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With the launch of the Continental R at Geneva in 1991, the revival of Bentley’s fortunes as a marque with an identity that was entirely separate from Rolls-Royce seemed complete; although, in truth, it was really only the end of the beginning.
At £178,000 it was not only the most expensive catalogued production car in the world, but also one of the most beautiful – certainly in the realm of large two-door coupés.
What could easily have been an obese tycoon’s status symbol emerged svelte and graceful, successfully evoking the feel and flavour of the prettiest Continentals of 30-40 years before.
It was very fast, of course. With 325bhp, the R was good for a boost-regulated 145mph and 0-60mph in 6.6 secs. If the breathless copy being filed by the hacks of the day was to be believed, nothing so big and hyper-luxurious had ever moved so quickly, or handled so well.
The first Bentley since the ’60s not to share a body with a Rolls-Royce was a deceptively simple shape: obviously brawny without being aggressive, it carried its 17ft and 5300lb lightly and looked just as contemporary when production ended in 2002 as it had a decade earlier.
Today, in a world of big-car bling and meretricious absurdity, John Heffernan and Ken Greenley’s Continental R looks like a masterclass in restraint and dignity, worked up from a train of thought that could be traced back to the ‘Project 90’ proposal of 1984.
Heffernan and Greenley were former heads of the Royal College of Art’s Automotive Design School, hired by Crewe to work alongside its own Graham Hull on a coupé based on the SZ platform to fill the space left vacant by the Camargue and complete a reboot of the Bentley marque.
This process began in 1982 with the Mulsanne Turbo; the Turbo R that followed showed the potential, and later fuel-injected models (with ABS) were a revelation.
Producing the Continental R was not only a natural progression, but also a milestone that provided the impetus to build Bentley’s most varied range for years.
As its 30th birthday looms, it is surely time to ask if history will judge the Continental R anything like as kindly as the car that inspired it, the R-type Continental of 1952-’55.
Crewe only made 208 of those, of which 192 had the Chiswick-built HJ Mulliner fastback body developed in the wind tunnel of Rolls-Royce’s Flight Test Establishment at Hucknall Aerodrome.
With higher gearing, higher compression and a lower scuttle line to accommodate sleeker coachwork, the A-, B- and C-series 4.6-litre Continentals were built spare and light – not only to achieve the famed 120mph top speed, but also to accommodate the tyre technology of the day.
D-Series cars had a 4.9-litre straight-six in an effort to counter climbing weight and an automatic gearbox option, a trend that would increasingly debase the notion of the Continental as a faster, more agile grand touring Bentley.
‘Our’ Continental, kindly furnished by Frank Dale & Stepsons, is a B-series. Sold new to the Guinness brewing family and in its current ownership since the late ’70s, it is one of the ‘lightweights’ with a manual gearbox, rear wheel spats and front bucket seats. You can pay a million pounds for a car like this today, though a mere £850,000 will buy this one.
Even in middle age, when changing fashions should have put prices in the doldrums, these were never cheap cars. Take a flick through old copies of Motor Sport and you’ll discover that in 1963 Frank Dale was asking £2000 (£40k in 2019 money) for a Tudor Grey Continental like this. The price of a good house, in other words, for a 10-year-old used car when a decent R-type Standard Steel saloon was worth about £500.
The Continental R is a vastly more approachable proposition – even though it has held up much better, fiscally, than its Turbo R sibling with which it shares its 6.75-litre turbo V8 and much of the drivetrain and suspension.
There are many more to choose from, ranging in price (and potential pain) from £20,000 to £70k-plus. While values of low-mileage, well-documented cars such as this beautiful 1993 example are showing signs of hardening, they are still fabulous value for money in the grand scheme of things.
Owner Ray Hillier, co-founder of Olney-based Royce and Bentley specialist Hillier Hill, did his apprenticeship at Crewe and is a big fan of its ’90s output, cars that are increasingly being viewed as the products of a final golden age.
“For me, it is one of the most interesting periods for the firm,” says Hillier. “Despite the problems caused by recession and a changing car market, it pulled out all the stops and produced a wide range of models. It harked back to the coachbuilt days: the cars were continuously subtly improved, and just kept getting better.”
