Then and Now: The Bentley Continental

Sam Kessler (Online Editor)
The development of Bentley's quintessential grand tourer

Of all the cars on the road, few are as evocative as the Bentley Continental. Even at mention of the name, you probably have an image in your head of the car’s sleek lines, its impossibly elegant form. It doesn’t even matter which particular version of the British grand tourer you think of; in the 63 years since it first hit the road, the R-Type is still an integral part of the Continental line.

In 1952, Bentley decided to make the best car in the world. So most supercar marques try just that year in, year out, but Bentley took the task with deathly seriousness. It needed to be the fastest, most comfortable and most luxurious, it needed to eclipse the competition. And it did.

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Just as Pygmalion gazed upon Galatea, the vehicular fruits of Bentley’s labours was the Continental R-Type and, while it didn’t animate itself, it did have a life of its own. Only a small number were produced – 208 to be precise – yet they made a lasting impact.

At a time when there were very few cars capable of 115 mph, the R-Type was revolutionary. First of all, it could manage a top speed of 120, already impressive enough. But add in four doors, passengers and luggage, the car’s cruising speed of over 100 was unheard of.

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Of course, the R-Type Continental didn’t just come out of nowhere. Pre-War, the ‘Embiricos’ Bentley and the Corniche, both one-off specials (what we’d call concept cars now) had some hallmarks in common. First was the ability to cruise across distance on the continent’s fast roads. The second was beautiful streamlined coachwork – the visual signature of the Continental.

Taking this streamlined concept, designer John Blatcheley created a shape that was just three lines, a triumvirate of elegant curves that together laid the blueprint of the Continental’s iconic form. It wasn’t just developed for looks, though it seems to perfect not to have been. It just so happened that the R-Type chassis was also exceptionally aerodynamic.

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Not that it was all about air resistance; the standard six-cylinder engine needed all the help it could get. The chassis was made from aluminium as much as possible, to make sure the tyres could survive at top speeds more than to reach the upper limit itself. To put it into context, that’s the same problem being foreseen for the upcoming Veyron.

In a very real way, it was the best car in the world. It should have been as well, considering the cutting-edge development and sheer level of work involved made sure it cost a grand total of £6,928 – over four times the average house price at the time. They sold out in record time.

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Those 208 cars set the bar for years, decades to come and today the modern incarnation of the Bentley Continental does the same. It goes without saying that technology has certainly advanced in the previous half a century; the current Continental range can reach speeds that would make the R-Type seem lazy. Yet there’s no denying the DNA is still there.

Take the Continental GT Speed. Its top speed of 206 miles an hour and stunning level of luxury would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, let alone when the R-Type was conceived. Even so, those three lines first penned by Blatchley are still the first thing you see. The elegant purity, and rounded, gently curving roof are as exquisite as they’ve always been.

Six decades on and the Continental name is still living up to its original promise – to create a car that can cruise vast distances, at high speeds and in sumptuous comfort, in short the ultimate grand tourer. With one look at the R-Type you see the potential; with the GT Speed, you see it realised.

To explore the evolution of the Bentley Continental, click the video above. To make an enquiry about the Continental GT Speed or any other Bentley model, CLICK HERE.

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