One of the best motor cars ever? Most probably. The best motor car in its day? Most certainly. The Bentley Continental Sports Saloon, now colloquially known as the R Type Continental, is regarded as one of the most covetable of Bentleys. Except it’s actually a Rolls-Royce (the company was bought out in 1931). Ah, the distant sound of leather brogues scrambling to the gunroom as ardent Bentley types rush to load their Holland & Holland side-by-sides!
I first drove one in France on the Claret & Classics rally in 1996, a superb Connaught Green example that belonged to Christian Hueber. It was totally immaculate and worth a great deal of money even then, but the fact that the owner had brought it on a rally through France – and that he was obviously driving it with enthusiasm – was encouraging.
The Continental Sports Saloon is constructed entirely of lightweight aluminium so it weighs a relatively light 3800lb (1724kg), and it boasts a windcheating aerodynamic shape designed by Ivan Evernden and coachbuilt by HJ Mulliner of London. The Bentley was an engineering masterpiece, its dynamic capabilities years ahead of anything else on the road. The lusty 4.5-litre (later 4.9) straight-six produced between 158 and 172bhp in standard trim and was designed for huge torque. This pushes the 1950s coupé along at quite a clip, and the prototype ‘Olga’ (registered as OLG 490) was timed at 119.75mph. Bentley finally had its 120mph car.
What surprised me while driving Hueber’s svelte Continental was its firm ability. The controls were light and seemed to run on oiled ball bearings. That mighty right-hand gearshift was a delight to operate and the Continental roared along at immense speed. A class act.
Since the Continental Sports saloon was launched in 1951 as the fastest and most expensive four-seater thus far, it has remained a class act. The price when new was some £6928 including exorbitant taxes. This was an absolute fortune in war-torn, rationed Britain, and it ensured only the well-heeled could purchase these supercars. The upshot is that most have lived a comfortable life in well-tended motor houses, although author Nicholas Monsarrat drove his across Canada and wrote about it in Canada Coast to Coast, and American sportsman Briggs S Cunningham – whose inheritance enabled him to compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours and win the America’s Cup yacht race in the same season – used two Continentals as support cars for his Le Mans team in the ’50s.
Just 207 Continental Sports Saloons were constructed between 1952 and 1955, and the original owners included His Imperial Majesty The Shah of Iran; HRH Prince Frederick of Prussia; Bao Dai, the Emperor of Annam; and the Maharaja of Indore. James Bond author Ian Fleming’s good friend Ivar Bryce ordered one finished in ‘elephant’s breath grey’, the same colour as Bond’s Bentleys, so one assumes Fleming had something to do with that Continental.
The fabulous 1954 example you see here swishing around Mayfair’s Berkeley Square is owned by Bentley aficionado Simon Khachadourian of the Pullman Gallery. Finished in dark Oxford Blue with light beige leather upholstery, it cuts a real dash in London’s most prestigious enclave. Khachadourian’s car is in full luxury trim with ample chromework and rear wheelspats; it is magnificent, a car I have always wanted to drive and at the top of the list of my all-time personal favourites.
Let’s just backtrack a moment to the Hueber car of the past. Christian Hueber was the custodian of the international Bentley Continental Register before his untimely death five years ago. He co-wrote the definitive Bentley Continental Sports Saloon with David Sulzberger and was considered to be the pre-eminent expert on these great cars. As a dedicated historic rally man, Hueber’s aim was to develop and tune his Continental in the way the experimental department might have done at Crewe. So he started with a Continental with the lightweight sporting seats and tuned the engine to a lusty 226bhp, tightening the suspension and steering, uprating the brakes and fitting Dunlop racing tyres to lightweight Dunlop alloys.
In that ‘enhanced’ state of tune we took Hueber’s Continental to the late Rt Hon Alan Clark’s Saltwood Castle for a comparison with Clark’s patinated original Continental, so he could gauge the improvements. Clark was impressed with the upgrades but was disappointed that the car had become so hard and noisy, losing much of that essential Continental softness and grace.