Hillier reckons the Continental GTs that followed were clever, but don’t have anything like the charm of the R: “In my opinion the rise in prices that we are starting to see is just the beginning. Continental Ts are really starting to rocket because they provide unbelievable grunt, look the part, aren’t flash and are very rare.”
While it is hard to make a detailed comparison between vehicles separated by four decades of technical advancement, the Continentals old and not-so-old share general philosophies and concepts, so a common thread is not hard to find.
From the outset, both have a feeling of cool command from lofty driving positions and a sense of calm well-being from beautifully wrought interiors. Both are luxurious and beautifully made, but are also functional personal environments that seem to underline the fact that these cars were not intended as toys or trinkets but working vehicles, built to be used by people for whom time equalled money.
You enter through long doors – flyweight items in the case of the ’50s car – into full four-seater cabins whose floors are level with the tops of the sills. There is more legroom but less rear headroom in the R-type, with its slim front seats and sweeping roofline. It flows into a long but shallow boot, whereas the later car has a deeper, more regular shape.
The R-type has an austere slab of a dashboard in satin-finish veneer. Here you’ll find a 220kph speedo (this car was delivered new in France), a rev counter redlined at 4250rpm and wristwatch-sized amps, fuel, oil-pressure and water-temperature gauges.
The Continental R’s windscreen is similarly shallow but much more steeply raked, hence doors that cut into the roof to assist entry.
A looming dashboard in glossy walnut bristles with dials, warning lights and switches for every convenience, be it town/country horns or wonderfully responsive split-level air-con.
It feels like the coachbuilt car it is – no other ’90s coupé offered this level of traditional finish, attention to detail and tactile pleasure. There is no attempt to save weight and every reasonable physical need is catered for.
On the debit side, the multi-directional powered seat adjustment cannot hide the fact that the cushions are short (somehow I never quite got comfortable), and the ride is firm enough to make the leather creak and the body shudder.
Overall, space inside is not lavish in relation to the size of the car: the Continental R is actually slightly wider and longer than its four-door equivalent but, with a 0.37Cd, significantly more slippery.
The R-type is roomier, but there are no unnecessary flourishes. You wind your own windows and make educated guesses as to the functions of various knobs labelled enigmatically with single upper-case letters (‘W’ is for wipers), then finally work out that, with the ignition barrel in the correct position, you can start the B60 F-head ‘six’ on the button without a key.
Because revs equal noise – and these are, after all, Rolls-Royce-based grand touring cars – very significant torque at low engine speeds is the key to performance in the Continentals.
If the raw numbers are hugely divergent between the two they are at least achieved by similar means, an ethereal sense of wafting power that assumes the occupants only want to hear the engines as remote, abstract mechanical entities.
A straight-cut first gear in the R-type partly drowns the hum of the ‘six’, which gives 158bhp at the flywheel and 137bhp at the rear wheels. It does not aim to sound ‘exciting’ or ‘sporty’ but simply aspirates the car forward, not really concerned which gear you have selected if you are feeling lazy.
For acceleration that feels on the brisk end of modest (but was actually in the XK120/DB2 class) you can whip the right-handed lever through the precision mechanism almost as fast as you like.
Even in the indirect ratios the gearing is long: second will swish you up to 60 and there is one more gear to come at 100mph, at which speed the gentle fins that formed the rear wings are doing their intended job of keeping the car stable.
The Continental R is blistering off the mark – especially if you use the ‘Sport’ button on the gearknob to re-map the gearchange – but feels relatively more impressive surging from 100 to 120mph than from zero to 60.
Cruising at a vaguely legal trot you are merely conscious of a velvety burble that conjures a mental image of giant pistons loafing softly in huge bores.
In some ways the car’s cornering power is as impressive as its urge, even if it does come at the expense of that fidgety low-speed ride. It doesn’t pretend to be a big-boy’s go-kart, and you wield its substantial power and weight with reference to the laws of physics, yet fast cornering is effortless and seemingly roll-free.
You can urge the Continental R along a B-road at a pace that does not compute with the dimensions of the car. Once again it feels majestic and wears its heft lightly, a strange mix of ballet dancer and power lifter.
Naturally, with silky automatic gears and well-weighted, delightfully precise but not twitchy power steering, it requires much less physical and mental effort to drive than the now almost 70-year-old R-type.
