Bentley Continental: How Bentley invented the British grand touring coupé
Rolls-Royce has frequently been described as the Best Car in the World, complete with capitals, but the reality is more complex. Few would have questioned the 40/50 Silver Ghost’s supremacy but the 1930s brought new contenders. The lavish luxury cars that flourished in the immediate pre-war era included several that were worthy challengers to Rolls-Royce – Cadillac, Packard, Hispano-Suiza and Delahaye to name four. But the war changed the automotive scene forever, and this was especially evident throughout Europe including Britain. The days when Rolls-Royce and Bentley customers – RR having taken over W.O. Bentley’s eponymous firm in 1931 – specified a coachbuilder to provide a body for their chassis were numbered: the Bentley Mark VI and closely related Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn were the first to be supplied brand new with an all-steel body built by Pressed Steel, supplier to much of the British automotive industry.
Even before the end of the 1930s Rolls-Royce management was keenly aware of the extraordinary value for money offered by Bill Lyons’ range of Jaguars. The company went so far as to purchase a Jaguar 3.5 saloon, the engine of which succumbed to rigorous testing (legal letters followed before RR agreed to pay for the repairs to the car itself!). But whatever advantages in price and performance the pre-war Jaguars might have enjoyed in comparison with the Crewe company must have seemed minor when the Mark VII, powered by the superlative twin overhead camshaft 3.4-litre XK engine, was shown at Earls Court in late 1950 (a very effective rumour mill preceded the Mark VII and it hardly required product planning genius to deduce that the magnificent engine that was the heart of the XK120 would find its way beneath the bonnet of Jaguar saloons in the near future); indeed, the XK engine had been developed for the new-generation saloon, but Lyons decided to showcase it in a hastily conceived sports car beforehand.
It is certain that Rolls-Royce’s product planners took Jaguar into account when developing a car that most of the cognoscenti would have regarded as the best car in the world on debut in 1952. Paradoxically, this superlative machine did not feature the Spirit of Ecstasy atop its Parthenon-like radiator grille, but rather the winged B of Bentley. It was, of course, the first in what would be a long line of Bentley Continentals.
Although the twin-carbureted Mark VI and single-carb Silver Dawn gave brisk performance from their 4.6-litre six-cylinder engines, they could not match the forthcoming new saloon let alone the XK120. It was in 1950 that Rolls-Royce began conceiving a new Bentley coupé with a sporting character. It seems likely that this project took inspiration from the one-off Bentley created in 1938 for Greek shipping magnate André Embiricos and which bore his name. After the war Embiricos sold his car and the new owner entered it in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for 1949 where it finished sixth outright (at 11 years of age!). It competed and finished in 1950 and 1951. The Embiricos Bentley could achieve a maximum of 120 miles per hour (as could the XK120 which was actually named for that ability!), so obviously this provided a benchmark. It is also obvious that Rolls-Royce management was determined that its forthcoming performance flagship should have the measure of any Jaguar that was not a pure-bred sports car.
Because a higher final-drive ratio was fitted, the Continental was barely quicker to 60 miles per hour than a Mark VI Bentley but at higher speeds it delivered much stronger acceleration and rare indeed was any 1952 car that could approach the ‘ton’ in third gear!
The engineers were keen to keep weight down, not only in the interest of higher performance but also in deference to existing tyre technology – few tyres could withstand 100 miles per hour cruising. The Continental’s body was made by H.J. Mulliner using aluminium panels and aluminium alloys where possible. Elegant, rakish and aerodynamically efficient, this body was then mounted on a standard chassis. One hundred and ninety-two of these coupes emerged from H.J. Mulliner, while six Continentals had bodies by Park Ward, five by Franay in France, three by Graber in Switzerland (later to be better known for its bodies for Alvis) and one by Pininfarina.
There can be no question that designer John Blatchley drew inspiration from Harley Earl’s magnificent late 1940s Cadillacs.
