Concluding our recollection of the cars that sealed Bentley’s renaissance.
Such was the demand for the new Continental R that Car Magazine would not get to road test it until January 1992, and then it was still a prototype rather than a production car that was supplied for the test. Reviewer Richard Bremner noted that the car, although roomy and beautifully trimmed, was a strict four-seater, with individual rear seats separated by a large centre console that bisected the cabin. Bremner bemoaned the lack of ventilation or seat adjustment for rear seat passengers. Front seat occupants had no such complaints, however, and sat in great luxury(1).
Unlike the Turbo R, the automatic transmission lever was floor-mounted and linked to a new four-speed unit. The dashboard was traditional Rolls-Royce fare, walnut and leather with inset circular instruments and large chromium-plated eyeball vents. Some of the ergonomics seemed a little dated, such as the twist-action knob on the dashboard that operated the wipers, rather than a column stalk. The traditional Bakelite steering wheel had, however, been displaced in favour of a leather-bound item that was a pleasure to hold. Visibility from the driver’s seat was excellent, although one never forgot that the Continental R was an exceptionally large car to manoeuvre.
Performance was impressive: the car reached 60mph (97km/h) in 6.6 seconds, 100mph (161km/h) in 16 seconds and went on to achieve a (limited) top speed of 145mph (234km/h). Pressing the sport button delayed upshifts and made the transmission kick down more readily. Unfortunately, it also adjusted the adaptable dampers to make the ride stiffer. This increased the road noise transmitted into the cabin without dramatically improving handling and agility, which was already exceptional for such a large car, even in normal mode. The compromise for this was ride quality, which was below par for a luxury car. There were also some creaks and rattles from the trim, which were attributed to the example tested being a hard-worked prototype.
Overall, Bremner concluded that the Continental R “doesn’t have the depth of ability of an S-Class(2) Merc” and “will be embarrassed in many areas by the new SEC, when it comes”. However, he thought that the Continental R still had “a charm and character that transcends [its] drawbacks”.
Given that it had been developed on a chassis that was already twenty-five years old and for a budget would be regarded as loose change in Stuttgart, the Continental R was a tremendous achievement for Rolls-Royce. It would be further improved with a number of upgrades throughout its production life. The first of these was in 1994, when new Cosworth designed cylinder heads increased estimated power output to 360bhp (268kW) and torque to 500 lb ft (678Nm). New 17” alloy wheels replaced the 16” original design.
Further engine upgrades were made in 1996 and Rolls-Royce broke with tradition by releasing official power and torque figures for the first time, 385bhp (287kW) and 550 lb ft (746Nm) respectively. A traction control system was introduced later in that year to tame the easily provoked wheelspin.
Also launched in 1996 was the Continental T, a more overtly sporting model with 4” (102mm) taken out of the wheelbase at the expense of rear passenger space, and a modest further increase in power. Wider wheels and deeper wheel arches gave the car a more aggressive stance. In 1998 the front indicators were reduced in size and the space beneath the headlamps was instead filled with mesh grilles. These changes would gradually be adopted by the standard wheelbase car, which was offered in a number of special editions.
1999 saw the launch of the Continental Sedanca Coupé or SC, a targa-roofed version of the Continental T with a removable hardtop over the front seats.
Production of the Continental R, T and SC was brought to an end in 2003 without an immediate direct replacement. Total production over twelve years on the market was 1,854 cars, of which 1,504 were standard wheelbase and 350 short wheelbase models. Of the latter, just 79 were Sedanca Coupés.
The early success of the Continental R encouraged Rolls-Royce to develop a convertible version, so the company engaged Pininfarina to redesign the bodyshell, then to build and paint them in Italy from parts supplied by Park Sheet Metal before shipping them back to the UK for final assembly and trimming. Pininfarina also designed and manufactured the large electrically powered five-layer fabric roof. As a roll-bar was unthinkable, the redesign required considerable reinforcement of the bodyshell to restore the rigidity lost in cutting off the roof and losing the coupé’s stout B-pillars. The convertible gained a substantial 160kg (350lbs) over its coupé sibling and weighed in at 2,608kg (5,750lbs).
The new convertible was named Azure and was launched at the Geneva motor show in March 1995. It effectively replaced the long-running Rolls-Royce Corniche in the company’s range. The Azure was priced at £215,000 ($344,000(3)) which was a 10% premium over the Continental R. The drivetrain was identical to that of the coupé and the Azure achieved a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 6.1 seconds and a limited top speed of 150mph (242km/h).
Sadly, the Azure became the subject of a dispute between John Heffernan and Ken Greenley, the designers of the Continental R, and Rolls-Royce. Heffernan and Greenley claimed the design as their own, but Rolls-Royce insisted that, while the duo had done some preliminary sketches for a convertible version of the Continental R, the Azure was the work of Graham Hull, the company’s Chief Designer. While superficially identical to the coupé below the waistline, the Azure had reprofiled, more rounded front wings and a raised rear deck.
Car Magazine’s Phil Llewellyn flew to Nice to sample the new car immediately before its official launch. He remarked on how much more tidily the hood stowed (under a metal cover) than on the superseded Corniche. The price for that was, however, a plastic rear screen and a 50% reduction in boot space over the Continental R. Rear visibility was also severely compromised with the hood up. Rear legroom was adequate for one 6’ (1.8m) adult sitting behind another, although headroom was tight.
The handling was almost as impressive as the Continental R’s, but poor road surfaces caused a degree of structural flexing that could be felt through the steering. At twice the cost of a Mercedes-Benz SL600, there was no rational economic argument to justify the purchase of an Azure, but that would be irrelevant to the car’s intended customer base.
One unfortunate experience on the test drive was that the hood was inoperative and had to remain in the lowered position throughout. Exactly the same thing had happened to Llewellyn when he visited Nice two years earlier to pick up a Rolls-Royce Corniche and drive it back to London.
Llewellyn’s experience with the Azure would not prove to be a bad omen and the new model sold strongly from the get-go. Over its eight-year production life, a total of 1,403 Azure convertibles were built. Needless to remark, Rolls-Royce offered a vast range of customisation options, so it is highly unlikely that any two examples were identical.
The rehabilitation of Bentley from the early-1980s onwards with the Turbo R, Continental R and Azure undoubtedly secured its long-term future and made it just as much a prize as Rolls-Royce in the 1998 tussle between Volkswagen and BMW for ownership of the prestige British marques.
Author’s note: The Continental R also provided the base for a large number of bespoke vehicles supplied by Bentley to the Sultan of Brunei during the 1990’s. Click here to find out more.
(1) Disappointingly, the car did not come with separate air-conditioning controls for driver and passenger.
(2) Like the Continental R, the W140 S-Class had also been unveiled at the 1991 Geneva motor show.
(3) This is the US $ equivalent of the UK price at the prevailing exchange rate, not the US list price.