"This is a fairly agricultural piece of kit, isn't it?" remarked photographer Colin Curwood as we examined details -- such as the front compartment foot-level vents -- of the Continental R Mulliner coupe that had been pulled out of the Bentley factory's design display for our use. By today's standards, yes, it probably is. But when the R-type Continental came to market in 1952, it was the fastest four-passenger car on sale anywhere in the world, and it was far, far above any contemporary farm equipment in design terms, whether in quality of manufacture or in aesthetic value. It was also better made and better to drive than almost any early '50s mass-production car, which is why the remaining examples of the 208 Continental Rs built are worth so much -- between $400,000 and $800,000 is the going rate for an "average" Continental R with H. J. Mulliner fastback bodywork.
The Continental R emerged into a war-ravaged world wherein no speed limits existed outside towns, whether in Great Britain or in most of western Europe. Road traffic was a tiny fraction of what it is today. Air travel was almost nonexistent and, in any case, highly uncomfortable in noisy, unpressurized piston-engine airliners. If you wanted to go from London (or Paris, for that matter) to the Cote d'Azur -- and had the means to buy and fuel it -- then a fast car was a much better and more comfortable alternative to a train. And you wouldn't need to rely on taxicabs at the end of the journey. There were drawbacks to fast, long-distance motoring, of course, as Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus fatally discovered when the Facel Vega in which he was a passenger slipped off the road in the rain. Worn tires are indifferent to the status of their users.
The first truly spectacular postwar luxury cars in America appeared for the 1948 model year. Both the '48 Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles had antiquated, prewar L-head engines, the first a V-8, the second a straight eight, a configuration essentially unknown to today's new-car buyers. There can be no question that their shapes, particularly the fastback coupes common to the two makes, were dazzling to the impoverished world. It is obvious that they greatly influenced the design of the Continental R -- far more than did the couple of "aerodynamic" Bentleys built in the late '30s. When the R-type coupe was being designed, most British car shapes were still of early 1930s inspiration, with separate fenders front and rear; universal adoption of "pontoon" body forms was still some way off, and American design leadership was as strong then as it has ever been.
In one sense, you could say that the H. J. Mulliner design is a 1949 Chevrolet Fleetline coupe with a vertical grille and inboard headlights, but that is to ignore the Bentley's vastly superior fit and finish, the extra liter-plus in the six-cylinder engine, and the powerful symbology of the traditional Bentley radiator grille standing proudly upright. Most upper-class British and European carmakers never succumbed to the lure of grilles stretching the full width of the front end, as all American firms had done by the early 1950s. In hindsight, it is easy to see that the traditionalists were right.
Like everyone else who read about the staggeringly fast and even more staggeringly expensive Continental R in 1952, I yearned to drive it. As a teenager who'd had a driver's license for less than a year, I knew there was no way that could ever happen. It's never wise to be too realistic and practical about dismissing desires, though. My casual comment last winter about revering the Continental led my esteemed editors to query Bentley itself, with the result that the factory-owned 1954 example would be made available as soon as decent weather arrived -- and it did just before this year's Le Mans twenty-four-hour race.
When the time came, Bentley not only brought out the Continental R but also generously invited me to accompany them to Le Mans in a small fleet of new Bentley Mulsannes, along with the 1930 Bentley 8-litre sport sedan, chassis number 2, that had been W. O. Bentley's personal car until he left Rolls-Royce in 1935. He wanted to take it with him when his indentured servitude was complete, but he was denied.
Both historic cars were acquired under the direction of now-retired, Volkswagen-appointed chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen, a man who thoroughly understood the vital importance of heritage when he headed Bugatti and Bentley. This particular Mulliner coupe, found in Australia, was originally delivered to Switzerland, right-hand drive and all. That's not too surprising. I believe some Swiss postal buses are RHD to this day; the point is to be able to hug the right side of the road while driving in the Alps. You really don't want to put a wheel over the edge where there's a thousand-foot drop. Despite Curwood's justified commentary on some of the body hardware, JAS 949 presented as a nicely repainted older car in excellent condition, a pleasant patina showing it to be well cared for but not a hyper-restored vehicle suitable only for lawn-ornament duty.
Basically, the Continental R is a big coupe built on an existing sedan chassis, its charm mostly related to the bodywork and the fact that, with a bit of tuning of the 4566-cc (later 4887-cc) six-cylinder engine and suitable gear ratios, it was very fast indeed for its day. It used full-profile 6.70-16 tires, and period reports talk of 120-mph speeds in normal on-road driving. That's impressive, in that the biggest six-cylinder engine available at the time, Hudson's 5051-cc, 160-hp "Twin H-Power," could barely propel the Hudson Hornet to 100 mph.