Known as the R-Type Continental, this new Bentley offered a superb compromise between high performance and sybaritic luxury – a compromise few of its successors would manage so adroitly. It may even be argued that postwar austerity thinking played its part in the Continental’s furnishings. Relatively lightweight bucket front seats upholstered in cloth rather than Connolly hide would not have been conscionable in a Rolls-Royce or Bentley saloon but were in keeping with the Continental vision. Looking back with the benefit of 70 years’ hindsight, it may be said that the R-Type Continental was the precursor of this century’s Bentley Continental GT3s.
The Bentley Continental (the name was changed from Corniche late in the day) made its debut in June 1952 and was initially offered only overseas, where it was immediately successful. Even the name was inspired, suggesting a grand tourer ready to devour Europe or perhaps America. What a contrast this sleek coupé represented to the upright Mark VI saloon with its separate mudguards and essentially pre-war razor-edged styling theme. The roofline was an inch lower and the steering column more sharply raked to allow a lower bonnet sloping downwards to the nose. There was a tachometer, a gauge deemed by management to be inappropriate in a Rolls-Royce motor car! Here was the new archetypal British grand tourer, a car with much broader international appeal than the Bristol 401 or a Lagonda saloon. (One can only wonder what W.O. Bentley – at this time employed by Lagonda – would have made of this glorious new car bearing his name.)
After such a brilliant foray into the grand touring market, Rolls-Royce management essentially gave up on the concept so carefully embodied in the R-Type Continental. Indeed, from the time the last of these originals found a buyer in 1955, until the release of the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo in 1981, the Bentley marque was condemned to being little more than a badge-engineered Rolls-Royce, less expensive only because its radiator grille was less ornate. Even during the three-year production run of the R-Type, there were compromises. Most early examples had a four-speed manual transmission and all were powered by a tuned edition of the 4.6-litre six-cylinder engine from other Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. But the demand from customers – mainly in the US – for more power, automatic transmission and more luxury brought a gradual dilution of the Continental concept. Capacity was increased to 4.9 litres and heavy leather armchairs replaced the lean bucket seats.
Maybe the writing could be seen faintly on the wall by 1953 or 1954, but in 1955 Rolls-Royce effectively relinquished the magnificent concept it had created. Gone were the aluminium panels and bespoke edition of the Rolls-Royce six-cylinder engine and the Bentley Continental S1 was essentially a two-door variant of the new Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. In late 1955 the new S-Type Continental was announced. Like the original, it had a higher compression ratio, lower steering column, longer final-drive and high-speed tyres. The H.J. Mulliner fastback style from its predecessor was modified for the longer wheelbase of the new Silver Cloud and Bentley S1 saloons, while the waistline was raised and the rear wings were more restrained. The Continental lost focus: the pursuit of weight savings and aerodynamic efficiency was dropped with the heavy new armchairs and the disappearance of the rear mudguard spats.
In 1957 Mulliner offered a four-door version of the Continental as the Flying Spur and the final 20 S1 coupés acquired higher swage lines on the wings and other revisions to give them a closer family resemblance to this new saloon. Confusingly, there was a small number of Continental saloons from Mulliner and Park Ward.
Two years later Rolls-Royce acquired H.J. Mulliner. This was also the year of the Silver Cloud II and Bentley S2, the highlight of which was the new 6230cc V8 engine. There was no longer a special tune for the engine, the V8 having more than ‘adequate’ performance! Gone, too, was the alluring fastback streamline in favour of a conservative though notably elegant two-door saloon body.
Then in 1962 the quad-headlight Silver Cloud III and Bentley S3 were introduced and the Continental was completely restyled. The S3 Continental remained in production until 1965 when the monocoque Silver Shadow and Bentley T-Series spelled the end of the coachbuilt two-door saloon.
Somewhat curiously, the Continental name was plucked back off the shelf and applied to the Bentley version of the Corniche convertible: previously both the RR and Bentley versions had been Corniches (call that Cor-niche marketing or perhaps badge engineering!)
The wait for the next true new model Continental lasted from 1965 to 1991 for the debut of the turbocharged Continental R (with the Turbo R’s engine and running gear), was derived from the Bentley Project 90 shown at the 1985 Geneva Salon. Project 90 was designed by independent consultants John Heffernan and John Greenley who had recently designed the Aston Martin Virage. Project 90 became Project Nepal and finally the Continental. So the Continental R was a welcome addition to the Rolls-Royce range and arguably the most stylish of all its cars since the original Continental. It was offered until 2002.
