That long sweeping body, those beautiful crisp lines, that wonderful badge and grille, it can only be a Bentley Continental, a car that was once the fastest four-seat saloon of the time, and perhaps one of the most lavish machines on the road short of contemporary Rolls Royces.
The Bentley R-Type entered production in 1952 after years of development to replace the Bentely Mark VI of 1946. Original intentions were to name it the Bentley Mark VII, but the R-Type name was chosen instead due to the name being derived from the RT Chassis series. The front of the car was almost identical to the Mark VI, but the rear was redesigned for more boot capacity. Engines were also carried over from the later versions of the Mark VI, these being a 4.6L IOE Straight-6 engine producing approximately 130hp, although a novel Rolls Royce/Bentley tradition was not to officially name the actual horsepower output of the car, but only to describe it as ‘Sufficient’.
The car was near enough identical to the Rolls Royce Silver Dawn apart from differing badge and grille, as since 1932 Bentley had been owned by Rolls Royce. As was traditional of both companies, only the chassis and drivetrain would be provided, and then it was up to the customer to select individual coachbuilders to create the body. Rolls Royce/Bentley did provide a standard body for those who had not the money or time to hire a coachbuilder.
The most famous of these however were the R-Type Continentals, built as the fastest
four-seat luxury production saloon of the time. The prototype was a combined development between Rolls Royce and H.J. Mulliner & Co. to create a highly stylised bodywork for both sporting prowess and lavish design. The styling, finalised by Stanley Watts of H. J. Mulliner, was influenced by aerodynamic testing conducted at Rolls-Royce’s wind tunnel by Evernden’s assistant, Milford Read. The rear fins stabilised the car at speed and made it resistant to changes in direction due to crosswinds. A maximum kerb weight of 34 long hundredweight (1,700 kg) was specified to keep the tyres within a safe load limit at a top speed of 120mph.
The early R Type Continental has essentially the same engine as the standard R Type, but with modified carburation, induction and exhaust manifolds along with higher gear ratios. Despite its name, the two-door Continental was produced principally for the domestic home market, most of the 207 cars produced were right-hand drive, with 43 left-hand drive examples produced for use abroad. The chassis was produced at the Rolls-Royce Crewe factory and shared many components with the standard R type. R-Type Continentals were delivered as rolling chassis to the coachbuilder of choice. Coachwork for most of these cars was completed by H. J. Mulliner & Co. who mainly built them in fastback coupe form. Other coachwork came from Park Ward (London) who built six, later including a drophead coupe version. Franay (Paris) built five, Graber (Wichtrach, Switzerland) built three, one of them later altered by Köng (Basel, Switzerland), and Pininfarina made one. James Young (London) built in 1954 a Sports Saloon for the owner of the company, James Barclay.
Today the R-Type Continental’s beauty and power make it one of the most sought after classics of today. Cars have been known to sell for well over £1 million at auction, but driving around in them can be rather impractical on a day to day basis, seeing as they are the best part of 20ft long!
Production of both the R-Type and the Silver Dawn ended in 1955, these being replaced by the legendary Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, sold under the Bentley marque as the Bentley S1 or S1 Continental. In all, 2,323 R-Types were built, of which 208 were Continentals, the Bentley proving much more popular than the exclusive Silver Dawn and its 760 examples. Today many of these cars continue to float about the place, but you’d be hard pressed to find them in daily use, seeing as they are some of the most delicate machines on the road!