Classic car reviews

“To build a good car, a fast car, the best in class” – driving the original Bentley Continental Flying Spur

by James Mills
22 April 2023 5 min read
“To build a good car, a fast car, the best in class” – driving the original Bentley Continental Flying Spur
Photos: James Lipman/Bentley

In our modern world, where attention spans are valued in split seconds and the meaning of luxury has been drowned in a sea of everything from posh TV dinners to limited-edition trainers, attempting to judge a car like this Bentley S-Series Continental Flying Spur could be considered a somewhat futile exercise.

Do you evaluate it for the spring in the step from the straight-six motor? The smoothness of change from the four-speed automatic gearbox? The elegance of its lines and balance of brightwork against paintwork? Or should you measure the give of the stitched-leather elbow rest and the ease of manipulating the steering on the move? How about the enduring gloss-like appearance of the burr walnut woodwork?

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Or is the significance of such a car what it says about those seen behind the wheel? In 1958, when Sir William Peacock placed an order with H.J. Mulliner, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the industrial titan wanted to go one better than order a Bentley direct from the factory. As Chairman of Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds (better known as GKN today), this was a man at ease with the finer things in life, so it’s plausible he felt a coachbuilt car was more befitting of his status – and in the eyes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce buyers, the works of Henry Jervis Mulliner & Co were among the best coachbuilders.

Bentley S1 Continental Flying Spur review

It was only the year before Peacock ordered his Bentley – 1957 – that H.J. Mulliner unveiled its vision for one of the most lavish motor cars on the road. The original S-Series was the last standard production Bentley to feature a separate chassis, and was first offered as a four-door saloon. It’s fair to say it attracted plaudits, with The Autocar magazine summarising that “The latest Bentley model offers a degree of safety, comfort and performance that is beyond the experience – and perhaps even the imagination – of the majority of the world’s motorists.”

Shortly after came the Continental variant, which featured a two-door body and was altogether more dashing, in all senses of the word. Its aluminium coachwork was a work of beauty, the straight-six engine featured a raised compression ratio for a more sporting bent, while the trappings of luxury remained as opulent as the time allowed for, with Connolly leather, fine wood marquetry, wool headlining, ankle-deep Wilton carpet and various extras, should Lord or Lady care for picnic tables, cigar boxes or cut glass decanters and glasses.

Bentley S1 Continental Flying Spur review

However, the Chiswick-based Mulliner types felt all those Continental ingredients wrapped in a four-door would find an audience amongst the rich and famous. They were proved right – and boy oh boy did you have to be flush to afford one.

This S-Series Continental Flying Spur cost £8034 in 1958, which was more than twice the cost of a standard S-Series saloon. It’s also 10 times the average salary paid in Britain at the time. By contrast, today’s modern Flying Spur Mulliner with a hybrid powertrain costs from £231,000, and the average salary is around £33,000. So there you go – Bentley has, er, been doing its bit to ease the financial strain over the past few years…

The inspiration for the Flying Spur’s name came from one Arthur Talbot Johnstone, the managing director of H.J. Mulliner. He’s said to have chosen it after the heraldic badge of his family, the Clan Johnstone of the Scottish Borders. The very first model to leave Mulliner’s works even featured the Clan Johnstone’s ‘flying spur’ mascot on its radiator grille. Sure beats a personal plate.

What a handsome thing it is. Its proportions and in particular lowered roofline give it a more rakish look than the standard steel saloon, and the passing of time has done nothing to dim the admiration for the eye that its creator, Mulliner’s designer Herbert Nye, so clearly had. It is as timeless as a perfectly proportioned English country house.

Bentley S1 Continental Flying Spur review

It is much the same story when you grasp the sliver of chromed doorhandle, squeeze the catch and open up the interior to the outside world. A glimpse of how the other half lived, it is at once luxurious but inviting, a space where – one imagines – the stress of board meetings would melt away. For the craftspeople at Mulliner, the brief was likely to create a set of surroundings that someone would be entirely satisfied to step into from their Belgravia townhouse on Eaton Square.

