The years immediately following the Second World War were formative ones for Rolls-Royce, as the company was forced to take the low road, like Packard in the 1930s with its 120 models. In other words, Rolls-Royce had to introduce higher volume, lower-priced models to remain afloat. The factory-bodied Bentley MK VI and its companion Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn were the answer, and while some purists might view these as dark times, Rolls-Royce probably owes its survival to those models.
In 1946, Rolls-Royce moved its production from Derby to Crewe and began building complete cars. The first new Bentley was the Mark VI, based on a Park Ward-designed Mark V of 1939. It used the same independent front suspension and an inlet-over-exhaust valve six-cylinder engine of 4,257 cc, increased to 4,566 cc in 1951. Essentially the same car with a Parthenon grille, the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn was introduced in 1949, and was export-only until 1953. Both cars were advertised as cars for the owner-driver, reflecting the new world order.
A total of 760 Silver Dawns were built from 1949-55, and most were left-hand drive. The vast majority of bodies were so-called Standard Steel four-door sedans, but coachbuilders such as Park Ward, James Young, H.J. Mulliner, Freestone and Webb and even Graber, Pininfarina and Saoutchik on the continent built about 60 custom bodies such as drop head coupes, limousines, sedancas and other exotic interpretations.
Both the Mark VI Bentley and Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn were produced with a steel body, as the economics of custom coachwork just didn’t pay anymore. The Silver Dawn sold for £4,700, including purchase tax – which was about 12 times the cost of a new English Ford. Powered by a new six-cylinder F-Head engine (overhead intake, side-mounted exhaust valves), it was a large, four-door saloon, fitted with a sliding sunshine roof. The cars had centralized lubrication, and all were fitted with four-speed gearboxes, though the left-hand drive export Silver Dawn had a column shift.
The Silver Dawn compares favorably to modern machinery, with 150 hp from the larger engine and top sped around 100 mph. The leather seats, walnut veneers and no-nonsense instruments are tasteful and timeless. Despite the somber styling, the sedan is responsive, nimble and quiet. There are few cars from this period that can comfortably be driven long distances, but this is one of them.
The Rolls-Royce cachet coming in a relatively small package means that the Silver Dawn typically sells well above the equivalent Bentley Mark VI, so restoration of a basic saloon is more economically feasible than the Bentley. Once repaired, however, both cars are relatively inexpensive to maintain and are viable, usable classic drivers.
When the Bentley Mk VI was replaced in 1952 by the R-Type, the equivalent Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn also received the more elegant and lengthened tail, which significantly increased luggage capability and the GM four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission was optional from 1952. Silver Dawns were finally available in England in 1953.