Fit for a King

The Continental R was trumpeted by a regal fanfare when it broke cover 30 years ago, with a princely price tag to match. Stuart Newman celebrates a modern classic which helped reignite the Bentley brand. Images: Courtesy of Review archives, Roger Mathew, Colin Newman and Internet

When you make your global bow to all the drama and theatre of a majestic regal anthem you had better be special. Especially if that timeless piece of classical music has traditionally heralded the coronation of every British monarch since 1727. And especially is you’re simply a mere car…

That was the stage, at the world-leading Geneva Motor Show in 1991, on which the latest Bentley model was unveiled. And perhaps the choice of Handel’s Zadok the Priest was more than apt: the Continental R boasted a king’s ransom price tag – it was the world’s most expensive production car at £178,000.

Indeed, Bentley’s new boy so impressed a watching Sultan of Brunei that he quickly snapped up the actual show car, resplendent in vermilion red, for a reported price of just over £2 million.

It was not only the Sultan who was enraptured by the two-door coupé, the most powerful and fastest Bentley of its era. It upstaged the Geneva launch of Mercedes’ W140 and enjoyed an encouragingly positive public reception.

For Bentley, it set the seal on the revival its fortunes, finally establishing the marque’s identity as being entirely separate from that of parent company Rolls-Royce Motors. Indeed, it was the first Bentley for 26 years, since the 1965 S3 Continental, to feature a body not shared with a Rolls-Royce model.

The genesis of the Continental R could be traced back to the mid-1980s when, in an effort to reignite Bentley’s sporting heritage, Rolls-Royce Motors opted to add a new, distinctive-looking coupé to its Bentley range. Dubbed ‘Project 90’, a fibre-glass mock-up featured, to enthusiastic response, at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show; however, the Project 90 concept was ultimately moth-balled when Rolls-Royce instead decided to look towards a successor to its existing Corniche.

The designs for the new Corniche produced were, Rolls-Royce ultimately decided in 1986, better utilised in the creation of a new Bentley coupé. These drawings, which sported a subtle-looking rear spoiler, eventually came to fruition five years later as the Continental R, with the coachwork by HJ Mulliner-Park Ward.

And while the new car’s thin-rimmed (albeit now leather bound) steering wheel and understated switchgear harked back (some might say) to post-war Bentleys, among the notable features of the new model was hydraulic, self-levelling suspension.

Looking at the Conti R’s basic credentials it’s hard not to understand why it was – and still is – so sought after. Sveltely designed with excellent handling and enormously rapid, in its mid-1990s heyday the standard version was capable of a reported 155mph, and producing up to 385bhp, from Bentley’s tried and tested 6.75-litre V8 fuel-injected engine; the Garrett turbocharger and four-speed automatic gearbox (it was the first Bentley to use the GM4L80-E transmission) also helped propel the machine from 0-60mph in “sub six” seconds.

Incidentally, the name of the model has a two-pronged tale to tell: ‘Continental’ offers a respectful nod to the post-war Continentals while ‘R’ highlights the car’s keenly developed high-speed roadholding capabilities.

The resurrection of Bentley’s name during the 1980s and into the early 1990s had started with the Mulsanne, followed by the Mulsanne Turbo and Turbo R. The Continental R added significant further stature to that already heavyweight line-up.

The Conti R, along with its three predecessors, was produced during the period when Bentley was under the auspices of Vickers plc, following its merger with Rolls-Royce. BDC Member Richard Charlesworth, a former senior executive at Crewe during that period, is clear about the role the new arrival played in Bentley’s revival: “These were (four) hugely important models in the renaissance of Bentley. Vickers had also spent a lot of money upgrading the manufacturing facilities at Crewe.”

The continued momentum afforded the Bentley brand with the introduction of the Continental R continued with the subsequent arrival in the 1990s of the Continentals S and T, Brooklands, Azure (essentially a Conti R convertible), Turbo R and Arnage before hitting something of a crescendo with the launch of the Continental GT in 2003. These models, of which the Conti R was a leading player, helped cement Bentley’s market-leading reputation in the luxury-car arena.

Rolls-Royce/Vickers, and new Bentley owner the Volkswagen Group (from 1998), kept faith with the Continental R’s popularity throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, turning out some 1,500 versions of the two-door classic, including a reported 1,236 standard and 231 variants (see panel), until production ceased in 2003.

While several variants and specials of the Continental R were produced for general sale, bespoke versions were also produced on request for wealthy customers – such as the aforementioned Sultan of Brunei. Curiously monikered the ‘Blackpool cars’, these individually tailored machines were crafted from unique body shells, often costing millions of pounds to create, from which a handful of examples would be made.

