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60th Anniversary of the
Bentley MkVI - time to reflect

By Ashley James - KDA132

2006 marks the two most important anniversaries in Rolls-Royce’s history of car making, the Silver Ghost’s one hundredth and the MKVI Bentley’s sixtieth. Everyone knows why the Ghost is so important but few may realise the significance of the MKVI.

1947 Bentley Mk VI Standard Steel Saloon
Chassis no: B 206 AK

1948 Bentley Mk VI Standard Steel Saloon
Chassis no: B108CF

From its inception and until the First War, Rolls-Royce were pre-eminent car manufacturers, customers included Royalty and the upper echelons of society in many different countries. Their reputation was phenomenal, however despite the tremendous interest in flying at the time, they were reluctant to design and manufacture aero engines until compelled to by the War office. By the time the war ended, they had produced the best of the biggest and most powerful of the era. The Ghost too, had acquitted itself well as an armoured and staff car as well as in the desert,
but so had the Model T Ford and it changed everything.

Henry Ford, in order to maximise the number of customers who might buy it, had used modern volume production techniques together with extraordinarily skilled cost management to produce a sound and reliable car at a fraction of price of a Ghost. By the early twenties Ford was making almost as many in a day as Ghosts made between 1906 and 1926!

I think it likely that FH Royce’s (Rolls-Royce before CS Rolls Ltd joined them) inability to compete with German and American products may have been caused by his ignoring modern production methods, for that is certainly what finished the UK Clock and Watch-making industry. In one of CS Rolls speeches on the merits of the company’s cars he likened the Ghost to the “superior” English Lever rather than a volume produced and imported watch. He was right to make the comparison but wrong to suggest imported Swiss Watches were inferior because it wasn’t long before they and the Americans dominated the market because they were better and cheaper.

 Other American car companies were not so reticent and they used the lessons dealt by Henry Ford to produce higher quality, volume produced cars for the “Carriage Trade” and by the end of the twenties these were not only far cheaper than Rolls-Royce but also much more durable and reliable, in fact they were superior in every respect.  Several senior Rolls-Royce people including Ernest Hives has visited companies like Packard and Cadillac and were all too aware of this but nothing happened until Hives was first made General Manager in 1936 and then Managing Director a year later. He told the board in no uncertain terms that he was having no more Phantom III’s and that things needed changing drastically if Rolls-Royce wanted to survive
as a car manufacturer. By this time most of their business was for Military Aero Engines being built in
anticipation of a forthcoming war.

Hives was almost certainly the greatest leader Rolls-Royce had. During the war he oversaw the building of new factories in Scotland and Crewe together with housing for employees, he organised Merlin production at Packard in the US and with Ford in England, he secured the rights to sort out Whittle’s Jet engine and produce it in quantity and then, on Government orders, shared the technology with Russia and the United States. He also realised the future lay in Jet powered
civil aviation once the war ended.

By 1946 Rolls-Royce had an unassailable reputation, its Aero Engines had been the best of two wars, had been the first to cross the Atlantic and had won the Schneider Trophy for England. They’d even powered US aircraft during WWII.

Car production had continued through the thirties and protected by a 33.33% import tax, Rolls-Royce’s had sold steadily but things were not good, the Phantom III was giving all sorts of problems, the Derby Bentley was old fashioned by comparison with Alvis and Lagonda and cost a great deal more than the Jaguar 3.5L (it was called SS then) which was very nearly as good. The planned replacement was stymied by the war although about 12 MKV’s were made. The Small Horse Power car had progressed from a 20HP to a 20/25 then 25/30 and finally the Wraith and this was probably the best pre-war Rolls and the one that had the most of Hives influence in it. It was beautiful to ride and drive in, mechanically more simple and durable and spoilt only by the colossal bodies customers chose to put on it.

1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith
Chassis no: BLW100

Despite there being no evidence to prove it, it is likely that work proceeded on the MKVI chassis during the war at Clan Foundry and we know for certain that the B60 engines (also in eight cylinder form) were being tested in a variety of vehicles too. Thus it was that when it was announced 1946, it was a great deal more up to date than even American cars, most of which were re-issues of pre-war models. Therefore it could reasonably claim to be the “best in the world”. Everywhere in Europe had been decimated, Daimler Benz was a one-model company, BMW were making motorbikes and Volkswagen was under the control of the British Army and so on. The Americans had been way ahead before the war and in ’46, the Cadillac was the only other contender; The MKVI was a Hives inspired, Rolls-Royce take on the best the Americans could produce and it was better.

B60 engine in Bentley MkVI
B60 engine in Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn

The MKVI was a major advance for the company because it had a proper cruciform braced chassis, independent front suspension and a really rugged but smooth and durable engine; it was for a short time as up to date as anything made anywhere. The most important development was the use of a beautifully designed (help from Pressed Steel Fisher) steel body and, like the Citroen Light 15 that may have influenced it, had immensely strong, box section sills curved on the outside and with a diagonal brace inside. The body was so strong it almost didn’t need a chassis and other companies must have thought that because Monocoque cars like the MG Magnette that appeared in 1954 used a similar design. This was Rolls-Royce’s first car to have been completely built in house and it was beautifully made. John Blatchley who joined the company from the Coachbuilder, Gurney Nutting had, in his words, tidied up the rather ordinary pre-war body that was being used as a prototype. The result was an almost perfectly proportioned, quintessentially British motorcar that made no concessions to the requirements of a potentially much larger market the other side of the Atlantic; It was unashamedly forties “New Look” and, until the arrival of the Jaguar XK120, the style icon of its era.  It was also the most successful car that Rolls-Royce had made to that date, it was profitable and the Press loved it. Raymond Mays and a few other famous racing drivers were so impressed with the handling that they used them, not only to drive to Grand Prix Circuits, but also round them to learn the track and save their racing cars. Rolls-Royce’s didn’t handle like this again till the Turbo R arrived! Most covered huge mileages in a shorter time than previous models and yet few mechanical problems surfaced.

