13th June, 2019

The Very First: Bentley Continental

Bentley: steeped in motorsport history and identifiable as the discerning gentleman’s choice of powerful, comfortable tourer. The marque is synonymous with opulent, mile-devouring vehicles that look as at home outside a stately pile as they do the outside lane of the M1. The Continental name has played an integral part in establishing this reputation.

As the dust continued to settle on WW2, in 1952, Bentley’s chief designer and engineer, J. P. Blatchley and Ivan Evernden, embarked on a quest to reaffirm the company’s position as manufacturer of the finest grand tourers. The R-Type Continental resulted and offered the elite – it was one of the most expensive automobiles ever produced – a package with the power and refinement to match the haunting beauty of a design that has gone on to inspire the latest generations of Continental GT.

Bentley initially utilised a reworked, higher-compression version of its six-cylinder motor, which provided production vehicles with a top speed of 115mph and the ability to carry four occupants and all their luggage at 100mph “all day”. Prototype testing saw speed of 120mph achieved. Extraordinary figures for 1952 and ones which would set the tone for future generations.

The company didn’t only add power, but lightness, too. Inspired by performance, but also the limitations of 1950s’ tyre design, the widespread use of aluminium for the body, window frames, windscreen surround and even seat frames and bumpers was mould-breaking. In a bid to reduce weight without compromising ride quality and refinement, Bentley defined the NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) challenges faced by premium vehicle manufacturers 65 years later. Of course, some British idiosyncrasies remained, such as the lack of a radio to save weight and, as latter-day owners with steep drives will attest, a brake servo that doesn’t work in reverse from a cold start.

In familiar fashion for the time, the R-Type Continental’s chassis was built in Crewe before assembly was completed by a handful of trusted coachbuilders, such as H. J. Mulliner. A visionary precursor, perhaps, of later generation Continental GTs built on a shared platform? We think it’s probably just coincidence…

The R-Type was produced for only three years before, in 1955, the S1 broke cover, followed by the S2 and S3 variants, which built on the previous car’s foundations with aplomb and is a hugely significant vehicle for the manufacturer. The S-Series cars were the last Bentley to feature a separate chassis, signalling the beginning of the end of the coachbuilding era, and the first to feature the all-new L-Series V8: an icon of the automotive world that has continued to evolve beneath Bentley bonnets for well over 50 years. The original incarnation appeared in the 1959 S2 with a capacity of 6320cc.

Costing over £8000 in 1958, the equivalent of £265k in today’s money, Bentley justified the premium by offering an ownership experience that was unrivalled. The fastback’s sleek, distinguished lines provided a silhouette of Great Britishness that helped define Bentley as we know it. While the 2019 marketplace is awash with high-performance, luxury vehicles that jostle for position as the premium grand tourer of choice, few can offer the gentlemanly dignified legacy of the Bentley Continental moniker. It’s more than just a name, it’s a national institution.