An anatomy of the Bentley Continental R and T
Bentley’s late 20th century rebirth may have started with turbocharging, but it took an even more significant step forward with the distinctive-looking Continental R and T models.
WORDS: RICHARD GUNN
PHOTOGRAPHY: KELSEY ARCHIVE/RICHARD GUNN
Throughout the 1980s the Bentley marque, for so long overshadowed by its Rolls Royce parent, enjoyed an unprecedented revival. While Crewe had at least kept the name alive, the Bentley T-series cars of 1965 to 1980 were little more than rebadged Silver Shadows, with virtually nothing to make them distinctive. By 1981, despite the launch of the Silver Spirit and its Bentley Mulsanne equivalent, interest in the Winged B – heirs of the cars that had once been champions at Le Mans – had fallen so low that they represented just five per cent of factory output. A mere 151 Bentleys were sold that year as opposed to 3014 Rolls-Royces.
“...despite the apparent simplicity of just cutting out a section of the top, development cost around £12 million”
It was woeful figures like this that made Rolls-Royce sit up and realise that something had to change. Traditionally, Bentley had been about performance, Rolls-Royce the provider of sumptuous luxury. Would reinjecting Bentley with a sense of sportiness be enough to kickstart the brand’s renaissance? Thankfully for all those who loved Bentley, it was. The introduction of turbocharging, coupled with styling tweaks that helped make the SZ generation Bentleys look a little different from their Rolls-Royce counterparts, raised both interest and sales. By 1986, the sales ratio of Bentleys to Rolls-Royces was 40:60; by 1991, the two marques were levelpegging.
It was quite an achievement in just a decade. The year 1991 was significant for something else too, for it marked the debut of the Continental R. This was much more than just the reintroduction of a great name from the past, conjuring up visions of the R-type Continental of the 1950s. It was also the first Bentley in over a quarter of a century to have its own distinctive body, one that wasn’t shared with any Rolls-Royce.
There was already a Bentley Continental model available before the R joined the party. This was the rebadged Rolls-Royce Corniche which adopted the Continental name when in Bentley form, from 1985 to 1995. It, however, had little to mark it out from its Spirit of Ecstasy-adorned sister. It was company marketing director Peter Ward — later to become managing director — who was the main driving force for the Continental R to be something that both looked and felt different. Work began on the realisation of a two-door coupe during the mid-1980s, to capitalise on Bentley’s ascendancy. Thanks to the styling efforts of Graham Hull, John Hefferman and Ken Greenly (see Behind The Body), the glass-fibre non-functional Project 90 concept of 1985 had progressed to a production model by 1991, under the codename Nepal. In March of that year, it received a surprise unveiling at the Geneva Motor Show, to great public and media acclaim. The debut of the Continental R in 1991 has become the stuff of legend.
Previous launches by the company were usually quite understated affairs, but this wasn’t the case with the Continental R. For the March 1991 Geneva Motor Show, a Nepal pre-production vehicle was whisked away to Switzerland in great secrecy. Nobody was predicting anything fresh from Rolls-Royce or Bentley at the event; even those in the know didn’t expect anything to break cover before 1992. So when a Vermilion Red example of the previously unseen Continental R was driven out from behind a wall onto the Rolls-Royce stand, it was quite a revelation. The accompanying music was Zadok the Priest, an anthem originally written for the coronation of King George II in 1727 by George Frideric Handel, meaning that the new Bentley emerged into the world enveloped by pomp and circumstance. Mercedes- Benz must have been very upset; its new W140 S-Class had been expected to be the star of the show, but the German marque found itself completely shaded by its British rival, with a car that hadn’t even been on the radar before the start of the Geneva show. One of the many impressed by the new Continental R in Switzerland was serial Rolls-Royce and Bentley purchaser, the Sultan of Brunei. As one of Crewe’s most favoured customers though, he had a little more clout than most other show-goers and promptly purchased the display car, reputedly at a cost of over £2 million. The second, fifth and 17th Continentals built also went to Brunei, as did 22 of the 1992 cars and 12 of the 1993 ones. Handel must have had quite the effect.
