BENTLEY DNA<br>1954 Bentley R-Type Continental by H.J.Mulliner

1954 Bentley R-Type Continental by H.J.Mulliner

By Adminflying b Magazine

Magic speed, legendary quality.

The R-Type Continental, Bentley's flagship, has captivated celebrities for decades. Only 208 of these rare coupés were ever built and I am now standing in front of one of them. With its long nose, the sweeping curves of its rear fins, and its well-tailored interior, the R-Type Continental is the boldest and most beautiful saloon ever made. The ride must be just as impressive, keeping in line perfectly with the excellent visual impression.

text: Takuo YOSHIDA
photo: Hidenobu TANAKA
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi
車輌協力:くるま道楽 株式会社ワク井商会 phone:03-3811-6170/
取材協力:埼玉スタジアム2002 phone:048-812-2002/


A Car Loved by Royalty and the Aristocracy

The Bentley R-Type Continental — it is not easy to come up with an expression that accurately captures the status of this marque. The brand name gives one a rough idea, but perhaps that is insufficient. Naming some of the prominent owners on the first delivery lists might help to give some idea of the R Type Continental’s indescribable status.

Aristotle Onassis, the world-famous shipping magnate, was one of the most prominent owners of the R-Type Continental. Onassis is followed closely by another shipping magnate, his friend Stavros Niarchos. Lawrence Rockefeller, the third son of John Rockefeller II and a well-known philanthropist. Gianni Agnelli, owner of Fiat and of Italy's leading Agnelli conglomerate, was also among those who ordered an R-Type Continental. American businessman Briggs Cunningham, who even built a racing car bearing his own name and bravely competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was also fascinated by the luxurious coupé. The Bentley R-Type Continental was also ordered by the kings of India and Persia, as well as other crowned heads and members of the aristocracy.

The R-Type Continental's price when launched was about 20 times that of a Ford Popular, a basic automobile of the same era. Taking into account the adjustment for inflation, this would be the equivalent of 20 Ford Focuses, with a total cost of around 3 million yen, putting the R-Type Continental's price at around 60 million yen. But let us not forget that the majority of customers who ordered it wouldn’t have been bothered by the price tag, so long as they liked what they were buying. In other words, this two-door, four-seater Bentley somehow had a mysterious charm that captivated these early enthusiasts.


Rising Burgundy Ridges

One of the 208 units of the R-Type Continental was about to emerge from the aluminium trailer of the car transporter parked in front of me. As the gullwing roof began to spring up, the morning light streaming in from all directions illuminated the curved ridges rippling across the R-Type Continental's upper body. At first glance, its body appeared to be jet black. But as the gull wings spread and opened, I noticed that it was actually a dark, wine red – not quite maroon or burgundy.

Moving behind the car, the distinctive rear fins rising up on either side form a long curve. The styling of the R-Type Continental is not merely the ‘artist's rendering of lines for art's sake’ so common in the opulent cars of the 1940s. As the eye travels backwards from the radiator grille, which is 3.8 cm lower than that of the R-Type Saloon, one takes in a collection of ideal curves shaped in a wind tunnel, a rarity for his era.

When it came time to unload the car, the transporter driver nonchalantly opened the door of the R-Type Continental and climbed into the faintly lit interior. I was about to say ‘Let me start the engine’, but immediately after the R-Type Continental's distinctive gear shift lever –which springs up from the right-hand side of the driver's seat – came into view, the door slammed shut with a hard thud. A strong feeling of envy lingered inside. This was the first time I had ever felt this way in the thousand or so cars I had test-driven up till that point.

The starter motor was cranked for ten seconds, then rested for a few more, but there was no sign of fire in the in-line six-cylinder engine. As the tension of the moment peaked, the driver in the cockpit finally looked me in the eye, signalling that it was time for me to take the wheel. I stepped over the plaque engraved with the name of coachbuilder H.J. Mulliner, landed on the thick mouton carpet on the raised, flat Bentley-specific floor, and settled into the single-leather seat I had hitherto only dreamed of. I checked the throttle pedal with my right foot, made sure the gear shift lever nestled into the side of the seat was in neutral, and pressed the starter button in the centre of the dash panel. It showed no sign of starting, so I tried a second time with the throttle open an inch or so, again to no avail. For a third time, I turned the starter with the throttle pedal buried deep in the mouton carpet. The cylinders began to awake one by one and the in-line six-cylinder engine started up sharply. I felt my parched throat moisten, and I was grateful that the R-Type had responded to my call.


