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

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

By Adminflying b Magazine

The Benchmark for Modern Bentleys

The R-Type Continental was the source of inspiration for the current Continental GT. This article traces its history in detail from its birth to its demise.

text: Hiromi TAKEDA
photo:Bentley Motors Japan
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi


A Thoroughbred

The Bentley R-Type Continental was a sporty grand tourer based on the standard steel saloon, the R-Type, and was built over a three-year period beginning in 1952. The rear fin coupé, made by H.J. Mulliner, said to be the most trusted coachbuilder for Rolls-Royce and Bentley at the time, became the main design motif of the Continental R, a personal coupé released in 1992. 40 years after its birth, the R-Type was thrust back into the limelight.

Moreover, the Continental GT, which debuted in 2002 and became the driving force behind Bentley's recent major breakthrough, adopted a rear fin style similar to that of the R-Type Continental. Its official catalogue emphasises the authenticity of the Continental lineage by presenting the old and new Continental profiles in silhouette, side by side. Additionally, in the official catalogue for the latest coupé, Brooklands, the delivery of which just began in spring this year, it was proudly stated that the design was inspired by the Park Ward coupé of the R-Type Continental.

The R-Type Continental, therefore, is the great homage to the Bentley coupés that dominate the premium automobile market today. It is the undisputed masterpiece, at least for the present time, of the Bentley from the era when it earned the famous sobriquet the ‘Silent Sports Car’ and was part of Rolls-Royce.

The Name ‘Continental’

After the Second World War, North America became the world's largest automobile market. Wealthy Americans demanded, above all, a luxury personal saloon from Bentley that they could enjoy from behind the steering wheel. In 1946, Bentley's first new model after the war, the Mark VI, made its debut in response to this demand. This model was a 120-inch shortened version of the new generation chassis frame (127 inches in the short version) developed for the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, which would make its debut the following year. The Mark IV was powered by a lightly tuned 4257 cc in-line six-cylinder F-head (OHV intake/side-valve exhaust) engine of the same type as the Silver Wraith, with twin SU carbs. However, its defining feature was that it was the first Bentley to have a standard steel body built at their factory in Crewe, Cheshire. Naturally, it kept with the traditional practice of all pre-war Bentleys in having a coachbuilt bespoke body.

The Mark VI's all-steel saloon body was based on the advanced prototype, the Corniche, built just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and combined with Bentley's traditional radiator grille to create a more practical design. The Corniche, which has strong associations with the Rolls-Royce brand, was originally a name used by Bentley. A sister model, the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, was also derived from the Mark IV, with the addition of the traditional Rolls-Royce Parthenon radiator grille. The Silver Dawn was produced at the same Rolls-Royce Crewe factory beginning in 1949. In 1951, the six-cylinder F-head engine was scaled up to 4566 cc with a larger bore. The following year, in 1952, it underwent minor changes, such as enlarged boot space, and was renamed the ‘R-Type’.

For a luxury saloon of its time, the Mark VI/R-Type was indeed a high-performance and attractive automobile. The Bentley name still graced the most prestigious automobiles, having won a total of five 24 Hours of Le Mans races as a true sports car since the days of its founder, W.O. Bentley, and was admired by enthusiasts the world over. The model was also built under the name Derby Bentley (Derby being the former location of the Rolls-Royce factory) after the merger with Rolls-Royce in 1931, and was known as the ‘Silent Sports Car’. The brand was highly regarded by motorists of the time as a high-performance tourer. In the postwar luxury automobile market, which was quickly regaining its prosperity, enthusiasts were beginning to feel a little disappointed by the fact the only model Bentley produced was a standard steel saloon.

