finally, and it goes without saying, there’s the name: one that sticks with the car as its most distinguishing mark, the four downward-canted headlights which lent themselves with a degree of formality to the name: “Chinese Eye.”
Perhaps the Brits were being honest. (“The less said about that, the better,” Morgan acknowledged.) But hey—for a brief period of automotive styling, across all three carbuilding continents, those slanted eyes were a style all unto their own. Witness the 1958 Lincoln Continental, all hundred tons of chrome, a last gasp of ‘50s Americana with no excess spared. It, too, carried not just the name but also its style – perhaps with a bit of Edsel ringing in its arrow-straight flanks. While at Bertone, Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the beautifully simplistic Gordon-Keeble, the only car in the world with an ironic badge. And there was the 1960 Prince Skyline Sports, designed en vogue by Giovanni Michelotti: The first Japanese car designed by an Italians, which kicked off a proud tradition.
All these cars carried a style that we might now call gawky, purposefully awkward and just a bit angry, albeit for no particular reason. Nonetheless, it was a style befitting the transition between the Jet Age Fifties and the Space Age Sixties – where ornamentation gave way to minimalism, where veiled aggression was carried with purpose. Even a company as traditional as Bentley was not immune.
After Koren designed the S3 Continental, he left automotive design and entered architecture. Mulliner still survives today, though as a customizer of Bentleys, as Park Ward was for Rolls-Royce in the Nineties and 2000s. You’d have to spend a lot of money to get them to design you another “Chinese Eye.” We reckon it’d be worth it.