The Reawakening of Bentley (Part One)

The 1991 Continental R Coupé was the first unique Bentley for over a quarter of a century. 

2002 Bentley Continental R. Image: cars-specs.com

The debut in 1965 of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow was a seminal event in the company’s long and occasionally turbulent history. With its unitary construction, it brought Rolls-Royce into the modern age. Its longevity and enduring sales success carried the company through some pretty lean times.

The Silver Shadow also caused the near extinction of the Bentley marque. The absence of a separate chassis on which distinctive coachbuilt models could readily be created reduced Bentley to a badge-engineered version of the Silver Shadow, dubbed T-Series and distinguished only by a different radiator grille. Over a fifteen-year production run, only 2,280 (7%) from a total of 32,337 cars produced carried the Bentley name.

When the Silver Shadow model was rebodied in 1980 to produce a successor, the SZ series Silver Spirit, the practice continued, and the Bentley version was called the Mulsanne. After two years, however, a turbocharged version of (only) the latter was offered, with a 50% increase in power over the normally-aspirated model. Further changes would be introduced to distinguish the Bentley model: these included alloy wheels, body-coloured grille surrounds and slats, mesh grille inserts, and twin round headlamps instead of the original large rectangular units. The latter, together with the more rounded grille, gave the Bentley version a quite different and more dynamic character compared with the rather inert looking Rolls-Royce model.

In 1985, the Turbo R replaced the standard model. The ‘R’ stood for ‘roadholding’ and the new model had retuned suspension settings and rode on wider alloy wheels, the first Bentley to have these fitted as standard. The improvement in the car’s handling was transformational: it was finally a super-sports saloon worthy of the Bentley name and heritage. Performance was given a further boost with the addition of fuel injection in 1987.

The Turbo R brought a new and younger customer demographic to Bentley, those who wanted to drive rather than be driven. By the mid-1980’s, almost half the company’s sales were of Bentley branded models. This would lead to the development of the first unique Bentley for over a quarter of a century, which would be a grand touring coupé(1).

1985 Bentley Project 90 Concept. Image: allcarindex.com

British designers John Heffernan and Ken Greenley had been commissioned to produce a concept, dubbed Project 90, which was exhibited at the 1985 Geneva motor show. The purpose of this concept was to ascertain potential demand for a new bespoke Bentley. Although no more than a glass fibre mock-up with no interior or running gear, it was warmly received.

Heffernan and Greenley were retained to design the production car, which would be based on the SZ platform and mechanical package. The designers were based at Rolls-Royce’s Mulliner Park Ward factory in north London, where they could work closely with the company’s engineers and Rolls-Royce Chief Designer, Graham Hull, who would be responsible for the interior of the new coupé.

The budget for the new model was £12 million, two-thirds of which would be spent on the body, the remaining third on engineering changes to the SZ drivetrain. Even back in the mid-1980’s, this was not a lot of money for a new car: tooling up to manufacture the bespoke rear lamp clusters was alone reported to have cost over £350,000.

1993 Bentley Continental R. Image: carandclassic.co.uk

The production car would share no external panels with the rather rectilinear saloon on which it was based. At first glance, it appeared to be a classic pillarless coupé, but the near-flush side glazing, delineated by slim stainless-steel trim, concealed a stout B-pillar and one-piece door frames that cut into the roof. The car featured a serpentine(2) waistline that created subtle haunches over the rear wheels. A horizontal crease along the bodysides allowed the front and rear wings to flare out over each wheel arch. Together, these styling features gave the car a sense of dynamism that was missing from the Bentley Turbo saloon, which relied more on its brutish presence for its undoubted appeal.

The saloon’s front bulkhead was retained, but the steering wheel was lowered slightly, and the incline of the windscreen was increased to 61°, the maximum possible before the top rail would pose a danger to passengers in a frontal impact. One area where careful management of the design brought significant improvement was aerodynamics: the coupé achieved a Cd of 0.37, compared with the saloon’s 0.45.

