Bentley's Turbocharged British Barge - A Day With the 1991 Turbo R
Motor Trend called it the first Bentley in ages to deserve the name. Mechanics call it their most profitable headache. I call it absolutely brilliant.
When car people talk about land yachts, nine times out of ten they’re referring to the massive, floaty, heavy cars being built here in the US from the 1950s all the way up until the early 2000s. Today, however, we’re going to be talking about a land barge from the other side of the pond. In the 1920s Bentley built some of the greatest gentleman’s expresses ever made – including the infamous Speed Six that raced the Train Bleu from the Cote d’Azure all the way up to Calais, and won – and win at Le Mans in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. Come 1931, however, the acquisition of Bentley by Rolls-Royce meant that for the next seven decades Bentleys were effectively de-badged Rolls-Royces. All except one – the one that Motor Trend said was the first Bentley in years to deserve the name – the Turbo R. To find out if they were correct, and satisfy my own curiosity about these extremely rare cars, I got my hands on one for twenty-four hours.
As I always do with my reviews, I’d like to start with the exterior styling of the Turbo R. In short, I love it. I absolutely adore the design of the Turbo R, Mulsanne, Silver Spirit, and Silver Spur. Yes they are all effectively the same car, but I think the simplicity of their body lines is some of the most elegant design work ever done. The word “timeless” gets tossed around a lot when talking about the styling of classic cars, but in my opinion what those people often mean is “classically beautiful” and “aging well” when describing those designs. I do, however, think that the term does apply to the styling on the Turbo R and its sister cars. If the headlights and brake lights were replaced with LED units and the power antenna was removed, I truly believe the Turbo R could pass as a modern Bentley. It may not be as eye catching as the modern, bling Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, but everyone who did notice it knew they were looking at something special.
On the inside, it’s precisely what one would expect from a proper British luxury car – enough leather to reskin a dozen cows, enough wood to frame a house, and enough wool to make several sweaters. The seats are far more comfortable than just about anything built today, save for Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, though they aren’t quite as pillowy as one might be expecting. They are, however, power operated and heated, which is impressive from a car that turns 30 this year. I’ve been lucky enough to have been in far more cars than most my age have, but I can honestly say that aside from the Porsche 918, Mercedes 300SL Roadster, and Lamborghini Miura, I’ve not been in any interior that feels as special as the interiors of the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys from the early 50s through to the 90s. That may seem like an unfair statement given that that’s a forty-year range, but the reality is the interiors effectively did not change during that period. They all feature Connolly Leather, burl walnut on the dash, a black thin-rimmed steering wheel, and a column mounted gear selector. The only changes were the gradual inclusion of new technologies like power seats, updated radio systems, and car phones. Some people may criticize that lack of design innovation, but I’d contend that they created the definitive formula for a true luxury car and simply stuck with it.
Now that those discussions are out of the way, we can return to the real question of the hour – does the Turbo R drive like a proper Bentley? I spent the day driving it in all sorts of conditions – open and crowded freeways, coast roads, and even LA’s famous traffic. After driving it in all those conditions I can only give a definitive yes to that question. I was expecting the steering to be much lighter and the suspension much more supple, but the Turbo R actually feels very well planted for what it is. When it was being developed, the Turbo R was designed to be much more of a driver’s car than any of the other models in the Rolls-Royce and Bentley line-up, but I always imagined that the end result was going to be rather like painting an elephant yellow with spots and calling it a cheetah - a lot of hoopla for not a lot of change. As it turns out, I was only half right. The Turbo R is by no means a nimble sports car, but that was never what Bentley went for, even in the racing days. What the Turbo R was, was the ultimate continent crusher of its day – the car that would have no trouble challenging the Train Bleu to a rematch and taking home another victory for Bentley.
I can’t say the Bentley was what I expected it to be. What I can say, is that the Bentley was far better than I expected it to be. There’s such a sense of occasion to every drive in the Turbo R that even a grocery run would feel like a special event. With prices for these ranging between twenty and forty thousand dollars, it really is hard to think of anything else that offers anywhere near as much car for the money. On the other hand, given the complexity and less than stellar reliability of the mineral oil system for the brakes and suspension on these cars it’s also hard to think of something that offers anywhere near as many potential headaches or threats to future financial stability than a Bentley or Rolls-Royce from this era. With that said, I have heard from several owners of these cars and they’ve all agreed that if you take the time and money to get them properly sorted and then drive them regularly, they aren’t nearly as bad as one would fear. Taking all that into account, I can honestly say I’d recommend a Turbo R to anyone who was looking for a second or third car to drive on date nights, Sunday afternoons, and special occasions.
Named for the rowdy royal... rather apropos in my opinion