The more compact and sporting Continental T followed in 1996 and also remained on offer until 2002. Originally this was a one-off like the Embiricos. Losing four inches from the wheelbase to make the already fairly cramped rear compartment much more so, the T had a strong sporting flavour with 15 extra horsepower thanks to Zytek engine management, engine-turned aluminium panels for the dashboard and centre console and a pushbutton starter. Additionally, 79 Sedanca coupés with a lift-off roof panel and wider wings were produced in 1979.
In 1998 Volkswagen acquired Bentley and the Crewe headquarters, while BMW got the Rolls-Royce brand: this guaranteed that hereafter would be major differentiation between the two.
New owner Volkswagen was determined to recall the glorious days of Bentley at Le Mans, where the marque had scored victories in 1927, 1929 and 1930.
A pair of dedicated Speed 8 Bentley racers (the name inspired by the Speed Six which won the 1929 and 1930 events) placed first and second in the 2003 24 Hours of Le Mans, providing sensational marketing context for the new Continental GT of the same year. This extravagantly plush coupé began life on the same steel monocoque platform as Volkswagen’s 6.0-litre W12 Phaeton sedan flagship. But the engine had been reworked to develop a formidable 411kW of power at 6100rpm and 650Nm of torque from just 1600rpm, allowing Bentley to claim it as the world’s fastest four-door car. The GT was equipped with an Audi A8 all-wheel-drive system.
Despite all this technology, on the road the 2385kg Continental GT always felt somewhat nose-heavy. Many critics believed a new-century Continental should be more charismatic and involving. There were some who recalled Ettore Bugatti’s unkind 1920s suggestion that the Le Mans winning Bentleys were the world’s fastest lorries.
Numerous special editions were offered, notably the more focused GT Speed.
The gen-two Continental GT of 2011 was essentially a reworked edition of the 2003 car. Enthusiasts welcomed the return of a less nose-heavy V8 edition the following year to augment the W12. Variations abounded. But it was still the case that most well-heeled driving enthusiasts inclined more towards Weissach than Crewe.
In 2013 Bentley launched a rear-drive GT3 with twin-turbo 447kW V8, six-speed sequential gearbox and all the technology to compete in GT3 racing.
The most exciting development since the original 1952 Continental was the all-new Gen 3 model of 2017 with an even more stunning GT3 edition the following year: clearly the Bentley product planners were looking to make the Continental a GT to rival the best from Porsche, Aston Martin, Ferrari, et al – a Bentley to recall the marque’s glory days. This was a better-balanced machine with the engine positioned behind the front axle and the front wheels pushed forward 135mm. The all-wheel-drive system was reconfigured to favour the rear wheels whenever possible. Handling was much improved and the car felt lighter on its wheels, generally more agile and adroit. The eight-speed torque converter automatic was replaced with a more involving eight-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox. Additionally, the new and more stylish Continental GT acquired a highly advanced electronically controlled air suspension, courtesy of the Bentayga SUV along with that vehicle’s 48-volt electrical system.
The 2018 Continental GT became the first car in the world with the entire body side made in super-formed aluminium.
In its day, the 2003 GT impressed with its zero to 100km/h time of 4.8 seconds but the new model – courtesy of more power and Sports Launch mode – reduced this by a neat 25 per cent to 3.6!
There was surprise and delight galore, as symbolised by the sleek new headlights inspired by cut crystal glasses and the diamond-in-diamond quilting for the seats. While there was no questioning the luxury and competence of its predecessor, this new model took the whole Continental experience to a new level and for many it was once again – like the original Type R Continental of nearly 70 years previously – the best car in the world.
Two years after its debut the GT3 triumphed in the 2020 Bathurst 12-Hour race. Jules Gounon took the chequered flag in the Bathurst 12-Hour race. The French ace was partnered with Jordan Pepper and Maxine Soulet. This was a moment to savour not just for the drivers and everyone associated with Bentley but for everyone who remembered the glorious history of this most British of brands.