1991 Bentley Continental R interior. Image: drive-my.com

Mechanically, the 6.75 litre V8 engine with Garrett turbocharger from the Turbo R producing 325bhp (242kW) was carried over unchanged. This was mated to a new GM-sourced four-speed automatic transmission. The new model featured ventilated front disc brakes, self-levelling suspension and adaptive damping, switchable between normal and sport modes. The latter also changed the transmission mapping, delaying upshifts(3).

The new coupé was named Continental R, resurrecting a famous Bentley model name last used in 1965, and made a surprise debut at the 1991 Geneva motor show. It was a big and imposing car, weighing almost 2.5 tonnes (5,340lbs), just 13.5kg (30lbs) less than the SWB Turbo R saloon. It shared the saloon’s 3,061mm (120½”) wheelbase and was 64mm (2½”) longer overall at 5,342mm (210¼”). At a list price of £178,000(4) ($290,000(5)), it was by far the most expensive car ever produced by Rolls-Royce and one which had no direct rivals at that price, being also the most expensive production car in the world in 1991.

1995 Bentley Continental R. Image: coys.co.uk

One potential customer was not, however, impressed with the new model. British Actor, comedian and car buff, Rowan Atkinson, writing in Car Magazine’s May 1991 review of the Geneva motor show, described the price as “outlandish” and did not like either the show car’s vermillion red colour or the unusual stepped boot lid profile(6). This was apparently an aerodynamic aid to increase downforce, and a late addition to the design. Atkinson stated that he would instead choose the cheaper (at £130,000) and, in his opinion, better-looking Aston Martin Virage(7).

Renowned automotive  journalist LJK Setright was more impressed, describing the Continental R as “…handsome, not just stately”. He applauded the fact that “At long blessed last, R-R has created a Bentley worthy of the name”. There were a few quibbles about the quality of finish on the pre-production show car, but LJKS was confident that the “production cars, even at the heady rate of 700 a year, will leave the factory in impeccable state”. As was often the case, LJKS would prove to be on the right side of history regarding the Continental R: orders rolled in and, within six months, the waiting-list was over two years long.

In Part Two, we will take a look at the impression the car made in contemporary road tests and examine its development over twelve years on the market.

 

(1) In the early planning stages, the new coupé was intended to be a replacement for the Corniche and carry the Rolls-Royce name, but Bentley’s renaissance prompted the change in direction.

(2) One would never be so crass as to describe this feature as a ‘Coke-bottle’ waistline.

(3) Not greatly, however: the V8 engine’s rev limit was a decidedly lazy 4,500rpm.

(4) Such was the demand that a £20,000 deposit was required to secure an order for the new model.

(5) This is the US $ equivalent of the UK price at the prevailing exchange rate, not the US list price.

(6) When the magazine published scoop pictures of the Continental R in January 1991, they speculated that the stepped boot lid was actually a disguise hiding the true profile underneath!

(7) The Aston Martin Virage was also designed by Heffernan and Greenley.

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

22 thoughts on “The Reawakening of Bentley (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I remember when the Bentely Continental R Coupé when was introduced, but I don’t recall it split opinion the way it did.

    I found 3 for sale here in the Netherlands, prices ranging from € 45k to € 68k. I can’t think of any other car that’s this imposing for that kind of money. Yet I’ll pass 🙂

    1. Good morning Freerk. There are six on AutoTrader UK, starting at £40k for a 1992 R with 84k miles and finishing at £170k for a 2000 SC with just 19k miles.

      For those for whom the name Bentley Continental appeals, my DTW fellow-author, Andrew Miles, has written a nice piece describing a more economical (I use that word advisedly) way into ownership, which will also be part of this Bentley mini-series. Stay tuned!

  2. I do hope that you will be able to give some space to the exquisite Continental SC variant. For me the SC, with its removable roof panels over the front seats, is/was by far the most elegant car of the (very) late 20th century.

    1. Good morning Albert. Yes, the rest of the Continental range, including the Azure convertible, is covered in part two, coming up shortly.

