Postwar Aura: Bentley R-type Continental

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.

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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This is the most interesting article in Automobile for a long time! How about more like it, looking at the Continental's competitors?

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