1982 Bentley Mulsanne
The full story of the original Mulsanne of 1980 and its important role in the rejuvenation of Bentley later that decade.
MULSANNE MAGIC KICK STARTING BENTLEY’S COMEBACK OF THE EIGHTIES MULSANNE MAGIC
On the eve of the SZ saloon’s 40th anniversary, we take a look at one of the rarer members of the family – the original, non-turbocharged version of the Bentley Mulsanne.
Creating a successor to the hugely successful Silver Shadow was always going to be a major challenge for Rolls-Royce, a process that began well before the launch of the Silver Shadow II in 1977. Indeed, talk of the next generation got under way while the original Silver Shadow was still in its infancy, as it was widely assumed that – like its Silver Cloud forebear – Rolls-Royce’s latest saloon was destined for no more than a decade-long career. In the end, however, the long-awaited Silver Spirit didn’t make its debut until 1980, alongside its Bentley Mulsanne sibling.
“This particular Mulsanne still features its original Forest Green paintwork, complemented by Beige hide upholstery”
The fact that Rolls-Royce bothered to launch a Bentley version of its brand new model for the 1980s surprised many onlookers. The old Silver Shadow-based T-series and subsequent T2 had sold only in small numbers, making up a tiny percentage of the company’s saloon sales between 1965 and 1980. Was there really much point in continuing with what had effectively become an exercise in badge-engineering, a process that had begun in the mid-1950s with the Silver Cloud and S-series?
Fortunately, however, Rolls-Royce Motors’ management began to see further potential for Bentley and was keen to start exploiting the marque’s previous sporting reputation, which had famously reached its peak via the ‘Blower’ models of the 1920s. By the time the S- and T-series had been launched in 1955 and ’1965 respectively, Bentleys had become all but identical to their Rolls-Royce equivalents. For the ’80s, however, it was decided that the two marques should eventually be separated somewhat, with Bentley evolving into a high-performance option aimed at those buyers seeking the ultimate power and luxury in a sporting saloon package.
“At first glance, the Mulsanne appeared to be even more of a blatant badge-engineering exercise than the T2 before it”
The Mulsanne Turbo arrived in 1982, bringing with it blistering performance (by Rolls-Royce and Bentley standards) but less than perfect handling. This, however, led to the launch of the hugely impressive Turbo R, with beefedup suspension to reduce body roll and ensure dramatically improved cornering. The newcomer proved to be a big success, helping the previously moribund Bentley brand to go from strength to strength, eventually eclipsing Rolls-Royce in terms of annual sales. To illustrate the about-turn this represented, just 58 examples of the Bentley T2 were sold in the three years before the Silver Spirit’s launch; by 1987, however, more Bentleys were being sold than Rolls-Royces for the first time since the 1950s.
Nevertheless, back in 1980 – as crowds gathered at motor shows around the world, eager to see the latest four-door saloons from Rolls-Royce – few attendees could have predicted just how successful Bentley would once again become. And this was equally the case at the SZ duo’s official press launch in Nice, when Rolls-Royce announced that its latest Bentley was to be called Mulsanne – a name with obvious motorsport connotations, despite the fact that the newcomer was simply a Silver Spirit in all but name (and radiator grille).
Indeed, at first glance the new Mulsanne appeared to be even more of a blatant badge-engineering exercise than the T2 before it. At least its predecessor had employed a different bonnet pressing compared with that of the Silver Shadow, specially designed to fit the Bentley grille more successfully. For the Mulsanne, however, even that relatively minor change couldn’t be justified, given the costs involved and the likely early sales volumes of the latest Bentley.
In Graham Hull’s fascinating book, Inside the Rolls-Royce & Bentley Styling Department 1971-2001 (originally published in 2014 by Veloce), he describes how the overall look of the new SZ family came about, as well as the creation of a Bentley derivative: “A later result of the styling programme was the creation of a Bentley version of the SZ – almost an act of charity on the company’s part after Bentley had been practically ignored in the 1970s.” Hull goes on to explain the cost-cutting challenge: “Although the SY had a specially-shaped bonnet to match the rounded corners at the back of the Bentley ‘header tank’, the funds were not available to do this for SZ. The radiator shell was styled to look right from the front with a slight mismatch at the back – a compromise that later came home to roost when MD Peter Ward pointed out the mistake to me.”
Hull’s book highlights the pressures placed upon Crewe’s Engineering division, a group of people given the unenviable tasking of creating the next generation of The Best Car in the World: “Against this oppressive and demanding backdrop, Bentley was an irrelevance, and continued to be so up to the SZ’s launch in 1980. The Engineering Department had been straining every sinew to meet the market’s towering expectations of a new Rolls-Royce. With Bentley’s survival hanging by a thread, Styling and Marketing managed to mask the marque’s vulnerability with just a radiator shell and the name Mulsanne.”
Until the announcement of the Mulsanne Turbo in 1982, onlookers could be forgiven for wondering why Rolls- Royce had bothered to persist with the Bentley brand, given how the Silver Spirit would inevitably dominate the SZ family’s sales. It’s therefore rather surprising that the company chose to keep the standard Mulsanne in production right through to 1987, well beyond the 1982- 85 career of the Mulsanne Turbo and even overlapping that of the 1985-on Turbo R. Indeed, the Mulsanne was still available to order even after the launch of the new entry-level Bentley Eight (in 1984), and would be until the arrival of the Mulsanne S three years later. Despite its seven-year career, however, sales of the standard-spec Mulsanne were never spectacular. By the time the very last example rolled out of Crewe in ’87, just 531 had been sold worldwide, a mere 49 of which were the long-wheelbase version. By comparison, the subsequent Mulsanne Turbo almost managed to match that figure in only three years. And to put that Mulsanne figure further into perspective, we should remember that 30,460 SZ-generation four-door saloons were built in total, 11,910 of which were Bentleys – with over half of those being the Turbo R. Even by Bentley standards, the original Mulsanne was something of a rarity.