The Bliss of a Right-Steering Drive, Right Shift

The blissful hour began surrounded by the low noise of the in-line six-cylinder engine. Normally, warm-up time would be a tedious affair, but not today. I am in the driver's seat of the R-Type Continental, a car I have longed to drive. The seat back is generous in size, but far more supportive than in a standard R-Type steel saloon, and I look around admiringly at the supreme furnishings, which are flawless in every sense.

The fine-grained leather of the seats and door linings is aniline-dyed by Connolly Brothers, which today no longer produce leather for cars. The tan colour, which is close to that of raw leather, keeps the interior reasonably bright. A large-diameter ebonite steering wheel sits in front of the driver's eye, behind which a thick all-wood dash panel spans the full width of the car: the main wood is intricately patterned walnut, while the white wood inlaid around the dash is boxwood.

Viewed from the outside, the R-Type Continental looks tight and sharp. However, at 5.2 m long, it has plenty of interior space. The rear seats, which have an ashtray in the armrests that would be sufficient for a cigar, are in perfect order as well.

The car's chief engineer, Ivan Everden, is said to have had his sights set on ‘the world's fastest two-door, full four-seater’ from the moment he started designing it in 1950. The interior demonstrates that this aim has been fully achieved. Interestingly, today the distinction belongs to the Continental GT Speed, a direct descendant of the R-Type. The world of automobiles is fast-moving, and, despite the 56-year gap between the two, the GT Speed remains perfectly in tune with the spirit of the R-Type. Quite a rich bloodline!

The oil and water temperature readings started to rise and I decided to start driving. I slouched forward slightly to operate the gearshift lever, as if releasing the side brake. Motor journalists used to describe a great shifting feel as ‘cutting through butter with a hot knife’, and the R-Type Continental's shifting resembles a large butter knife, not only in feel but also in the physical shape of the thin, wide lever.

Despite this model weighing around 1.7 tonnes, the clutch meet was surprisingly smooth. As I started to drive, I realised that this was the first time in my life that I had ever pressed down on the clutch pedal of a Bentley. Modern models have established the image of the Bentley as an automatic transmission, but it was not until the early '50s that it was first offered as an option. In addition, the R-Type Continental's right-side steering, right-shift is a style that has been handed down from its British-racing-green-coloured ancestors that won consecutive Le Mans in the 1920s.


The Finest Equipment and a Drive that Goes Beyond 

The R-Type Continental was one of the most powerful cars of the '50s, but the automatic transmission, which was state-of-the-art at the time, was not available until 1954, and the car was not equipped with the disc brakes that were about to appear in the racing world. Instead, it came equipped with a conventional manual transmission and drum brakes, but it’s worth noting that these were of the highest quality.

‘Sturdier than a brick latrine’ is the greatest compliment an Englishman can pay a gearbox, and the R-Type Continental's stick shift is just that. The shift lever is 50 cm from the gearbox itself, but is connected to it by a thick steel rod, so that it has a hard, smooth touch, as if you could feel not only the mass of each gear tooth, but also their chamfer. 4887 cc displacement means that you can shift from one gear to the next in a matter of seconds. Shifting is a ritual you can forget about, but there's no better manual gear shift than this one, which makes you want to shift as quickly as possible, if only for the feel of it.

The same can be said of the brakes. Large-diameter brake drums and suitably sticky shoes give the brake pedal a truly dependable touch, allowing you to offset speed with confidence at all ranges. As well as absolute braking power, the feeling doesn't change even after driving for a while. It also excels in the art of coming to a halt quietly, without causing the slightest shake of the passenger's head.

