Decades ago, the owner of this 1953 Bentley R-type sedan replaced its luscious gray leather upholstery with ivory vinyl.
Why on earth would someone deface an automobile as elegant as this? Simple, really: David Trapp wanted to learn how to do upholstery work. And vinyl is much cheaper than leather, especially when it’s for practice.
Trapp made a side business of importing and fixing vintage Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars. His wife, Juliette, quickly claimed the car for her own, however, and it was her daily driver for most of the 1970s. It also blasted between Kentucky and Florida countless times. Conveniently, the vinyl seats held up well against teenagers who wore soaked swimsuits and tracked in beach sand. “That car was used pretty damn hard,” David and Juliette’s son, David II, recalls.
These days, the Bentley R-type still gets plenty of use, but now its cabin is filled with eleven cowhides. Dr. Doug Wolford had the Trapps’ vinyl replaced not long after acquiring the car from the family in 2003. An anesthesiologist with about a dozen cars, Wolford didn’t plan on redoing the big sedan, but just months after he bought the Bentley sight unseen on eBay, Wolford was cruising down the highway when the Bentley R-type’s engine overheated, melting two pistons. Thus began a thorough recommissioning.
Over the course of ten months, a shop in Ontario rebuilt most of the drivetrain to the tune of $40,000. Boston, Chicago, England, and Australia postmarks brought replaced or refreshed parts. With revitalized mechanicals, the car deserved a cosmetic freshening, which included two-tone paint and expertly applied pinstripes.
Since the Bentley’s completion, Wolford has put some 40,000 miles on it. He has driven it from Lansing to Louisiana (via the Natchez Trace Parkway) and on several trips to West Virginia. “It’ll run 70 mph all day,” he says.
Even in the 1950s, the Bentley R-type had a reputation for long-distance, high-speed motoring and excellent reliability. However, many of these stately cars suffered from neglect over the years, largely because they were—and are—relatively affordable. Wolford’s rejuvenated R-type’s reliability extended to our test-drive on a hot day in Lansing, Michigan’s capital city.
The big Bentley is easy to drive and not as lumbering as you’d expect. The thin-rimmed steering wheel and welcoming seats encourage a relaxed—although upright—driving experience, the better to enjoy old-fashioned British opulence and the admiration of onlookers. It’s best to park out of sight from the paparazzi, though, lest they see you laboring over the heavy steering and sweating about stopping the 16.7-foot-long vessel. The Bentley’s drum brakes are a strange blend of servo-actuated hydraulic fronts and mechanical rod-type rears; at parking-lot speeds, Wolford’s car pretty much has only rear brakes. “You’ll be able to stop on a dime on the highway,” he says, “but you might hit someone in your driveway.”
Indeed, the brakes work well on the road. The steering feels crisp and has a surprisingly small dead spot on-center. The ride isn’t nearly as floaty as you’ll find in 1950s American cars, but it’s still very comfortable. A lever on the steering wheel can (slightly) firm up the variable-pressure oil in the rear dampers.
The Bentley R-type pulls away smoothly from a stop, although upshifts are a bit sharp and harsh. That’s easily understandable once you realize that this was the first non-American car to feature an automatic transmission—a four-speed Hydra-Matic wisely licensed from General Motors. (Bentley and its longtime corporate parent, Rolls-Royce, continued to use GM automatics into this century.)
The smooth, quiet engine is all British, a 4.6-liter F-head straight six that Rolls and Bentley launched just after World War II in their badge-engineered, “owner-driver” (as opposed to chauffeur-driven) models, the Mark VI and the Silver Dawn. The acceleration of the R-type—basically a Mark VI with a more rumplike trunk—is pretty peppy, particularly for a 4300-pound, fifty-year-old sedan with 205,000 miles on the odometer. You’re soundly reminded of the car’s age when sitting at long traffic lights, though, because the optional turn signal is basically an egg timer set for about ten seconds—you have to keep cranking the dash-mounted dial to reawaken the blinkers.
Compared with the 1946–1952 Mark VI, the R-type had additional fancy features, such as an electric rear-window defroster and an automatic choke. In its review of the model, Autocardevoted eight full paragraphs to describing the latter novelty, which precluded having to pull a lever for cold starts. Now that’s luxury.
Our auctions expert, Dave Kinney, revels in this type of luxury. He has owned half a dozen Bentley sedans from this time period, including the Mark VI and the follow-up S-type. “The body style is very distinctive,” he says. “In many ways, this is a prewar car built in the years after WWII. If you buy a well-sorted example and store it in a climate-controlled garage, it’ll be ready to go the next time you want to use it.”
|Engine||4.6L (279 cu in) F-head I-6, 150 hp (est.)|
|Transmission||4-speed manual, 4-speed automatic|
|Front suspension||Control arms, coil springs|
|Rear suspension:||Live axle, leaf springs|
|Weight||4300 lb (est.)|
|Number produced:||About 2220, of which some 200 had coachbuilt bodies. (Another 100 or so R-types were coachbuilt two-doors, about 50 of them convertibles, according to the W. O. Bentley Memorial Foundation.)|
|Value today||$35,000–$50,000. Almost double that for coachbuilt sedans.|