Khachadourian has taken an interesting approach to his Bentley and I am intrigued to try it out on the road. His view is that these cars should remain fast and comfortable grand tourers. ‘I found this lovely old Bentley as a bit of a wreck and decided on a complete nut-and-bolt restoration to my personal specification,’ says Simon. ‘I entrusted the work to Graeme Hunt Ltd, where it was completely stripped, the body removed, the chassis repaired and galvanised and every single thing renewed. The Bentley came with the heavy, comfortable seats and that set me on the course for this bespoke finish.’
So while the Hueber Bentley was a tad too hard for everyday wafting and the Clark example too soft and worn out, this one is just my thing. It has the bigger, mildly tweaked, silky 4.9-litre engine with tuned manifold and free-flow (though not overly vocal) exhaust, mustering an easy 200 or so horses, as well as Rhoddy Harvey-Bailey engineered suspension. And that is the sum total of the subtle mechanical improvements.
But just look at the finish and marvel at the bespoke specification. From the rearward-leaning Bentley mascot atop the radiator (a town radiator cap sans mascot is in the doorpocket) to the bespoke chromed brass coachline body spears that run along the flanks to the elegant rear-wheel spats (which incorporate wonderful chrome capped wavelets), this Continental looks special. It sits at the correct ride height (many are set too high) on correct Dunlop radials and the twin wide-bore exhaust tips add a rakish promise of speed.
The Sundym glass hints at the exotic and the interior is plush but purposeful. The large seats will be comfortable 1000 miles hence and the discreetly added air conditioning unit – with proper bull’s-eye vents – is secreted into the flame veneer dashboard with matching door cappings and crossbanding. It exudes luxury but also confirms a clear eye on what is required. A modern sound system is hidden from view and the final flourish is electric windows operated by period-correct escutcheoned switches. Very Bentley... very Rolls-Royce, in fact.
Hopping in requires a degree of dexterity, as the long gearshift lever wants to go up your trouser leg. You sit comfortably high and the view down the long bonnet is expansive. Window pillars are slim and the car is relatively narrow, a welcome consideration in today’s traffic. The 18in steering wheel is thin-rimmed and the wood veneer dash is an exquisite piece of fitted furniture, housing an array of Smiths instruments.
To start the big straight-six you turn the heavy and tactile chromed power switch, flick the ignition lever, and depress the silky starter button. The starter whirrs and the torque of the engine rocks the Bentley chassis on the wheels. Its note is deep but modulated. The clutch is surprisingly light and goes down to the carpet with ease, and the substantial gearlever is as lovely to operate as I remember. You can certainly tell that some rather large components are meshing together here but the mechanism is well-sprung to remove any effort.
The subtle twin SU carburettors react to throttle input with fine certainty and XYA 124 moves off with ease.
Running through London you soon appreciate the car’s narrow girth, gentle controls and smooth power. It becomes even more impressive when we leave the city limits. By today’s standards the Continental is not silent; you’re involved in mechanical activity, but then this is primarily a driver’s car. With extremely long gearing, it needs open roads to get into top, then it’s off. You have to drive within the limitations of the crossply tyres but the drum brakes are remarkably effective. The gently uprated suspension cuts out float yet feels ‘magic carpet’ smooth; the air-con keeps the interior ice cool.
I’ve matured a little since I last drove a Bentley Sports Saloon, and completely understand Khachadourian’s take on these great motor cars. I think his personal specification is an ideal compromise between absolute comfort and fast usability. When the Bentley was finished, Simon woke up late for its maiden run to the ferry, so he had to race down to the Channel Tunnel at full chat. He and his wife then motored straight down to Monte Carlo, 860 miles across the Continent, for supper at the Vista Palace Hotel that evening. That’s what you call doing the Continental, and a Bentley Continental Sports Saloon is the way to do it in inimitable style.