Saturday, January 21, 2017

Bentley and Rolls-Royce – yesterday and tomorrow

Today Rolls-Royce and Bentley are competitors, and that’s how they began, early in the 20th century.  Rolls-Royce started out first, in 1904, as a builder of luxury motorcars.  Bentley was founded fifteen years later in 1919.  Both companies grew and prospered during the boom years after World War I. Rolls-Royce pursued a goal of engineering excellence quiet elegance. Bentley sought elegance too, but they focused more on technical innovation and success on the race track.  Four years after their founding, Bentley won its first victory and Le Mans and they went on to win five times in that decade.  Bentley’s sportier vision was more appealing to enthusiasts, but Rolls-Royce proved to be the winner commercially with its focus on quiet luxury.  After the market crashed in 1931, both companies fell on hard times, and Bentley filed for bankruptcy. A short while later their former competitor bought the assets, and over the next decade Bentley was folded into Rolls-Royce. They became what car people call a “badge-engineered” second line, like Chevrolet and GMC in America.  By 1955 both brands were built on the same assembly line at the factory in Crewe, England.  The main distinguishing feature of the cars became the grille.  Yet Bentley retained a distinct and loyal following.

The leadership at Crewe sensed that, and in the late 1970s they allowed their designers and engineers to develop a separate identity for Bentley. Their initial expression was the 1981 Mulsanne – a 4 door sedan that shared a platform with the new Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit.  For the first time in decades a Bentley was distinguished from its sibling with stiffer and more responsive steering and suspension, and improved handling. 

The changes were subtle and not visible to the naked eye.  The next design change wasn’t; it turned the motoring world on its ear.  For 1982 Bentley offered a turbocharged version of the Mulsanne, with almost 50% more horsepower and vastly increased performance. That car became the basis for their famous Turbo R – the most successful Bentley to date.

From that moment, Bentley’s identity was reclaimed.  I serviced Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars at that time, and I observed something right away.  As soon as it became widely known, Rolls-Royce owners asked us to retrofit their cars with the “better Bentley suspension.”  Thirty years have passed, and I have yet to hear a Bentley driver ask us to “fit the Rolls-Royce suspension” in place of what made their Bentley unique.  

Clearly the engineers who worked on Bentley had struck a chord.

Little improvements came along every year. By the mid-1990s Bentley had evolved into a very different car line.  Sedans shared body shells with their Rolls-Royce counterparts, but the interiors were very different with center consoles and sportier seating. The Continental coupes were totally unique.  With the introduction of the Azure in 1996 the convertibles went their own way as well.

Then, in 1998, the motorcar company was sold.  At first it seemed like BMW was the new owner, but it turned out VW was in the picture too, and a battle ensued.  When the dust settled, BMW took away the Rolls-Royce automobile name and logo. They designed a new car and built it in a new plant at Goodwood.  VW got Bentley – including the legacy models - and the Crewe works that had been home to the company since the end of World War II.  That plant now builds the new Continental and other models that have been designed since VW took over.  The new owners retained the manufacturing traditions that made the earlier generation great, with the addition of the vast technical resources of VW.

BMW’s new Rolls-Royce plant builds a great car too, but there is little connection to the traditions from Rolls-Royce’s past.  The factory and workers are all different.  Most production processes changed, as did all the technology.  There is no path back from a new Phantom to a Silver Spur.  That said, the new 2003 Phantom was a magnificent car and the models that followed have raised the new company's bar even higher.

Bentley charted a different course.  They continued the Arnage and Azure models with a series of technical improvements.  Alongside that, they introduced a new Continental GT with higher performance than any previous Bentley. That car remains in production today, and it’s become even more successful than the Turbo R.  Bentley technology has changed dramatically in the past decade, but many traditions of the old Crewe works remain, and are evident in the cars of today.

What about the cars of yesterday? Bentley affirmed their commitment to parts support, under the name Crewe Genuine Parts.  They introduced a new division for owners of vintage cars.  In doing so, they continue a long tradition of keeping the company’s earlier models on the road indefinitely.

That action speaks volumes to the classic car community.  It also raises a question of brand loyalty for those of us who grew up with Crewe-built cars of the sixties, seventies, eighties, or nineties.  When I started repairing and restoring cars from Crewe I did so in a shop where we referred to ourselves as “Rolls-Royce people” because Rolls was the main line; the name everyone knew.  Through the 1970s and 80s American dealers sold ten to twenty Rolls-Royces for every one Bentley.  Many of us liked the understated look of the Bentley, but we worked on what people bought, and at that time, those cars were Rolls-Royce.

By 1995 – after the arrival of sportier Bentleys - that situation was reversed. Bentley dominated the market and Rolls-Royce became the brand in danger of vanishing.  Rolls-Royce had a timeless majesty, but Bentley made the changes that were in step with evolving tastes – more responsive engines, batter handling, and that conservative but elegant look.

