The power of composure
Those were bitter years for Bentley, back then, after the take-over by its most direct competitor Rolls-Royce in 1931. It is true that in the early years there were a few discontinued in-house designs, but at the latest after the Second World War the marque was demoted to the status of a little sister. Only in 1982 did something like an independent product come onto the market, the Mulsanne Turbo. But even that was only a waste product, Rolls-Royce had wanted to fit the blown 6.75-litre V8 into the Camargue. But the design effort was too great for the spoiled, sluggish Brits, so they passed the turbo on to Bentley. John Heffernan and Ken Greenley were allowed to draw the “Project 90”, a pretty two-door car, which was presented in 1985 and received much applause.
But it took a few more years until Bentley was allowed to present its very own Bentley Continental R. Of course the 1991 Bentley Continental R was based on the Bentley Continental. Of course the car presented in 1991 was based on the Rolls-Royce components that had been known for ages: floorpan, chassis and engine. This engine, the legendary L410, first with 6.2, then with 6.75 litres capacity had been in use in various Rolls-Royces and consequently also in Bentley since 1959 (and was buried by Bentley only in 2020, at last it produced 530 hp and 1100 Nm maximum torque). When the Mulsanne Turbo was presented in 1982, it was said: “sufficient plus 50 per cent”.
The first Continental R (not to be confused with the R-Type Continental from the 50s, we’ll bring that one too) probably had 325 hp (or maybe 360) and 750 Nm maximum torque at 2000 rpm, which was very impressive at that time. This power took the 2.45 tonne British car to 100 km/h in 6.5 seconds and made it reach a maximum speed of 245 km/h. This certainly made the Conti one of the best cars of its time. At that time, the Conti was certainly one of the fastest production coupés in the world. This was to be expected, as the base price was an absurd 376,850 Swiss francs. And yet it sold well, far beyond expectations.
The British quickly produced further variants, first the Continental S with 385 hp. And soon the Continental T with a wheelbase shortened by 10 centimetres, around 100 kilos less weight and now a whopping 426 hp and, from 1997, 880 Nm maximum torque. The Bentley was then capable of up to 280 km/h – quite impressive for such a heavy car.
We had the pleasure of driving another version, the Continental R Mulliner. This meant the normal wheelbase again, but also the engine from the T. And via Mulliner an enormous programme of customisation possibilities. Our beautiful piece from the fleet of Bentley’s classic department, however, was configured in a rather restrained way, beautiful wood, noble, of course hand-sewn leather (which does not show its age), deep carpets made of sheep’s wool. Even though the Bentley has a rather sporty appearance, side support does not seem to have been a real issue back then. The driver can at least hold on to the steering wheel, on the passenger seat it’s rather slip-proof; in the back it’s better, because it’s rather cramped in the back (the Continental T was even considered a 2+2-seater). But there is plenty of boot space.
But much more important is the driving. And that, by today’s standards, is a very special pleasure. The steering is buttery soft, more like an approximate directional indication. This does not make it easy for the first few metres, as you are driving a vehicle that is 5.34 metres long. But once you have got used to it and understood that the British car is anything but a sports car, but first and foremost glides wonderfully, i.e. it wants to be moved with a certain composure, then you will enjoy it. “Driving a Bentley is a matter of conviction”, Götz Leyrer once wrote, “you have to be generous towards certain weaknesses”.
One of its strengths, even a power, is the drive. Shifting is done via a four-speed automatic, which is designed to let the vehicle roll along in the highest gear only. If the powerful turbo is used, you have actually done something wrong – and it shows this by audibly exhaling pressure via a wastegate. Together with the dull rumble, this is a beautiful sound from a time when fuel consumption and CO2 were not yet an issue, but when wonderful power development and smooth running were still allowed to take centre stage.
But what is really great in the Bentley is the view over the eternally long bonnet, which the driver can still see in its entirety. And this calmness, by which you yourself are captured, the hectic pace of everyday life and the surroundings remain outside in the Bentley. And that is a pleasure from another age. Which, by the way, is not that expensive today – collectors fear the high maintenance and petrol costs.
Technical data: Bentley Continental R Mulliner
8-cylinder in V-90-degree, 6750 cm3, 313 kW/426 hp, 880 Nm at 2000/min, automatic 4-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive, consumption approx. 18 litres, 0-100 m/h approx. 6 s, top speed approx. 270 km/h, L/W/H 5340/187/1460 millimetres, kerb weight 2450 kg, load capacity k.A., cargo volume k.A.. Price over 400’000 Swiss francs (1998), used cars cost a fraction of the new car price.
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