After spending decades in the shadow of Rolls-Royce, in 1991 Bentley launched a two door coupe that made a tremendous impact. This Continental R wasn’t just the first new model exclusively developed for Bentley since the early fifties, it was also the first step in a new direction that would eventually lead to Bentley overtaking the dominant role from parent company Rolls-Royce.
Before Bentley was adopted by Volkswagen in 1998, the cars from Crewe were big, extremely heavy and old fashioned. Craftsmanship and ancient traditions left hardly any room for technical innovation, but the enormous size and bulk suited the brand and its history. It was the famous Ettore Bugatti who called Walter Owen Bentleys race cars the fastest trucks in the world. What didn’t suit the brand was the fact that Bentleys were almost identical to Rolls-Royces without any trace of a sporty character. In 1931 Rolls-Royce performed an aggressive takeover to get a hold of Bentley after years of financial trouble. At that time Rolls-Royce was so frantically trying to defend its position as producer of the worlds best and most exclusive motor cars, that they didn’t give Bentley any room to develop or even retain its traditions. After the incredibly beautiful R-Type Continental from 1952 all Bentleys were just slightly less expensive versions of Rolls-Royce models and the brand basically transformed into an alternative radiator grille for a Rolls-Royce.
The first small steps towards reviving the sporty Bentley traditions were made with the Mulsanne Turbo in 1982 and later with the Turbo R. The addition of a turbocharger and stiffer suspension on the Turbo R – where the R stands for road holding – lured owners from the backseat to the drivers seat. This renewed path to spirited driving also turned out to be a brilliant move in regards to sales figures. In the sixties and seventies only about five percent of the total sales were Bentleys, but that soon changed to a whopping thirty percent. These developments sparked a boost of confidence and halfway the eighties the decision was made to develop an even sportier model. This time not based on the four door Mulsanne and Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, but an entirely new model specifically designed for those who love to be behind the wheel instead of hiring somebody to do it for them. After a few design proposals and concept models designers John Heffernan and Ken Greenley turned out to be on the right track and in 1991 during the Geneva Auto Salon Bentley showed the Continental R to the world. This was a complete surprise and while the new W140 Mercedes-Benz S-Class should have been the star of the show, the Brits received all the attention with their modern interpretation of the Silent Sports Car.
Stepping into the Continental R twenty five years after its debut is still a special occasion. I have driven the ‘R’ before, but I can’t help taking a moment to soak up the atmosphere after closing the enormous and heavy door. Back in the days motoring magazines described the cabin as being covered with leather, wool and walnut and this is absolutely true. The only other material you see sticking out – quite literally – is the heavy metal used for the air vents and adjustment knobs in the dashboard. Comparing the interior of the Continental to that of the Azure is like trying to spot the differences between two twins. There is of course the pièce de résistance in the form of a multi layered canvas roof that can transform the car from a cosy sitting room on wheels into the ultimate attention seeker with just the push of a button. Italian coach builder Pininfarina was responsible for the construction of the roof mechanism and strengthening of the bodywork. Bare metal bodies were shipped to Italy and later returned to Crewe for final assembly. Although this Anglo-Italian cooperation lead to a stunning car and probably one of the best looking convertibles, the result is always noticeable while driving. Ridges and potholes send a shiver through the huge body and on some roads the rear view mirror and sometimes even the steering column vibrate. To hard core Bentley enthusiasts that is a subtle warning to slow down a little because the Azure is made for cruising, or wafting as they call it in the UK. The Continental R doesn’t suffer from this small inconvenience of course, but that doesn’t mean it can be driven in a very enthusiastic manner. Although the weight is slightly lower compared to the Azure, it still weighs the best part of two compact cars so braking and especially cornering are a bit of a challenge. The best way to enjoy the 6.75 litre V8 turbo with 385 hp and a massive 750 Nm (553 lb ft) of torque at only 2,000 rpm, is to gently floor the accelerator when the car is on a straight piece of road. Doing this from a stand still will raise the nose while the V8 seams to inhale, but then the distant rumble of the V8 indicates that the Continental is performing at its full potential and 60 mph has come and gone in about six seconds. The top speed is 150 mph but the ‘R’ feels more comfortable at a lazy 125 mph. If you live in or near Germany that is… The Azure is capable of nearly identical numbers, but is best enjoyed at a much slower pace and of course with the roof down.
In 2002 both the Continental R and Azure reached the end of line. The shortened, more aggressive looking and more powerful Continental T was also axed in that year, making these the last Bentley models that used the so called SZ platform as a starting point. These Continental range is the ultimate proof that Bentley not only overtook Rolls-Royce in the sales statistics, but even performed an all out palace revolution. This became evident when Rolls-Royce launched the fifth generation of their Corniche convertible in 2000. Being developed from the Azure, this is the only Rolls-Royce that was based on a Bentley and not the other way around as was the case for many decades. Driving either of these classics in this day and age is a statement and a commitment at the same time. Newer models may be easier to drive, quicker and even more reliable, but knowing that you’re behind the wheel of one of the most important historic markers in the history of Bentley, is worth more than any technical development the British brand came up with since these two icons went into retirement.