So are we Rolls-Royce people today, or Bentley people?  Or both?  Those of us who keep vintage Crewe cars need Bentley to keep us on the road. Any of us who want to retain a link to the traditions of the past will find that in Bentley too.  Those who want a new car with the Rolls-Royce grille and name will find a home with the new company from Goodwood.

Both lines now feature state-of the art technology and all modern conveniences – something the Crewe cars from the 80s and 90s lacked.  Appealing as that is today, technology is a double-edged sword.  In our present high-tech world nothing says “dated” more than last year’s navigation display or an obsolete car phone.  Older Crewe cars were criticized in the day for lacking such features, but their absence now makes those models timeless.

In terms of overall popularity, the trend that began in Crewe thirty years ago continues today. Bentley remains the more popular car by a significant margin.  Yet Rolls-Royce endures as one of the most iconic and respected names in the world.  Both companies have expanded their product lines far beyond anything the earlier company could have done, and the engineering excellence of both lines has returned to the standards sought by the founders. I hope both continue.

John Robison

(c) 2017 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent restoration and repair of Crewe-built motorcars in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the national Bentley and Rolls-Royce car club (, and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Rebuilding the vintage Lamborghini V12 - the famed Countach power plant

 At Robison Service we are privileged to work on a great many truly extraordinary cars.  This vintage Lamborghini is a good example.

The Lamborghini Countach is one of the most iconic sportswear designs in the world, and is lauded as the first Supercar.  These cars have always been expensive, but now values for the finest examples are topping a million dollars and people are taking more care to preserve these fine vehicles.  This particular car came to us with serious oil consumption, poor power, and less than optimal running.  It was soon clear that the problems were inside, and nothing short of overhaul would cure them.

The car was original and well preserved but the engine bay was looking a bit tired:

The engines in these cars are removed with transmission as a unit, from above.  Some Ferrari models have removable subframes to simplify this process.  In the big Lambo, the power plant is shoehorned in place and it's taken out with a great deal of care and a good-size crane.

When the engine came out you could really see the ravages of time.  Paint was peeling, parts were rusted, and leaks and deterioration were everywhere.  No teardown was needed to see that the motor was tired.  The engine bay was tired-looking too.

With the engine out we began a careful process of disassembly.  Everything was marked and parts were measured.  We found a surprising amount of wear, for a motor with just 20,000 miles on it from new.  However that is common with these vintage performance motors.  Oil quality was not up to today's standards when these engines were made, and the material in these engines just seem to wear a lot faster than, say, the motor in a newer Mercedes.

Our evaluation revealed out of around and taper in the cylinders, which suggests an overheating incident in the past.  Cylinder out of round is one of the major causes of oil consumption in these motors and this particular engine was using a quart every 100 miles.  We also found deposits on pistons and valves, but no issues in the rods, bearings, or crank.

Parts for these old motors are getting scarce. Luckily we were able to buy a set of genuine pistons, liners and bearings - the last new old stock in the Lamborghini factory!

When you are working on a car as valuable as this one, attention to detail like this is very important.  While our machinists worked on the inside we also cleaned up and refinished the outer parts of the motor.

Each of the internal parts of the engine was cleaned, checked for cracks and wear, and rebuilt.  The new liners were installed in the block, and then the liners were bored to perfectly match the new pistons.  Pistons and rolling parts were balanced before being installed in the rebuilt short block.

Once that work was done we moved the engine back into our mechanical shop for final assembly. That was a painstaking process that took a number of weeks because of the necessary attention to detail.

There's no "throwing it together" on cars like this.  Every little detail has to be just right, and that job is often complicated by the one-off nature of the cars and the absence of service documentation.  We rely on photos and experience more often that not.  While that work went on we refinished the engine bay in the original style, but without the chips, grease, breakage and wear.

The results were worth the wait.  The car runs better than it has in decades, and its value is markedly improved.  A job like this should last a long time, and we look forward to this Countach giving its proud owners years of enjoyment.

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Lamborghini, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Rebuilding a Crewe Bentley or Rolls-Royce V8 engine

We are often asked what goes into rebuilding one of the V8 engines from Crewe.  These are the motors that powered Bentley and Rolls-Royce motorcars from 1965 through the separation of the companies in 2003.  A derivative of this engine is still used in some Bentley models.

You might wonder why these motors would need rebuilding, given that they power what are arguably the finest cars in the world. Would they really wear out?  The short answer is, they seldom if ever "wear out" but they still succumb to corrosion when cooling systems are neglected.  Crankcases become warped and damaged by overheating when thermostats or hoses fail, and they are driven anyway.  Older engines may become clogged from sludge after years of neglect or low quality motor oil.