Peering through the gently raked windscreen, your eyes are guided by the winged Bentley mascot, an evolution of the work of Charles Sykes (who also created the Spirit of Ecstasy), which flies atop the radiator grille, while the creased wings with indicator lamps help judge with placing the extremities.

Despite the Flying Spur’s lowered roofline compared with the standard saloon, it feels airy and the 360-degree view is welcome – especially for yours truly, driving the car for the first time and with no chance for getting familiar with it. “Off we go!” comes the command from the Bentley people, and sure enough, off we go toward Goodwood circuit (the photos were taken elsewhere), figuring out how it all works as I, well, go – including the twist-off handbrake, just ahead of the driver’s right knee.

Pushing down on the Bentley ‘B’ embossed brake pedal brings the first cause for concern. “Is Sir quite sure he’d like to slow down?” the system seems to ask, as you press through half of the pedal’s travel before feeling much in the way of retardation from the servo-assisted drum brakes.

It’s much the same story for the four-speed automatic gearbox, which will do nothing so vulgar as to rush through gearchange after gearchange. This is a car which knows its mind, and the straight-six cylinder, 4887cc iron-block, aluminium-cylinder-head engine, with pushrod overhead inlet valves and side-exit exhaust valves, rarely feels the need to summon all of its 180bhp. “Allow me, Sir,” it says as we join a dual carriageway and settle to main road speeds. At 50mph it is turning over at around 1500rpm, and at 70mph it’s still a calm 2500rpm.

Regardless of the unhurried, column-shift gearbox, the throttle pedal serves up attentive response and the steering is delightfully light on the move, calling for just fingertip inputs.

Staring back at the driver – who, by the way, enjoys perfectly stuffed (and all-original) Connolly leather seats that offer just the right blend of give and support to this day – are elegant Smiths instruments, with the Bentley emblem etched into the top of the speedo and rev counter. The woodwork is exemplary, the number of ashtrays countless and the pull-straps hanging from the B-pillars may have stories to tell, involving judges, call girls and illicit liaisons…

Bentley Continental Flying Spur

Like the most loyal and discreet staff employed by the wealthy of its time, the Continental Flying Spur seems to make everything that little bit more effortless. And you can’t put a price on that, can you?

And yet, Bentley has to. It has been quietly going about the business of restoring all cars in its heritage fleet, and acquiring those missing from the collection (this Continental Flying Spur, chassis BC9FM and engine number BC9F, was acquired in 2004) and there are just two or three left to go before the back catalogue is all accounted for. The company, wisely, wouldn’t reveal which ones it’s still to acquire.

As it is, upon late acquaintance, the Continental Flying Spur lives up to the moto of Bentley’s founders, Walter Owen Bentley and his brother, Horace Milner Bentley: “To build a good car, a fast car, the best in class.”

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  • Ken Johnson says:

    Slither of you hand opening the door . On the other hand,I’ve repaired the door handle on my BMW X 5 three times . Who on earth designed that? ..All these posts persuade me to get the Azure on the road . First of May …come on

  • Tim Spring says:

    As a chauffeur I’ve driven several such cars and this model was my favourite, mainly because it is not so large as the S2 or Silver Cloud but shows a slender profile that allays its actual size. It also epitomises the elegance of design and I always felt it was actually difficult to drive it badly – such is its aura held within the driver to steer it properly. A real privilege to have driven it.

  • Sidney says:

    “In 1958, when Sir William Peacock placed an order with H.J. Mulliner, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the industrial titan” WAS DEALING WITH PEOPLE HE KNEW, not fuelling some sugary journalistic fantasy about wealth. GKN was a supplier of iron and steel to the whole of British industry, and was working to obtain interests in Shardlow that had produced crankshafts for even Spitfire Merlin engines, and was developing the CV joint to allow cars to be front and four wheel drive. For people like him, the stress of the boardroom is what they LIVE FOR, not something they long to escape from. Who wrote this bunk?

  • Jeffrey Bridges says:

    A very timely article, we passed an example cruising along the M25 this morning and looking very elegant – the only interesting car we saw in a 2 hour journey, apart from an MGC GT.

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