Thursday, December 7, 2023

What’s It Like to Drive a $1.2m 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental?

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Only 208 of these cars were ever made, and Enthusiast Report has been behind the wheel of one of them.

Throughout their history, Bentleys have always been legendary. From the Bentley Boys, Blower Bentleys, and 4½ Litres to today’s incredible Continental GT and Flying Spur, Bentleys are cars that have always been at the top of, well, just about everything in the motoring world.

It’s often said there’s no point discussing how a car looks, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But there can’t be a single car-loving soul out there who wouldn’t say the Bentley R-Type Continental is one of the most beautiful vehicles ever made.

Look at it. It’s a stunning, elegant piece of art; the work of designer John Blatchley and engineer Ivan Evernden, who were both Rolls-Royce alumni (it shows a little, right?).

Bentley R -type

It’s not all about the looks, though; even we can admit that. The Bentley R-Type Continental can hit 115 mph and cruise happily at 100 mph with four occupants plus luggage. It was built in 1952. Let that sink in a minute. There weren’t many cars around at that time that could achieve anything approaching those impressive figures.

Apparently, that speed wasn’t enough, however, and Evernden thought more could have been achieved, estimating the car could have hit 120 mph. In 1962 he wrote: “Much more could have been done…but the purpose of the exercise was to reduce the aero drag of a conventional car and not to make a space capsule for an astronaut.”

Firmly back down on Earth, coachbuilders Mulliner set to work on creating the new coupé, with weight saving the name of the game. The bodywork is aluminum, along with the window frames, windscreen surround, backlight, seat frames, and bumpers. Naturally, to keep the weight down, a radio was considered superfluous. But you don’t need music ruining the majestic sound of the car’s engine running.

When the R-Type Continental originally went on the market — after Evernden eventually persuaded Bentley it wasn’t “too sporty” — it cost $8,193 (£6,928), making it the most expensive car on sale in 1952. For a bit of context, the average U.S. salary was $2,300, and the average house cost $7,254. Orders came in from all over the world.

It was in production for just three short years, and only 208 were made. All but 15 were bodied by Mulliner.

What’s it like to drive a Bentley R-Type Continental?

The car we got behind the wheel of is now worth around $1.2 million. Literally getting behind the wheel of such a thing is a task in itself. The vehicle may be 17’2’’ long, but it’s a bit of a squeeze to get in. It turns out people had smaller thighs in the 1950s.

Most of the cars produced were right-hand drive — including the one we drove — although 43 left-hand-drive models were created for use abroad. You have to maneuver yourself past the floor-mounted gear lever down to the right of the driver seat, not in the middle, and attempt to wrangle yourself underneath the humongous steering wheel. The seats are not adjustable, and, of course, there are no seat belts.

Sitting pretty in the sofa-like seat, you’re faced with a beautiful piece of walnut with a few large and small dials. The handbrake is a lever, down to the right of the dash, which is not particularly easy to operate. While there is a tiny key to get into this huge car, you push a button to start the engine.

Setting off, a bit of panic kicked in, as we realized there’s no synchro in first gear, and the clutch biting point is incredibly close to the top of the pedal’s travel. It was to be an interesting ride.

However, we were not alone. We were accompanied by the delightfully calm Keith, who looks after Bentley’s heritage fleet. When he’s not casually driving around in the R-Type Continental, he’s often found piloting the Bentley Blower, which is worth around $35m.

Despite the R-Type Continental having a 4.6-liter straight six engine and 153 bhp output, we weren’t going to push it to its limits — or anywhere close. Steering the R-Type Continental is…a bit of a guesstimate. It feels like you’re driving in an old movie — you know when an actor is driving in a straight line and wildly moving the steering wheel around? But it was also heavy, and slow.

Picking up the pace (to an earth-shattering 27 mph) almost felt less daunting. Changing gear is a delicate affair too, and, of course, you have to remember the gear lever is down to the right so you’re not grappling around and accidentally touching your passenger’s knee.

After a couple miles, we eventually piloted the beautiful boat up the magnificent driveway of Castle Ashby House, the ancestral home of the 7th Marquess of Northampton. It was pretty special, winding up the extensive path in what felt like the most perfect motor for the moment.

If you’re thinking about adding a rare Bentley R-Type Continental to your collection, it could never be a daily driver. This is a very-special-occasion car, to be sampled from time to time, enjoyed always, and marveled at every day. It truly is a piece of automotive art anyone would be lucky to own.


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