Yet still you get a smoother ride overall in the older car, which obviously rolls rather more while tending to understeer slightly ponderously in low-speed corners.
On the other hand it feels well balanced and safe in longer, faster ones, and is a more interesting drive simply because it gives you more to think about. It’s very much a car for wide-open spaces, getting rather stuffy inside at low speed as well as being a bugger to manoeuvre and park with its huge rear blindspot.
As you leave the town behind, the sense of that long stride, that feeling of effortless locomotion rather than mere motoring is common to both.
With its emollient but very ‘manual’ steering and high-biting (if not especially heavy) clutch, the R-type feels the well-oiled, obsessively refined piece of engineering it is: a collection of entirely conventional technical concepts, even by 1950s standards, honed to as near to perfection as humanly possible. That it is so good to drive seems almost like a bonus feature in such a voluptuously graceful car.
This was the height of the post-war British coachbuilder’s art and nobody could seriously dispute its beauty, particularly from the rear. Not exotic exactly, but in many ways as much a ‘supercar’ of its time as as any Mercedes ‘Gullwing’.
The R-type’s 1952 price-tag (with taxes) of £7000 is the equivalent of £200k in today’s money, making it relatively even more expensive than the 1993 car. For that you got the fastest true four-seater in the world, with a level of superiority over its contemporaries that the Crewe brand (or perhaps any other make) never achieved again. All things considered, it probably was the best car in the world.
Four decades later, the Continental R faced not only a much tougher set of rivals, but also a world in which the all-round competence of the ordinary family saloon was increasing at a relentless pace, yet it was still hard to think of another car that was so good at so many things and looked so good doing them.
I remember seeing my first one in the metal in 1991 (at its UK launch) and thinking that if I had to own one modern car, this would be it. Certainly the supposed big coupé ‘rivals’ from the likes of Ferrari, BMW and Mercedes now look like increasingly callow imposters. As for the Aston Martin Virage, Heffernan and Greenley’s other claim to fame, the less said the better.
Subsequent personal exposure to what I consider to be the last of the proper Continentals has done nothing to tarnish the image or dull my admiration; they are just as fast, capable and beautifully built as they appear to be.
Even if they never quite assume the ‘chariot of the gods’ status (or seven figure price-tag) of the R-type, logic dictates that Continental Rs are probably as cheap as they will ever be and can only rise in value. Buy one, enjoy it, use it and you can be pretty sure your money will be safe. Look after it and it will look after you.
“Cars should be bought because you love them and want to drive them, but sometimes their looks don’t match the reality,” concludes Hillier. “In this case, though, they really do.”
BENTLEY R-TYPE CONTINENTAL
- Sold/number built 1952-’55/208
- Construction aluminium body, steel frame and separate steel chassis
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, inlet-over-exhaust 4566/4887cc straight-six, with twin SU carburettors
- Max power 158-173bhp @ 4500rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission four-speed manual or four-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by coil springs, wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; adjustable lever-arm dampers all round
- Steering cam and roller
- Brakes 121/4in (311mm) drums, with mechanical servo
- Length 17ft 21/8in (5235mm)
- Width 5ft 111/2in (1816mm)
- Height 5ft 3in (1600mm)
- Wheelbase 10ft (3048mm)
- Weight 3739Ib (1696kg)
- 0-60mph 13.5 secs
- Top speed 120mph
- Mpg 16.1
- Price new £7300
- Price now From £750,000
BENTLEY CONTINENTAL R
- Sold/number built 1991-2002/1236
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 6750cc V8, with Garrett T04B turbo and fuel injection
- Max power 325bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 450lb ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission four-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear semi-trailing arms; coil springs, electronic dampers f/r (self-levelling at rear)
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes 11in (279mm) vented front, 11in (277mm) solid rear discs, with servo and ABS
- Length 17ft 61/4in (5342mm)
- Width 6ft 9in (2058mm)
- Height 4ft 91/2in (1462mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 103/4in (3016mm)
- Weight 5295lb (2402kg)
- 0-60mph 6.6 secs
- Top speed 145mph
- Mpg 13
- Price new £187,354 (’95)
- Price now from £30,000