Visit any of the U.K.’s regional classic-car auctions, and you’ll almost always encounter at least one big Bentley or Rolls-Royce of the 1980s and 1990s — invariably with an affordable-looking price estimate.
These imposing — if slabby-sided — automobiles are some of the last cars to be hand-built before the Rolls-Royce/Bentley split and sale into German ownership. They are all powered by Rolls-Royce’s Cadillac-like 6,750-cc pushrod V8, but that wasn’t all that was carried over from the preceding model, for the SZ model is essentially an updated Silver Shadow (born in 1966).
These Bentleys offer, at face value, cheap luxury. They go well — 120 mph even in normally aspirated form and Much Too Fast with a turbo, but numbers do not convey the splendid way in which these waft you along in an unflustered and near-silent atmosphere of timber, lambswool and leather — pummeling bumps, thumps and road imperfections into irrelevance as they go.
At 5,000 pounds, they weigh almost half a ton less than a Chevy Suburban, but in their home country these are still big, heavy cars.
Luckily, the high seating position and square-rigged styling means you can see all corners, and these cars are easy to place. They are the kind of car that feels smaller than it is on the move.
It’s all terrifically British. And no jokes about the Grey Poupon (whatever that is), please.
The temptation starts with the price
Slightly leggy runners start at just £5,000 (about $7,000) in Blighty, although I’d feel more confident in a £10k ($16k) car with fewer miles and more history.
During March, United States car classified ads had Turbo Rs from $12,850. Most cars you’d actually want to own are in the $25k range.
All this craftsmanship and luxury comes cheap (especially at auction) for a reason. Quite aside from the running costs, which will concern U.S. owners less than those of us in the U.K. who pay $8 per gallon, the repair bills can be eye-watering.
As is the way with premium cars that decline in value proportionately to their potential financial liability, by the time they get to their third or fourth owners, maintenance tends to become “deferred.” Like Porsche 911s, these high-performance Bentley cars stand neglect so well that by the time the problems cannot be ignored any longer, the repairs are going to be pricey.
My simple rule of thumb is that if you see cheap tires on a once-expensive car, walk away — and the same goes for big gaps in the service history.
A bit of history
The Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit — and its Bentley-badged sister Mulsanne — replaced the Shadow and Bentley T2 in 1980. The Silver Spur is the long-wheelbase version.
The Mulsanne Turbo was created in 1982 by the expedient of bolting a Garrett T3 on to the carb-fed, almost-7-liter V8, upping power from 200 to 300 bhp.
This radical departure appeared at the 1982 Geneva Motor Show, and generated the memorable headline in Car: “Crewe’s Missile.”
It’s an old cliché, but to experience a Mulsanne Turbo is rather like relaxing in a gentleman’s clubroom while it’s launched from a steam catapult. Remember when Pete and Dud fired a grand piano off the flight deck of the Ark Royal? Well, something like that.
In these days of routinely 500-bhp-plus power outputs, the numbers may no longer appear outstanding, but it’s the way that something this massive can get up and go that remains impressive — if no longer truly startling.
Torque is what it’s all about. In the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo’s case, that is about 500 ft-lb, which translated to 140 mph and 0–60 mph in seven seconds.
Hello, Turbo R
After 498 standard and 18 LWB Mulsanne Turbos had been built, the Bentley Turbo R replaced it in 1985. The R stands for “roadholding.” The Turbo R’s alloy wheels were wider at 7.5 inches, and it mounted wider tires than the Mulsanne.
Under the skin, the changes were rather less subtle — mostly to help the driver fathom what the soft chassis was doing. Although spring rates were unchanged, the anti-roll (anti-sway in U.S.) bar diameters were doubled, and Bentley saw fit to add a Panhard rod to the rear subframe to stop it moving sideways in corners.
Fuel injection arrived in 1987, providing more torque.
The Turbo R came to the U.S. in 1989 (coinciding with the change to four round headlights), priced at $195,000, when Motor Trend called it “the first Bentley in decades deserving of the famous name.”
The New Turbo R from 1995 has a shallower grille, Zytek engine management, and long wheelbase only from 1996. Production ended in 1997.
Bentley built 252 of the Turbo RT until 1999. The Turbo RT rolled with 400 bhp/590 ft-lb. You can spot one by its five-spoke alloys and mesh grille. The run included a few Olympian and Mulliner “really final” limited editions.
As 7,230 Turbo Rs were built overall, there’s a fair chance of stumbling across one.
A couple of other variants you might encounter:
The Mulsanne S (1987–92) is a Mulsanne Turbo without the turbo.
The Bentley Eight (1984–92) is an entry-level model with mesh grille and usefully tightened-up suspension. It was replaced with the Brooklands (1992–97) and Turbo Brooklands R (1996–98).
The Turbo S (1995) was a non-U.S. model, with Bosch Motronic, estimated at 385 bhp.
There’s an interesting cross-pollination of the Turbo R engine in the Silver Spirit Mk II chassis to create the Flying Spur (just 134 built from 1994–95). All of these motors are essentially variations on a theme.
Where the expensive gremlins lurk
All of these cars can suffer from much the same issues.
Assuming you’re looking at a car with a good service history and everything electrical still works (this is important because window-lift motors cost a grand apiece, for example), what actually goes wrong?
They rust, principally in the rear wheelarches, so I always have a feel behind the lips at auctions.
Some cars aren’t very clever around the rear window, and check carefully for rust bubbles around trim and door handles. These had lots of paint when new and redoing it isn’t cheap, although it’s a rare car that hasn’t had some refinishing by now.
Bumpers are unlikely to be dead-straight, but it’s a question of how much it bothers you.
The motors last well if they’re looked after with regular oil changes, but if the car’s got sticky, rattling tappets, budget $2k or walk away.
Tired turbos can be rebuilt or replaced with a reconditioned assembly reasonably cheaply (about $800 plus labor), but why not go and find a car that’s not smoky?
The transmissions are from General Motors, and they’re well proven and plentiful with lots of expertise for repair.
While you are on hands and knees checking the sills (rockers), check for leaks from the steering rack — it’s just in front of the sump. Replacements cost about £450 ($625) from U.K. breaker Flying Spares.
Any other hydraulic issues will be more expensive, as there’s both a conventional power-steering pump plus a pair of high-pressure pumps for brakes and rear suspension (in the vee of the engine: $300 a pop, plus the special tool to get ’em out).
They need yearly fluid changing. If the brake pedal feels funny or soft, that’s your first port of call. You really need an expert to check this out, and the worst-case scenario is shot hydraulics. If that’s the case, walk — no, run — away.
Here are a couple of simple checks you can do: With the engine running, open the trunk lid and bounce up and down in the back. These are softly sprung, so if it feels almost solid, a gas spring has failed: New spheres are $105 each. With the engine still running and with one — or better, two — of you sitting on the back bumper, it should return to its regular ride height within 30 seconds. At the same time, listen for chuffing from exhaust leaks — there’s a lot of pipework on these.
Front ball joints are a known weak spot, so drive on some rough ground, and if there’s a knocking from low down, think about $400 per side for replacement.
There is much to get wrong, much to enjoy and much to learn about with these cars.
Buy a looked-after example with good service history and keep on top of it (which owners say costs $2k to $6k per annum), and even sitting in it will give pleasure for years — much more so when you demonstrate to a full complement of friends the Turbo R’s remarkable ability to hurtle down the road.
If it all goes horribly wrong, well, there’s always the 24 Hours of LeMons. ♦