    2. IMO the original “R” is the epitome of elegance and taste. Proportions are divine, detailing is exquisite. For me it is the LP400 of Bentleys. But nothing is perfect: the side mirrors look like they came from somewhere else (“part two” perhaps?).

      Regarding Christopher’s comment on the greenhouse, I find that the C-pillar looks proper to me on the side that houses the traditional fuel filler location, but appears weaker on the side without, a sort of psychological illusion.

  3. I remember being overawed whenever I came across a Continental R as a child (which wasn’t terribly often). It truly was a car like no other and remains, for all its rough edges, a favourite of mine.

    To me, it’s particularly interesting to compare this to its Brooklands successor, which – despite unquestionably being more professional and coherent – I never warmed to (likewise the Bentley Arnage and Mulsanne, incidentally). The only two factors I can pinpoint are the overabundance of brightwork on the Brooklands and the Continental R’s unusually light greenhouse, especially compared with the later car’s dragster silhouette. Apart from that, my judgement is probably clouded by nostalgia and the underdog factor.

  4. In comparison with the much bulkier car Bentley now offers, the Continental is almost a go-kart. I still like this car and looks ever-green to me as well even if it´s really a bit creaky. The later cars might be better but not much nicer. Greenley & Heffernan achieved the goal of adding to Bentley´s design heritage in completely the correct, conservative way: organic change, discretely and subtly handled.

  5. Hi Christopher and Richard. The later Brooklands coupé was, I would imagine, a much more thoroughly (and expensively) developed car, but the styling never hit the spot for me. I always thought it a bit lardy looking, with more than a hint of 1970s American ‘personal coupé’ about it, especially with those heavy C-pillars and shallow glasshouse:

    1. Lardy sums it up. It needed to be shrunk 2cm in every dimension. It makes the truck-like Cointi look lithe. The DLO has an over-inflated character. I think the tail lamps are nice though – can we allow that?

  6. I’m sure everyone here at DTW is familiar with Bill Mitchell’s encounter with a Rolls-Royce in foggy London, inspiring him towards the athletic profile of the Buick Riviera.

    Well, several years ago I had a similar encounter with a Continental R driving up Chancery Lane in heavy fog around twilight. The car was an early example, black or very dark grey, absolutely covered in small dents. The gentleman behind the wheel (who I presumed to be a barrister) looked to be wearing a cashmere jumper, and seemed very well put together. The whole ensemble was incredible to see, in those circumstances the car had a delightfully villainous appearance, as the best Bentleys often do. I’ve always had a soft sport for nineties Bentleys, but seeing one in its native environment just seemed incredibly ‘right’, like it was part of the architecture.

    If it had been a later Continental, my mind would not have been carried over to Bill Mitchell, but rather I’m afraid I would have wondered what John Terry was doing so far away from Fulham! Maybe that’s a snobbish way to think, and I certainly don’t think that a rapper or a footballer is any less moral or useful than a barrister or a high court judge, but it does seem to me that somewhere along the line VW made the business decision that the former professions and their imitators made for a more lucrative market than the latter two. Aesthetically it’s a shame, but I suppose morally it’s all just conspicuous consumption.

  7. 1991? Goodness, how time flies… I do remember the excitement this car’s launch caused.

    The cited development budget must make this a masterclass in making the most of what you have got. From the outside it appeared to be something entirely new.

  8. I loved it when new but never saw one in the metal, odd considering how numerous Astons and, ahem, Maserati’s have become. Too subtle perhaps? I suspect the next exciting installment will provide some answers…

    I look at this and see; a car which Bristol’s design staff probably saw (In the place between their ears) but were fated to translate into cars that looked like giant Scimitars. I also see a car which Vickers and VW could have potentially built and sold in small numbers more or less indefinitely a la Volvo 240. Maybe the calibre of wealth has changed; perhaps the “Dubai crowd” wouldn’t appreciate the tawdriness of a 30 year old design that didn’t look like war sculpted in metal, maybe it fell foul of the BMW v VW hair pulling contest but I jump ahead, perhaps.