In terms of its legacy, the Conti R is now viewed as a true modern classic, and one which has certainly proven popular with BDC Members. A quick look at the membership database shows some 300 Conti Rs currently in the ownership of our 4,000 Members (see panels). That equates to 7.5 per cent of the membership – making the Conti R one of the most abundant modern-day Bentleys within the Club.

Priced at £175,000-plus when new in 1991, escalating to £187,000 for an uprated 1996 model year version, good-quality used Conti Rs can now be snapped up for anything between £30,000 and £50,000 – proof of the car’s enduring status and longevity.

 

SPECIALS | Showing number of cars produced

California Edition (1998): 6

Mulliner (1999-2003): 131

Millennium Edition (2000): 10

The 420 (2000-2003): 38

Le Mans (2001): 46

 

FAST FACTS

Production run: 1,500 (approx)

New price: £178,000 (rising to £187,000 in 1996)

Engine: 6.75-litre V8 (fuel-injected) with Garrett turbocharger

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Maximum power: 385bhp

Acceleration: 0-60mph in sub six seconds

Top speed: 155mph

 

MY CONTINENTAL R

Roger Mathew (Western Region)

Model Year – 1994

Roger has owned his Continental R since 2008, the car previously having spent some time on a farm “which,” he said, “may account for some of the rectifications I have found necessary.”

As a first-generation car, Roger’s racing green-coloured version, which boasts magnolia upholstery with spruce piping, features a passenger air bag rather than a glove compartment.

Aside from the repairs carried our following its previous countryside life, Roger’s Conti remains in largely unmodified form, save for replacing the vanes with a matrix (similar to the later cars) and the mesh inserts beneath the headlamps as well as swapping the twin tailpipes with a single Mulliner version and the telephone for a Bluetooth system.

Explaining why he plumped for a Continental R, Roger said: “I looked at several Turbo Rs, which were either tatty or overpriced, so decided, for a few extra pounds, to go for a Conti R. I also think it’s more stylish than four-door cars.”

And he believes he has made the right choice: “It’s not massively gruntful but the driving experience is like no other. It is a very large vehicle but does not feel so, and is astonishingly nimble; it has immense presence and has the best lines since the Park Ward S1 Continentals. And there are also two outstanding features: the finish and the build quality.

“Overall, it’s a very pleasing motor car.”

Compared to other types of modern-era Bentley, the Conti R stacks up very well, insisted Roger. “It’s more powerful, useable, affordable and generally better to drive than the S Type and seems more relaxing than my 2006 Flying Spur.”

And, having already covered almost 35,000 miles in the last 13 years, it’s not a car he intends to part with: “I plan to keep it going for future generations. As long as I can afford to keep and maintain a big-boy’s toy I have no wish to part with it.”

 

MY CONTINENTAL R

Colin Newman (Mid-West Region)

Model Year – 2001

Colin’s pristine Wide Body Continental R – a later generation version than Roger Mathew’s – has already tasted significant success in BDC circles.

Purchased in 2015, the silver machine, complemented by a cream interior, earned its place in the spotlight when it was named Best in Class at the 2018 Concours d’Elegance at Stonor Park.

“I had only ever entered a car once before so to win Best in Class was amazing. And the car’s still in the same condition today – just a few extra miles on the clock!”

Yet Colin’s Conti R – in which he has covered around 12,000 miles – is not kept in storage and brought just for show. “While I don’t use her much during the winter, I do take her abroad every year on a tour or two in countries such as France and Monaco (for the Grand Prix Historique),” he said, “and I have also booked on the Western Region Tour of Spain and Northern Portugal this September.”

Offering his reasons for purchasing a Continental R, Colin explained: “I have always hankered after a Bentley. I originally tried an Azure before finding the Continental R, and was sold on its style and design.”

Having snapped up the car, Colin was later involved in an unfortunate accident, which necessitated repairs and a full respray. He was delighted with the results: “It looked amazing”. These repairs, a new nearside sill and new tyres aside, the car remains in its original condition.

So what’s it like to own? “It’s a big car and requires a lot of parking room,” said Colin. “It feels firm on the road, accelerates quickly out of trouble when required and has a terrific interior finish.”

It’s also a car that catches the eye. “Everywhere I go it is admired,” said a proud Colin. “In fact, the first time I took her abroad, even some scruffy-looking lads hanging about a supermarket car park called out and gave her the thumbs up.”

 

Thank you to the Bentley Drivers Club (BDC) for giving us kind permission to use this article on our website.

Become a member of the Bentley Driver Club today, visit www.bdcl.org/membership