Postwar Aura: Bentley R-type Continental

September 30, 2011
"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.
Bentley R Type Continental Left Side View
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.
Most Continental bodies were constructed by H. J. Mulliner, but Park Ward of London built six bodies, Franay of Paris built five, Graber of Switzerland three, and even Pininfarina built a single body on the R-series Continental chassis. Most cars were right-hand drive and were sold in Great Britain. Only forty-three Continentals were built with left-hand drive, and I've only ever seen one of them in the United States anywhere other than at a concours d'elegance. The R-type chassis was basically of Rolls-Royce conception, although most of the factory-bodied sedans -- and all of the Continentals -- were badged as Bentleys.
Bentley R Type Continental Emblem
The moment the driver's door is opened -- the only one with an external lock -- one is aware of beautiful wood-veneer cabin furnishings and supple leather, all as elegant and nicely made as Bentleys always have been. The first particularity to attract notice is the right-hand gear lever tucked between the driver's seat and the door. This connects to a four-speed gearbox, unsynchronized on first as was typical of the times. The second aspect of note is the absolutely illogical and totally unergonomic spattering of mysteriously labeled minor controls, again an example of common practice at the time the car was made. The seats are surprisingly simple in form, with tuffetlike convexity in the cushions. Finally, one is struck by the very old-fashioned black steering wheel, striking in its simplicity and imposing in diameter.
Even more imposing was the man appointed to oversee our use of the precious relic, Bentley's director of Royal and VIP relations and head of the Bentley Heritage Collection, Richard Charlesworth MVO. (He is particularly proud of being a Member of the Royal Victorian Order, as it is awarded for personal service by the Palace, unlike knighthoods and other honors that derive from elected governments -- and politics.) A tall, handsome, mustachioed man of a certain age, Charlesworth is in his thirty-seventh year with Bentley and is a director of the company. He is the perfect image of a typical American's idea of an imperious Englishman, but there's nothing to that; he's a warm, friendly, genuine enthusiast who intimately knows Bentley history -- and, apparently, everyone in the world who might have been, is, or will be a Bentley customer. He's a skilled driver, too, as we saw later with his mastery of the massive 8-litre. He briefed me on the R-type's controls and, after a stint in the rear seat, was satisfied that I knew enough about the car to let me go solo for car-to-car photography.
To truly appreciate how good the Bentley was in its time, one really should have had direct experience of its contemporaries when they were new. Drivers who have had assisted steering, good strong braking, and predictable roadholding in every car they've ever driven would be rather naturally inclined to see the Continental, conceived more than sixty years ago, as an old crock, however nice the woodwork. That would be a serious error. True, the steering requires a lot of physical effort at very low speeds, but it is precise in a way that no 1952-55 American car ever was, and the Bentley tracks dead straight even on high-crowned rural roads. Despite the remote linkage, shifting gears has none of the slop that was typical of contemporary all-but-universal American column shifters (only Crosleys had a central lever).
The Continental R's aura of specialness is palpable. Approaching one of the narrow, humpbacked stone bridges that abound near Crewe, we suddenly found ourselves grille to grille with a huge truck and trailer. Such is the symbolic power of the Bentley radiator grille and the aristocratic stance of the Continental that the trucker very kindly reversed down his side of the hump so we could pass gracefully, smiling as he waved us onward. Given traffic and time constraints, unfamiliarity with the big car on small roads, and omnipresent speed limits, we did not attain anything approaching the 120 mph the car is said to have been good for, but we did get a clear sense that driving it fast on open, unlimited roads would have been both easy and a pleasure. And quite safe, as it has no perceptible wayward dynamic characteristics. The twelve-inch drum brakes are very good but, of course, nothing like the discs we have come to rely on in the last few decades.
When new, a Mulliner Continental R cost 6928 Pounds (including U.K. purchase tax), equivalent then to about $19,350. The most expensive American car when the Mulliner coupe was produced was the virtually handbuilt 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible -- at $7750, more than twice the price of the series-built Model 62 coupe. Today the price spread is still greater, with the car seen here valued at some 325,000 Pounds (circa $535,000), while a '53 Eldorado recently sold at Amelia Island for $132,000.
Twenty-one years ago, this magazine's founder, the late David E. Davis, Jr., writing about the distressing tendency of some sportsmen, and in particular racer Ayrton Senna, to evoke God in every contest, put forth his own view, envisioning the Supreme Being as "a sort of Edwardian English squire" wearing tweeds. Davis went on to imagine that, "He drives one of the old fastback Bentley Continentals, and He drives it both vigorously and well." Having had a brief taste of the abilities of the machine, I can see why He who could have any vehicle He wanted would choose this car. For all the progress Bentley made since the Continental was created, in design, engineering, and added features -- electric locks, automatic air-conditioning, and high-end audio, for example -- this car does encompass the Eternal Verities of truly great cars: precision, predictability, personality, performance, and pride. Why wouldn't God be forever content with a Continental R?


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