The R-Type Continental was therefore developed to revive the glory of the pre-war Bentley. Initially called the ‘Corniche II’, the development project was launched in early 1951 at the suggestion of Crewe engineer Ivan Everden, among others. The power unit was based on the later model Mark VI, displacement of which had been increased to 4.5 litres in 1951, and was tuned up with a larger diameter carburettor, an increased compression ratio and a special exhaust manifold. The power output was undisclosed, in accordance with the Rolls-Royce/Bentley practice at the time of describing it only as ‘sufficient’, but some estimates suggest that it was actually souped up to over 160 ps from the Mark VI/R-type saloon's 140 ps. On the other hand, the chassis was the same as the R-Type Saloon, which was due to go on sale from '52. In other words, it was not dramatically different from the Mark VI.

The Rolls-Royce Company Development Team, headed by W.A. Robotham was responsible for the development of the Corniche II. Everden was, of course, a key member of this team. In August 1951, a prototype with a body built by H.J. Mulliner was developed and immediately put to road tests. This prototype, which was later nicknamed ‘Olga’ due to its registration plate ‘OLG 490’, was converted to a production model by lowering the roof by 1 inch, and by replacing the windscreen, which had been split in two on the Olga, with a single sheet of curved glass. In 1952, upper management at Rolls Royce decided to change the model's name from the Corniche II to the Continental, the latter of which had originally been given to the pre-war Rolls-Royce Phantom II touring model. This meant that the names Corniche and Continental were switched around as a result.

The R-Type Continental went into production in February 1952, about four months before the R-Type Saloon was launched.

Establishing the Bentley Aesthetic

The R-Type Continental, thus making its official debut, sufficiently restored Bentley to its former glory. In addition to the increased power output of the engine, the final ratio of the four-stage M/T had been increased from 3.727 to 3.077. Weighing about 240 kg less than the R-Type saloon, combined with the aerodynamic aluminium body, the car marked a maximum of 115.4 mph (about 185 km/h) in the British magazine Autocar’s road test, which was well within sports car speed range at the time. In fact, this was more than competitive with top sports cars of the time, such as the Jaguar XK120 and the Aston Martin DB2. Despite being a luxurious prestige automobile at first glance, the R-Type Continental's performance made it worthy of being called a true sports car or grand tourer. An automatic transmission was added in '54. Shortly thereafter, the engine was expanded to 4887 cc.

Of the 208 R-Type Continental models built up to 1955, with the exception of the fifteen to be mentioned later, all were fitted with H.J. Mulliner's most famous and arguably most attractive all-aluminium rear fin coupé. The coupé body was five metres long, but appeared much more compact than it actually was, while at the same time achieving incomparable beauty and elegance. H.J. Mulliner, which today survives as a division of Bentley, remains a prime player as a special order programme for the latest Bentley models. But it was the success of the R-Type Continental that incontestably made its reputation. Although the rear fin coupé was built by H.J. Mulliner, the design work itself was carried out by engineers such as Everden, John Blatchley and other crews. The design is said to have been heavily influenced by the aforementioned Corniche prototype, as well as the so-called ‘Embiricos’ Coupé, which was custom-built by the French firm Poulin on the order of a Greek businessman, André Embiricos, before the war, and which finished fifth in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in '50.

However, it must also be acknowledged that there are a number of historians who argue for the undeniable influence of the series of coupé/cabriolet bodies that Pininfarina produced in 1949-1951 as a one-off based on the Mark VI/Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn.

On the other hand, a wide variety of bodies were made — the ‘few exceptions’ mentioned above. Park Ward built six, Franay of France built five, Graber of Switzerland built three and Pininfarina made one with a roof shape similar to that of the Fiat 1100/103TV coupé. The bodies of these prestigious coachbuilders were all hand-made with hand-tapped aluminium panels, and the quality of interior materials and finishes was far superior to that of standard saloons of the same period.

In addition, having been fully bespoke, they were crafted to the detailed order of the client, meaning that the exterior and interior could be chosen freely . In fact, it was even said that no two cars had exactly the same specifications. Of course, the price of a new R-Type Continental, at the time, was a hefty £7608 compared to the £4824 for an R-Type saloon, but these coachwork-bodied R-Type Continentals were the reigning champions of both North America and Europe in the 1950s. The Bentley aesthetic, which was fully revived with this model, has without doubt been carried over into the modern models.

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