Mk VI production at Crew
(Picture courtesy of "The Rolls-Royce Motor Car and the Bentley since 1931" - p306)

The sad fact is though, that when the MKVI was first introduced, Austin was making pre-war cars and by the time the R Type ceased production, they had launched and discontinued the A40 Devon and Somerset, the A70 Hereford and the A90 Atlantic. These were all extremely high quality cars and similar in concept to the MKVI but they were replaced by the A90, the Wolseley 6/90 and a load of other much more modern cars of Monocoque construction. Most of the British Industry was monocoque by 1954.  The Citroen Light 15 had appeared in 1934, the Lancia Aprilia in 1937, the Morris Minor in 1948, the Alfa 1900 in 1949 and the Lancia Aurelia in 1950, commentators of the day (1950) had observed that this new type of construction meant less weight, less frontal area, more passenger space and consequently smaller, less stressed and more economical engines. The four seat Alfa was 1900cc, of comparable performance to the MKVI and considerably less expensive to make.

The British motor industry of that time was the second largest in the world and it claimed to be the best, between the end of the war and 1950 approximately 1.2 million cars had been exported and advances in technology were rapid. Strong competition from Jaguar had begun with their 3½ Litre saloon before the war; it was nearly as good as a Derby Bentley and cost £1000 less! Afterwards their efforts were more concerted and they introduced the XK120 in 1948. It won various races and Rallies and Jaguar went on to win Le Mans five times and, more damaging to Rolls-Royce’s image, they succeeded in winning saloon car races with the MKVII, a car that preceded the S1/Cloud by five years!  They not only had a sporty and stylish image but they’d used Wally Hassan to design their wonderful twin cam engine. He had worked for WO Bentley and was the man that Wolf Barnato chose to keep on after the company had been liquidated. William Lyons was a brilliant man and he had not only upstaged Bentley but also Rolls-Royce and by the nineteen seventies it was a Jaguar that was being described as
 the “Best car in the World”.

With the MKVI, Rolls-Royce got as near as they ever did to making a truly excellent car that was bang up to date and that could, with suitable development, have been produced in volume and for a sensible price. Had they appreciated the pace of change instead of basking in reflected glory and splendid isolation at Crewe, while they were making it and introduced a car of monocoque construction instead of the Silver Cloud/ S1, they might still be making cars today. They were in a better position then than Mercedes, BMW, Audi or Jaguar but they blew it. They ignored trends in the rest of the world, they failed to realise that Europe was moving ahead of the Americans and five years late in 1955 they introduced the Silver Cloud and the Bentley S1; identical cars with different grills! From then on Bentley sales dwindled as might be expected.

1955 also saw the announcement of the Jaguar 2.4L saloon that the motoring press decided was the star of the European Shows that year and the Citroen DS, the car of the future. It’s ironic that for most people the Silver Cloud is the quintessential Rolls Royce and the one that they admire the most, for it was the one that may well have signaled the beginning of the end of the company as a carmaker. It was a magnificent car but old technology at a time of rapid change.

The Press of the day always treated Rolls-Royce with a great deal of reverence so that it is difficult to tell exactly how disappointed they were with the Cloud when it appeared, although as time passed, criticism increased. Sales of the Cloud III were falling fast when the Shadow was announced and when it was reviewed, mild references were made to vague steering and excessive roll, and then, in the seventies, the very outspoken Car Magazine absolutely slated it for poor handling. By any standards MKVI’s and R Type’s handle and ride beautifully and that helps to make them special.

1947 Bentley Mk VI Standard Steel Saloon
Chassis no: B212BH

1954/5 Bentley R-Type
Chassis no: B80ZY

For the reasons outlined above I feel that the ’46- ’55 cars should be considered the second most important the company made and amongst the best ever made by any company, Rolls-Royce included. And if you ask many of the specialists that have wide experience what they think, you’ll probably find they agree.  They will also point that these cars are far simpler and easier to work on than either their successors or their predecessors and that they are also longer-lived and more reliable. Herbert Austin always said that more parts meant more trouble and he was right – the MKVI is Rolls-Royce’ s simplest car after the Ghost!

Bentley MkVI (B108CF) and Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn (SFC64)

Rolls-Royce was an enormous sprawling conglomerate by the end of the war and their core business was MOD work, Lord Hives (he was knighted for his war efforts) realised that to secure a future for the company, they must concentrate on engines for Civil Aviation. Car production accounted for a tiny percentage of the company’s turnover and was of secondary importance with the result that there was no one of Hives stature to lead them. He retired in 1956 and some argue the company drifted from then until Government intervention after the bankruptcy in 1971 and that Dan Houghton of Lockheed for whom the RB211 engines were required, had been the company’s surrogate leader for some time!  Still it was this engine that gave Rolls-Royce a massive advantage over the American competition and means they are the only company that can produce ones
powerful enough for the gigantic A380 Airbus.

Rolls-Royce is now the largest and best Aero engine maker in the world and they were the best throughout the twentieth century, which by any standards is an astonishing achievement. It makes me extremely proud to be British and to own
two of the finest cars they produced.

Ashley James
This article is reproduced here with kind permission from the author, Ashley James. I have however taken the liberty of using photographs of local, South African cars. Please visit Ashley's website www.kda132.com which is dedicated to Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars made between 1946 and 1965.