What’s it like to drive a £1m 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental?
There were only 208 of these cars ever made… and someone let me behind the wheel
Throughout history, Bentleys have always been legendary. From the Bentley Boys, Blower Bentleys, 4 1/2-litres through to today’s incredible Continental GT and Flying Spur, Bentleys are cars that have always been at the top of well, just about everything in the motoring world.
As a motoring journalist, I’ve been repeatedly told over the years that there’s no point in discussing how a car looks, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc. etc. etc. But there can’t be a single soul out there that wouldn’t say the Bentley R-Type Continental is one of the most beautiful cars ever made (yes, I am aware this is DriveTribe and expect many comments TeLlInG mE i’M wRoNg).
Look at it though. It’s stunning. It’s the work of designer John Blatchley and engineer Ivan Evernden, who were both Rolls-Royce alumni (it shows a little, right?).
It’s not all about the looks though, even I can admit that. The Bentley R-Type Continental can do 115mph, and cruise happily at 100mph, with four occupants, and luggage. And it was built in 1952. Let that sink in a minute. There weren’t many other cars around at that time that could achieve anything close to that.
That speed wasn’t enough though, and Evernden thought more could have been achieved, estimating it could have hit 120mph. “Much more could have been done” he wrote in July 1962, “…but the purpose of the exercise was to reduce the aero drag of a conventional car and not to make a space capsule for an astronaut.”
Firmly back down on earth, coachbuilders Mulliner set to work on creating the new coupé, with weight saving the name of the game. The bodywork is aluminium, along with the window frames, windscreen surround, backlight, seat frames and bumpers. And naturally, to keep the weight down, a radio was considered superfluous.
When it went on sale, after Evernden persuaded the company it wasn’t too sporty, it cost £6,928, making it the most expensive car on sale at the time. For a bit of context, the average UK salary was £468, and the average house cost £1891. Naturally, orders came in from all over the world.
It was in production for three short years, and just 208 were made. All but 15 were bodied by Mulliner.
What's it like driving a Bentley R-Type Continental?
The very one I was allowed to get behind the wheel of, is now worth around £1 million. Casual.
Getting behind the wheel of such a thing is a bit of a task in itself. It may be 5.25m long, but it’s a bit of a squeeze to get in. Turns out people had smaller thighs in the 50s… (no comments on that please).
You have to manoeuvre yourself past the floor-mounted gear-lever down to the right of the driver seat, not in the middle, and attempt to wrangle yourself underneath the humongous steering wheel.
Naturally, the seats are not adjustable, and of course, there are no seatbelts.
Sitting pretty in the sofa-like seat, you’re faced with a beautiful piece of walnut with a few large dials and a handful of small ones. The handbrake is a lever, down to the right of the dash, which is not easy to operate. While there’s a tiny key for such a huge car, you push a button to start the engine.
I immediately had a bit of a panic setting off, realising there’s no synchro in first gear, and the clutch biting point is unbelievably close to the top of the pedal’s travel. This was going to be an interesting ride.
However, I was not alone. Despite being allowed to get behind the wheel, I was accompanied by the delightful Keith, who looks after Bentley’s heritage fleet.
When I remarked about how casual he was about the car, me driving, him driving, reversing it, driving it at more than 15 miles an hour and getting it above second gear, he said, “Ah, I quite often drive the Blower as well, and that’s worth about £30m”. Right.
Back to my very slow start. After another slight panic approaching a tight-ish turn and a slight hill start just outside the car park, I was off.
Flooring it, screeching round the corner and hitting the limiter, I immediately got the back end out… yeah, right.
Despite having a 4.6-litre straight six and 153bhp output, I wasn’t going to be pushing it. Steering the R-Type Continental is… a bit of a guesstimate. I felt like I was driving in an old movie – you know when the actor is driving in a straight line and wildly moving the steering wheel around? But it was also heavy, and slow.
It almost felt less daunting as I picked the pace up (although I definitely thought I was going faster than 27mph…). Changing gear is a delicate affair, and of course you have to remember the gear lever’s down to the right, so you’re not grappling around and accidentally touch Keith’s knee. Sorry again, Keith.
After a couple of miles of, ‘oh god there’s a car coming the other way’, and ‘am I ok? Should I go any faster?’, we pulled up the driveway to the magnificent Castle Ashby House, as I somehow managed to direct the beautiful boat through a rather tight gate and over a cattle grid. As driving experiences go, that was a pretty special (and mildly terrifying) one, winding my way up the extensive driveway with what felt like the perfect car for the moment.
After a short ten minutes or so, it was time to pilot the R-Type Continental back into the carpark (more ‘don’t crash it Hogg, please don’t crash it’ running through my head on repeat), and the pièce de résistance – a very stupid over-confident attempt at reversing it up a very slight slope.
Despite Keith being incredibly supportive about my attempts, I just couldn’t take the risk of it rolling into the approaching fence. I abandoned ship, slowly, awkwardly, leaving Keith to swiftly and seamlessly pop it back into its space like he was driving something considerably smaller, newer, and not worth £1m.
If you could afford to add a Bentley R-Type Continental to your collection, it would never be a daily driver. It’s genuinely too special for that. It’s a very-special-occasion car, to be sampled and enjoyed and marvelled at every so often. And genuinely, for me, easily one of the best moments of 2020 (although I guess that has a little less impact that year!).