The power from the in-line six-cylinder engine is not ferocious, partly because the gearbox is set to high. However, the feeling of speed increasing at the blink of an eye feels right yet different from other Bentleys, and definitely different from all other cars. What is certain is that the R-Type Continental excels at speeds above 100 km/h. The trouble with modern super sport cars, with top speeds reaching 400 km/h, is whether the tyres have the performance to match, and the R-Type Continental had the same problem at the time of its birth. The R-Type Continental, equipped with six-layer cross-ply tyres, the highest-performance tyres available in the early '50s, was said to have lasted no more than 10 minutes when cruising at speeds of 120 mph or more.


The Timeless B Icon

I suddenly noticed two levers on the centre cover of the steering wheel: on the left was the hand throttle, which is not unusual for cars of this era, and on the right was the damper (rear only) adjustment. When I moved the lever from NORMAL to HARD as a test, I found that the ride became much tighter than I had imagined. As there was more response from the tyres, I felt a clear reduction in roll around the corners. The ride matched exactly what I had always imagined for the R-Type Continental.

Those who had a taste of the R-Type Continental's nimble performance in the 1950s had scant reason not to fall in love with the car, and a writer for the British magazine Autocar who tested a prototype R-Type Continental famously described it as ‘a magic carpet that never tired the driver and always carried him wherever he wanted to go’. It is hard even today to find better words to describe the experience of driving it. But there is one thing that can be added now: the fact that more than half a century after its birth, the R-Type Continental still ranks as one of the world's finest automobiles.


This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 001 (2008). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.


The bonnet splits open from left and right like an old open wheel. This tradition of design was continued until the 1962 Bentley S3. The huge, shiny black cylinder is a sound deadening air cleaner case.



The power of the long 4.9-litre in-line six-cylinder engine was, as usual, undisclosed, but the diameter of the carburettor and other features made it more powerful than the basic R-type.



The in-line six-cylinder engine had a characteristic F-head with OHV intake and side valves for exhaust. The revving feel was very sharp for a 4.9-litre displacement.



The body, erected on a ladder frame, has a coachbuilder's plaque. H.J. Mulliner, which had many skilled craftsmen, was once located in Chiswick, London.



A Bentley Motors plaque, the VIN number beginning with BC denoting the R-Type Continental. Conduit Street is now a busy street lined with brand-name shops.



The flat, raised floor is characteristic of Bentleys from the period when they had frames. The mouton carpet, described as ‘ankle-deep’, is a good indication of the car's status.


Stunning patterned walnut veneer. The thickness of the veneer is clearly visible by the position of the gauges, which are set back. The white boxwood framing the dash is embedded with inlay work.



Round switch panel in the centre of the dash. The silver button in the top left-hand corner is the starter switch. The pattern in the centre of the dash shows that the walnut panels are symmetrically arranged.



The steering wheel is moulded from ebonite resin, which hardens under heat. In addition to the horn button, two levers are located in the centre of the steering wheel: the lever on the right adjusts the stiffness of the rear shock.


Floor-standing ABC pedals emerging from a hole in a thick carpet. The clutch and brake pedals, designed with the letter B, return a fair amount of reaction force, but the touch is precise and easy to handle.



Due to the lowered tail shape, boot space is limited. However, most will be left speechless by this beautiful tail shape. Note the small spring-loaded hinges.



The shift lever looks like a knife emerging from the right side of the driver's seat. It is lowered so as not to impede getting in and out of the car, but the feel of its operation is reliable, allowing you to steer with confidence.



The interior is aptly described as ‘luxurious’. The seats are made of a single piece of leather with a large surface area. The driver's seat has corners shaved to keep out of the way of the shift lever.



Interior covered with Connolly Leather. The legroom in the rear is also ample . The front seats were also available in a sporty version with a thin, curved seat back.



The Flying B emblem shines above the radiator grille, which is 3.8 cm lower than the R-Type Saloon. The three-dimensional type on the right is a trace of the former radiator cap.


1954 Bentley R-Type
Continental by H.J.Mulliner

Length: 5254mm
Wheelbase: 3048mm
Track Width Front:1435mm
Track Width Rear:1486mm
Dry Weight:1625kg

4887cc F-head 6Cylinders
Compression Ratio:7.0:1

4-Speed Manual+Reverse

Final drive Ratio:3.077

Front:Double Wishbone + Coil spring
Rear:Rigid axle + Leaf spring