In its day the Bentley Continental, launched in 1952, was the fastest production four-seater in the world and acclaimed as “a modern magic carpet which annihilates distance.” The R-Type Conti is still rightly considered one of the greatest cars of all time. Designed for the English country gentleman, it was understated, but had a lithe, sinewy beauty rarely seen in other cars of its era.
Rolls-Royce’s brief was to create a fast touring car for plutocrat customers, and to do that they had to reduce both size
and weight. Aluminum construction helped the weight, while wind tunnel testing created that slippery shape. Those emergent fins at the back were not for decoration— they actually aided the car’s directional stability. But such avant-garde development did not come cheap. In 1952, the R-Type Continental was the most expensive production car in the world and cost the same as a very large and agreeable house.
In 1952, with wartime austerity a fading memory, this was one of the flashiest and most rakish cars money could buy. Today, this exemplar of breeding and privilege stands as a resplendent memorial to the affluence and optimism of Fifties Britain. Collectors seem to agree that the Continental is the finest postwar Bentley and one of the world’s all-time great cars.
Such was the cost of the Continental that it was first introduced on an export-only basis.
The Continental was a car that begged you to press its accelerator pedal to the floor and reassured you with its powerful brakes.
The Continental bears an uncanny resemblance to a Pininfarina R-Type prototype shown at the 1948 Paris Salon.
Classic Gothic radiator shell was considered far more sporting than Rolls- Royce’s Doric example.
Front fog lights used to be known as “pass lights” for overtaking.
The Continental spent much time in the wind tunnel to establish air drag during forward motion. Sweeping rear quarters directed the wind over the rear wheels, which were covered in spats to assist airflow. During prototype testing, it was found that a normal set of six-ply tires lasted for only 20 miles (32 km).
Not only was the body made from lightweight aluminum— courtesy of H. J. Mulliner & Co. Ltd.—but also the side window and shield frames. The prototype had high quality alloy bumpers; production cars had steel ones.
Gently tapering rear fenders funneled air away into a slipstream; the Continental’s aerodynamics were way ahead of its time.
Body weight was kept to a minimum because no Fifties’ tires could cope with speeds over 120 mph (193 km/h).
Pillar box rear window was a throwback to prewar cars.
Trunk was considered large enough to carry luggage for touring.
Rear flanks are like the tense haunches of a sprinter.
Prototypes had spats covering the rear wheels.
Continentals used a 4-liter straight-six engine of 4566cc—increased to 4887cc in May 1954 and known as the big bore engine. It allowed the car to reach 50 mph (80 km/h) in first gear.
Carburation was by two SU HD8 units.
The beautifully detailed dashboard mirrored the Continental’s exterior elegance. The first R-Types had manual gearboxes with a right-hand floor-mounted stick, thus reflecting the car’s sporting character. Later models were offered with automatic boxes.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Bentley R-Type Continental (1952–55)
BODY STYLE Two-door, four-seater touring sedan.
CONSTRUCTION Steel chassis, alloy body.
ENGINES 4566 or 4887cc straight-sixes.
POWER OUTPUT Never declared, described as “sufficient.”
TRANSMISSION Four-speed synchromesh manual or auto option.
SUSPENSION Independent front with wishbones and coil springs, rear live axle with leaf springs.
BRAKES Front disc, rear drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 115 mph (185 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 13.5 sec
0–100 MPH (0–161 KM/H) 36.2 sec
A.F.C. 19.4 mpg (6.9 km/l)