When that happens the engine comes out, and comes apart:

The designers of these motors built in what safeguards they could, but that only goes so far.  In this pair of photos you can see a new thermostat and one that failed.  When the thermostatic element fails to open in most cars the engine simply overheats.  In a Crewe-built motor there are soft metal plugs that melt at about 250 degrees if the main thermostat fails to open.  These plugs allow some coolant flow and hopefully preserve the engine.  By comparing the two photos you can see the action of the safety plugs.

Good as this idea was, it does not provide 100% protection.  In a normal thermostat the up and down movement of the center element also regulates flow of coolant through the motor.  In a failed thermostat the melted plugs pass some coolant but the flow is uneven, from the front of the engine to the rear.  When you ignore a melted thermostat, and then drive one of these engines fast, pistons can melt and seize in the bores, like this one:

The scuff marks on the side are where the piston got so hot it jammed in the cylinder bore, ruining both.  Here is what the cylinder looked like:

Sometimes damage like that can be cleaned up with a hone, and a new piston installed.  The engine's designers allowed for .004 inch clearance between piston and cylinder, so you may be able to hone away the scuff and fit a slightly bigger piston in that one spot.  It all depends on whether the cylinders are still round.  To determine that we use specialized measuring tools:

The thing we look for is out-of round.  In this particular engine we found warpage of .007 inch, where the limit is just .001.  If we had assembled the motor with that degree of warping it would have burned lots of oil because the piston rings could not seal properly.  It also would have been at risk for head gasket and other failures down the road.

Failure to check details like this is one reason "cheap" engine overhauls often don't last.

When you find warping in a cylinder the only cure is to take the motor out of the car, remove the cylinder liners, and fit new ones that are not warped.  At the same time, the rest of the engine must be checked for heat warping.

This is a block and liners, removed:

When the block is stripped and cleaned we look for another problem in these motors - corrosion.  Here is a view into the block after the liner was removed.

More and more, we see the metal in there dissolved by corrosion.  When the metal is corroded the gaskets that seal the liners against coolant or oil leakage can't hold, and the engine will leak irreparably.  If that happens the block will have to be welded up or replaced - a big job or a big expense.

The final thing we look at are the crank, rods, and other internal moving parts.  Are are checked for wear, straightness, and cracking.

We turn to the cylinder heads, which were removed early on.  We look for corrosion or heat warping, and repair that as needed.  Here's an example of a corroded spot on a cylinder head.  IN extreme cases we fill that corrosion with metal from a welder.  Then we smooth the whole surface on a milling machine to get the surface you see in the lower photo, true within a few ten-thousandths of an inch, and free of cracks and flaws.

The valves are removes.  Seats are redone and valves recut.  Springs are tested and replaced if weak, and new seals are fitted.  Older motors did not have valve seals at all, but we normally fit them to reduce oil consumption and bring them closer to modern spec.

One of the decisions we need to make before assembly is whether to refinish all the parts to new spec,  in addition to the mechanical repairs.  These parts have been refinished with plating, powder coat paint, and other processes to be like new again:

At first blush you'd think everyone would want this done, but no so fast!  There are hundreds of finished parts in an engine, and redoing all of them costs thousands of dollars.  Cosmetic restoration can easily double the cost of a mechanical engine overhaul.

Another thing we consider are updates.  For example, older V8 engines did not have good rear oil seals.  They always dripped, even when new.  We often machine the engines to take the new step rubber oil seals, as shown here:

Updates like this improve the functionality of older motors while being invisible from outside.

Next we look at the ancillary pieces.  An engine overhaul may be limited to the internal parts that failed, but when the motor is apart we suggest going through all the external pieces.  For example, we might rebuild the alternator, AC compressor, or hydraulic pumps and accumulators while they are off the car and accessible.  It adds cost now but saves even more in the long run.

Finally the engine is assembled and made ready to install:

In some models the engine goes in by itself.  In most newer cars the engine is mated to the transmission, and both are installed in the subframe, which is inserted and removed from below:

In those cases we often go through the subframe and transmission as well, as they are out for what may be the first time in the car's life.

The results of a well-done job can be stunning:

As you might imagine, this is pretty specialized work.  Jobs like the one in these photos can take hundreds of man-hours and a year or more of time.  Lesser jobs can be done faster, but you get what you pay for, and as these cars age, the standard of work we are asked for rises each year.

I've used photos from two engine jobs to illustrate this article. The green car in the photos is a 1972 Long Wheelbase Shadow owned by John Rando.  That engine achieved the highest score in judging at the Rolls-Royce Owner's Club National meet in Asheville, North Carolina in 2016, and it's headed for Senior Judging at French Lick in 2017.  It is an example of the very best that can be done with engine bay restoration on these newer, more complex cars.

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent BMW/MINI, Mercedes, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.