The example featured here is a relatively early survivor, owned by its current keeper – Paul Capper, a funeral director from Eastleigh, Hampshire – for the last eight years. Ordered in the late summer of 1981, the Mulsanne was finally delivered to Byatts of Fenton (the supplying Rolls-Royce dealership) the following February, prior to being dispatched to its first owner – a Mr B Hall of Prestbury, Cheshire – that same month. The Bentley was adorned with Mr Hall’s own ‘private’ registration number (30 BEL), but has obviously been re-registered since, currently sporting ‘HRH’ plates that tie in with current owner Paul’s SZ-based funeral car fleet. “For my business I have a Silver Spirit hearse and two extended-wheelbase limousines, and I’m also the proud owner of a concours-winning Silver Shadow long-wheelbase,” Paul explains during our recent photo shoot. “But when I saw this Mulsanne advertised for sale in 2012, I knew I had to add it to my collection. It meant me flying from Southampton to the owner’s home near Edinburgh in order to view the car, but it was worth it – especially as we managed to agree a price substantially less than what was being asked.”
This particular Mulsanne still features its original Forest Green paintwork, complemented by the Beige hide upholstery with green piping (plus green carpeting throughout) that the original owner specified. The order forms that Paul still has with the car confirm some interesting requests from Mr Hall, including velour headlining, a leather-covered rear parcel shelf and footswitch-operated Fiamm Avanti air horns – features that would have added to the standard car’s £52,113 list price of the time.
The paperwork still with the Mulsanne shows that it was serviced at Crewe throughout its early years, and it’s a car that has obviously been extremely well looked after, with Paul being its third fastidious owner: “The Mulsanne’s mileage now stands at around the 115,000 mark, as I’ve used it quite regularly over the years. It’s one of those classics I’m not afraid to drive anywhere and leave overnight on a hotel car park or wherever. While I’d be worried about parking my prize-winning Silver Shadow away from home, the Mulsanne seems to blend more into its surroundings.”
Paul is under no illusion about the role of the early pre-turbo Mulsanne, or Rolls-Royce Motors’ rather obvious badge-engineering of the time: “To me, the original T-series Bentleys were true to the marque. The bonnet was different, the detailing was well thought out, and they looked and felt how a Bentley should. But with the original Mulsanne, it’s almost as though it was trying to be something that it wasn’t. Having said that, at least mine has Bentley stamped on the engine block, unlike some other Mulsannes I’ve seen.”
Despite this being a large car even by modern-day British standards, the Mulsanne arguably has less road presence than its Silver Spirit sibling, with the latter’s attention-grabbing radiator grille inevitably ensuring it stands out from the crowd. “To be honest, that’s something I really appreciate about the Bentley,” admits Paul. “To those of us in the know, it’s obviously an interesting car – but to general passers-by in the street, it’s not particularly conspicuous and is therefore less likely to attract any kind of negative reaction.”
In the right company, however, Paul’s Mulsanne is a car that does turn heads, particularly when it comes to marque-specific events: “I must admit that one of my biggest joys is being able to look down a row of similar-looking SZ saloons and there, amongst all the Royal Blue Silver Spirits, sits my Forest Green Mulsanne. The fact that it’s an early normally-aspirated car makes it all the more special to me, making it something of an SZ rarity these days.”
Paul admits that his Mulsanne (nicknamed Walter, after W.O. himself) is no concours contender, but is happy that it’s still in excellent and largely original condition throughout: “I didn’t want another Rolls-Royce or Bentley that was a potential class winner, or one that I was nervous about using. Driving Walter provides me with a great deal of pleasure, making this the ideal transport for weekends away. It’s incredibly comfortable and, I feel, offers a much finer ride quality than that of the Silver Shadow. For long-distance trips, it’s an absolute pleasure. And although the restrictions of 2020 have meant a year of inactivity for Walter, I can’t wait to get back to using the car properly again next year.”
It’s easy to overlook the significance of the original Mulsanne of 1980, with many motoring pundits preferring to start the story of Bentley’s revival by citing the Mulsanne Turbo of two years later. Had it not been for Rolls-Royce Motors’ decision to launch the normally-aspirated Mulsanne, however, those later turbocharged models wouldn’t have appeared – and Bentley would have headed into the history books, forgotten by all but the most loyal of marque enthusiasts. As the regular Mulsanne reaches its 40th anniversary, it’s a car that surely deserves credit for its role in the later resurgence of Bentley, helping to catapult the brand back into the big time.
The standard 6.75-litre V8 was carried over to the pre-turbo Mulsanne. This 1982 Bentley Mulsanne still has its original handbooks and maintenance records. Paul Capper acquired his Mulsanne twelve years ago. The perfect car for days out and weekends away, says its proud owner.
The interior is all but identical to that of an early Silver Spirit Paul’s car remains in impressively original condition inside.