Bentley R-Type Continental Fastback Sports Saloon by H.J. Mulliner & Co.

The first Bentley Continental was sold in the summer of 1952, though the Continental roots go back to the 1930s. Bentley’s parent, Rolls-Royce Motors, had experimented with aerodynamic designs before World War II, and their first Continental prototype was known as the ‘Corniche’. The second was a two-door, four-seater, built on a 4¼-litre chassis, with a French Paulin-designed body, now nicknamed “Embiricos”, after the buyer who commissioned it. The Corniche did not survive the war, but the Bentley Embiricos is still in use today and was recently on display at the Windsor Castle Concours of Elegance.

World War II redirected the company to building Merlin aircraft engines, but afterwards, the works returned to fine motor cars. Chief Project Engineer H.I.F. Evernden and designer J.P. Blatchley were assigned to create a lightweight, aerodynamic Bentley capable of carrying four adults in supreme comfort. They were instructed to “produce a car which would not only look beautiful, but possess a high maximum speed, coupled with a high rate of acceleration and excellent handling”.

H. J. Mulliner built the R-Type Continental prototype. The body and window frames were made of a light alloy, as were the front bucket and rear bench seat frames, resulting in a four-place body that weighed only 750 pounds, the whole car was less than 4,000 pounds. Road tests revealed that the prototype’s overdrive top gear was unsuitable for the engine, so it was replaced by a direct-ratio top gear and a lower axle ratio. This combination provided high-speed touring and well-spaced gear ratios for city driving.

With the Mark VI Bentley and its fraternal twin, the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, the design team produced fast, nimble touring cars. But the new design would carry the Bentley radiator shell and badges and was going to need more power and lower aerodynamic drag. Minor adjustments were made to the standard 4½-litre R-Type Bentley engine, and the body was lower and sleeker than the four-door saloon. H.J. Mulliner would build the new car, but it was designed by Blatchley and Evernden. They produced quarter-scale models of the new fastback Continental and tested them in the company’s wind tunnel, calculating a possible top speed of about 120 mph. Road tests reported by The Autocar on 12 September 1952 were made in Belgium using 80 octane petrol, as only 73–74 octane was available in the UK. At the time, it was the fastest four-seater car available.

The first R-Type Continental went into production in February 1952, but the prototype was built in 1951. Though it was intended to be called the “Corniche II”, that name was dropped, and it was renamed the “Continental”. The chassis were assembled in Crewe, at the Rolls-Royce works, then sent to the Lillie Hall Depot in Earls Court in London and delivered to their designated coachbuilders. While the bodies were being fitted, Bentley representatives made sure that all was done correctly. Upon completion, the cars were tested before being delivered.

At first, the H.J. Mulliner aluminium shell was used on every Continental, and not until spring of 1954 were R-Types fitted with bodies from other coachbuilders, namely Franay, Graber, Farina, and Park Ward. The R-Type Continental rapidly acquired a great reputation and its ideas spread to other models. The Continental’s reduced weight and lower frontal area enhanced its performance, and it is perhaps the most desirable post-war Bentley. Magazine reviews were unanimous in their praise. England’s best known car publication, Autocar, described the Continental as, “a modern magic carpet annihilating great distances”. The list price in 1952 was a shade over £7,000, sufficient to buy a decent house with a few acres of land in the Home Counties in those days. It was certainly not for the faint of heart, as it was also the most expensive car in the world when new.

Given its heroic price, early owners included industrial titans Stavros Niarchos, Gianni Agnelli, and Aristotle Onassis, members of the Guinness, Embiricos, Rothschild, Mavroleon, Carnegie, and McAlpine dynasties. Automotive legends that chose an R-Type Continental included Donald Campbell, Georges Filipinetti, Stanley Sears, Briggs Cunningham, and Jack Dunfee, and included such Royal Patrons as the Maharajah of Indore, the Emperor Bao-Dai, the Aga Khan, Prince Frederick of Prussia, and the Shah of Iran—a veritable roll-call of the 1950s international jet-set!

Due to huge demand and slow build time, orders placed took around six months to fulfil. The first 30 cars were all allocated to three overseas Bentley agencies, namely Franco-Britannic in Paris, Garage de l'Athenee in Geneva, and J.W. Inskip in Manhattan. A previous chairman of the Bentley Drivers’ Club and a prominent Bentley enthusiast, W.E.B. Medcalf owned two R-Type Continentals simultaneously for many years. He wrote, “Simply to sit in these cars is a beautiful experience; to drive one is among the ultimate physical pleasures. I know of no other car, which, after 45 years’ service, can match these remarkable masterpieces; even after covering 1,000 miles in a day, driving remains a delight.”

Part of the RM Auctions event in London, October, 2012.

153 bhp, 4,566 cc inlet-over-exhaust six-cylinder engine, two SU carburettors, four-speed manual gearbox, independent wishbone front suspension with coil springs and anti-roll bar, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel mechanical servo braking system with hydraulic front and mechanical rear. Wheelbase: 120 in.

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Tim Scott

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