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