Featured: Driving A Bentley R-Type Is Exaltation

Driving A Bentley R-Type Is Exaltation

By Ronald Ahrens
February 13, 2015

Photography by Jayson Fong

In the early 1950s, anyone who wanted to maintain a high level of style while dashing from Normandy to Nice, from Antwerp to the Amalfi Coast, needed a Bentley R-Type Continental. While the standard R-Type sedan was capable of a 101 mph top speed, the Continental was designed to run near 120 mph all day and claimed to be the fastest production four-seater of the time. Besides the additional performance, it had elegant fastback bodywork and represented a breakthrough in comparison to the stodgy styling Bentley had carried over from pre-war days.

The R-Type Continental bridged the gap until the S-Type Continental was introduced in 1955. List price was slightly more than £7000.

The Continental wouldn’t have been possible without advances in coachbuilding techniques at H.J. Mulliner & Company, which built the bodies for all but fifteen or sixteen of the 208 examples produced. (Park Ward, Franay and others eventually received a few commissions for bespoke coachwork.) Mulliner had recently adopted clay modeling, and a scale model of the Continental was evaluated in a wind tunnel. Additionally, technical director Stanley Watts had visited Italy in 1950 to learn new body construction techniques. In the new design, a primary shortcoming of the R-Type sedan had to be considered: the boot was too small.

What resulted was rather remarkable, considering that production started in February 1952, a time when most cars still had four pontoon fenders and humpy profiles. At 208 inches long, straddling a 120-inch wheelbase, the Continental was large. Yet it was sleek and modern, with classic lines indicating its power and substance. Adding panache, the finned rear fenders offered a bit of P-38 Lightning fighter-plane flavor. One thing had to be obvious even then: this car’s elegance would never fade.

Despite the Continental’s size, extensive use of aluminum resulted in a 750-pound body, bringing the weight down to under 4000 pounds.

To address the need for a commensurate increase in performance, a higher compression ratio and higher final drive ratio were implemented in addition to various minor modifications under the hood. Consequently, the 4566cc inline six-cylinder engine now made around 160 hp.

“It was the next-to-last expression of continuous evolution of the six-cylinder engine that began with the [Rolls-Royce] Model 20 and went all the way to the S-Type,” said Jon Waples, technical editor of The Flying Lady, the Rolls-Royce Owners Club journal. “This was as far as they could take that engine in terms of refinement and all else.”

It was good for 0 to 50 mph in 10 seconds and 100 mph in third gear. At first, a four-speed manual gearbox was offered, but in 1953 the four-speed Hydramatic automatic stepped in as the standard transmission. The next year, the engine’s displacement increased to 4877cc, with output rising to 178 hp. The powertrain for the forthcoming S-Type Continental was now set.

According to reports, driving the R-Type Continental required a level of sentience we seldom employ any longer. The steering was heavy and slow. While the independent front suspension was advanced, the live axle rear was, let us say, out of step with the car’s otherwise world-class aspirations.

Of course, the cabin was as posh as a gentleman’s club, the only missing accouterments being a tobacco pipe and the latest edition of the Daily Telegraph.

While I haven’t driven the Continental, my experience behind the large wheel of a standard 1953 R-Type sedan left vivid impressions of the exalted seating position, and from somewhere within me there came the feeling of pity for those unfortunate people down below in their Hondas and Chevys. An R-Type Continental would surely amplify this feeling. On the other hand, there was copious gear whine, and because the car needed a new master cylinder, the drum brakes were just slightly more effective than a letter to the Easter bunny.

Eternally desirable, the Continental cuts quite a figure—seven figures, in fact. Take, for example, the sale, at auction in early 2014, of one of the few left-hand-drive cars packaged with the 4.9-liter engine: $1.8 million at the hammer. That car was perfect. Hagerty says $1.1 million is more like it for a late-series car. Meanwhile, sharing the same chassis and much of the running gear, standard steel-bodied R-Type sedans average less than $40,000.

The Continental was so forward-looking that it can be thought of as a precursor of the 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith. Minus, of course, the fiber-optic Starlight headliner.

Thank you to Frank Dale and Stepsons for allowing us to photograph their car.

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Neil Stylinski
Neil Stylinski
4 years ago

As you say, styling and rarity alone—not mechanical specs— put this car in the eternally exalted class, suggesting a museum piece and not a driver. If I could have one seven-figure car, this wouldn’t be it. Nicely written and sterling photos.

Mark Jordan
Mark Jordan
7 years ago

I love everything about the Continental, except its proportions. Mention is often made of the similarity between the Connie and the ’49 Cadillac 2-door fastback sedan, and how British and American designers interpreted the same theme in different ways.

That’s where the Caddy has my vote; all the proportions – roof to body, wheelbase to greenhouse, windshield to cowl, pitch and resolve of fastback – seem to flow in a package that looks good from any angle. And of course, those upturned taillights, inspired by the P-38 Lightning, were a Harley Earl signature The Continental is an elegant car and makes a commendable effort to adopt a more contemporary aerodynamic shape to the classic British upright stance, but it suffers, in my opinion, particularly in plan view – the rear fender overhang seems a little too long, the distance from the base of the windshield to the front wheel well is exaggerated, pushing the whole greenhouse further rearward than necessary, and the ‘resolve’ of the line of the fastback to the bumper is awkward, as it turns steep and flat beneath the rear window.

Of course, as a driver’s car, the Cad still had a few lessons to learn from the Bentley, such as refinement and pace. I guess we should count ourselves lucky that we have these kinds of magnificent specimens with which to argue the finer points of design –
I do know that, given the opportunity, I can’t imagine any conceivable scenario that would have me saying “no” to an offer to become the shepherd for either of these beautiful classics. Can we hear from some early Cadillac owners?

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa
7 years ago

Simply stunning!

Wayne Mattson
Wayne Mattson
7 years ago

What Martin said,

Martin James
Martin James
7 years ago

” The Continental was so forward-looking that it can be thought of as a precursor of the 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith ”

I’d take some serious issue with that statement . Fact is the only thing ” forward – looking ” about the Rolls Royce Wraith are the headlights , grill and price tag . Other than that its an overweight over complicated under performing dinosaur pretending to be something new with the pretense of luxury and performance for those poseurs in desperate need of attention as well as displaying their addiction to abject conspicuous consumption

As to the Bentley in question ? Well … it was about as ” forward – looking ” as a 1949 Cadillac or Lincoln … both of which were were able to match/exceed the Continental R’s performance and doing so a heck of a lot more reliably . By 1955 both could run circles around the Continental R as well as its subsequent S version . Simple fact is once the myth had been put aside .. the Type R is barely …. just barely a decent sort of a [ very badge engineered ] car who’s value in reality well and exceeds its actual worth due to collector mania and delusion .

Hmmn … Rollers …. Bentley’s etc ! And y’all in the UK/EU have the nerve to criticize the size of our [ US ] cars ?

Josh V
Josh V
7 years ago
Reply to  Martin James