    Alan Clark MP, yes him, had one of the originals (J registration) in “Queen Mother claret” and griped about the Bentley symbol on the dashboard not been back-lit. It sounded to me like entitled whining but photos show a winged Bentley logo in cheap plastic that looks like a blanking plate, I can see why Clark thought it should be a proper feature. I wouldn’t be able to cope with the giant ugly steering wheel that lacked a flying B in the middle it looks like it’s come from a bus, a Bristol VR perhaps?!

    1. Hi Richard. I’ve added a photo of the interior to the piece above. Is the dashboard really that disappointing? The little Bentley badge in the centre that Clark criticised is a bit naff, but I think it’s otherwise rather handsome and bespoke looking. Yes, the steering wheel is ugly, but most early airbag wheels were similarly bulky and ungainly.

  9. Thanks Daniel, the wheel in your picture is worse than the smaller centred one in the pictures I’ve seen, I suspect the first year production was pre airbag. I’m usually a sucker for wood veneer but I reckon more “Common” fare such as series 3 XJ’s and Triumph Dolomites does it much better. I think there must have been a point in time when crash safety changed wooden dashboards from looking like they had substance into something more decorative. The minor controls that look like silver organ stops are lovely though.

    1. Good morning Richard. Your comment about Triumph’s woodwork not being very well varnished reminded me of seeing cars in the 1970s with their door cappings bleached out, the varnish cracked and chipping off. That said, the cappings could be easily removed, being held in place with just a couple of screws, sanded down and revarnished, a simple DIY job for those who could be bothered.

      Here’s a Mk1 2000 in pristine condition:

      And the Mk2 with its more traditional dashboard layout featuring more wood:

      Lovely!

    2. Oof, that Mk1 has a fantastic interior! Clean, yet interesting lines. Mind you, the Mk2’s is nice too. At first sight a slab of wood which turns out to be gently curved and filled with absolutely exquisite dials.

  10. I’m sure everyone here at DTW is familiar with Bill Mitchell’s encounter with a Rolls-Royce in foggy London, inspiring him towards penning the athletic profile of the Buick Riviera.

    Well, several years ago I had a similar encounter with a Continental R driving up Chancery Lane in heavy fog, just at the tail end of twilight. The car was an early example, black or very dark grey, absolutely covered in small dents. The gentleman behind the wheel (who I presumed to be a barrister) looked to be wearing a cashmere jumper and seemed impatient to get home. In those circumstances the car had a delightfully villainous appearance, as the best of these sorts of expensive, wasteful coupés often do. I’ve always had a soft spot for nineties Bentleys, but seeing one in its native environment just seemed incredibly ‘right’, like it was part of the architecture.

    If it had been a later Continental, my mind would not have been carried over to Bill Mitchell, but rather I’m afraid I would have wondered what John Terry was doing so far away from Fulham! Maybe that’s a snobbish way to think, and I certainly don’t think that a rapper or a footballer is any less moral or useful than a barrister or a high court judge, but it does seem to me that somewhere along the line VW made the business decision that the former professions and their imitators made for a more lucrative market. Aesthetically it’s a shame, but I suppose morally it’s all just conspicuous consumption.

    1. Good morning Andrew. Your characterisation of (pre-VW) Bentley as Rolls-Royce’s slightly louche, if not entirely disreputable, cousin is bang on the money. It was, however, inevitable that VW would chase what used to be disparagingly referred to as “new money” in order to increase sales and turn Bentley into a sustainable business, which it certainly wasn’t when VW took over.

    2. Dear Daniel,

      Quite right, there was probably no other way. I suppose there is a debate to be had about the extent to which tastes emerge organically from the customer or are dictated to the customer by the producer, but that probably comes outside our remit here today! Have a pleasant evening.

    3. Thanks, Andrew. By the way, Part Two of the Bentley story is coming up tomorrow. Hope you enjoy it!

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