FAMILIAR UNDER THE SKIN
The arrival of the first ‘new’ Bentley since the 1960s was big news. Yet underneath the elegant though purposeful skin, the architecture was still very familiar. Essentially, the Continental R was a rebodied Turbo R, with the 325bhp 6.75-litre turbocharged V8 carried over from that model — not that the actual power output was revealed of course, Bentley preferring to regard it as ‘sufficient’. Feeding the V8 was MK-Motronic digital fuel injection with a mapped ignition control system. One significant upgrade compared to previous SZ models was the fitment of a new GM 4L80E four-speed electronic automatic transmission, albeit modified by Rolls-Royce over a million miles of testing so it was rather more refined and sophisticated than the version that also found itself in the Hummer H1 and assorted General Motors’ vans and trucks. The automatic gearbox was coupled to the gear selector in the centre console rather than mounted on the steering column, as had been the case with all previous self-shifting Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. This incorporated a Sport button which altered the characteristics of the transmission and also stiffened up the adaptive self-levelling hydraulic suspension for a more performance-orientated ride. However, one thing that Continental buyers didn’t get was the traditional chrome strip down the centre of the bonnet; the R was the first Bentley for many years not to have this, although it soon became the standard look for the marque. At £168,294 when launched, the Continental R was not just the priciest Bentley available, it was the most expensive production car in the world — although still some way off whatever the Sultan of Brunei had paid to get his hands on the very first one at Geneva. Top speed was 145mph and the R could sprint from zero to 60mph in just 6.6 seconds, which also made it the fastest Bentley ever.
During the first year of production, 70 cars were built. This grew to 146 in 1992, 285 in 1993 and 251 in 1994, numbers that equated to around six cars per week. While this may seem a tiny fraction of what a mainstream manufacturer might hope for, it was a healthy enough tally for Crewe and was in addition to all the other Bentleys being sold. In 1994 the price increased to £180,120, but the power rose in sympathy, with Cosworth being brought in to work its tuning magic on the cylinder heads, resulting in a boost to 360bhp. The alloy wheels also increased in size from 16 to 17 inches.
Still, if 360bhp wasn’t quite enough, there was the Bentley Continental S, produced for just two years from 1994 to 1995. Thanks to its liquid-cooled charge-cooler, it boasted 385bhp and a 0-60mph time of 6.1 seconds. The bad news was that it was only available to very selected customers, and there were very few of them; a mere 39 of these limited edition Bentleys found homes. Still, for those who missed out on the S, there was some solace offered by Rolls-Royce’s personal commissioning department, which began offering bespoke customisation for Continentals. A certain Sultan was a major customer (see The Brunei Connection).
The liquid-cooled charge-cooler became standard on 1996 Continental Rs, by which time the price had gone up to £187,354. For the extra £7000 plus, customers also got a more responsive and economical engine management system, plus a real break with the past from Rolls-Royce: an actual quoted power output. Instead of ‘sufficient’ or ‘adequate’, the Continental R of ‘96 was pinned down to 385bhp (along with a staggering, transmission-crunching 550lb ft of torque) — which was no doubt much more than adequate or sufficient for most. Top speed was now cited as 155mph, while 60mph was attainable from rest in less than six seconds. The alloy wheels were also revamped again — although their size remained the same at 17 inches — and memory steering wheel adjustment made an appearance, as did electronic traction assistance, albeit just as an option.
The R also gained a new sister in 1996, in the lithe form of the Continental T. This had four inches chopped out of its wheelbase, wider wheel arches and bumpers, plus enhanced brakes. The latter were necessary to cope with its 400bhp engine, which gave a top speed of 170mph. The interior also received special attention too. With the T clearly regarded as even more performance-focused than the R, the usual wood was replaced by turned metal, with chrome-finished gauges and polished aluminium trim. There was also that most overtly sporty of additions, a separate starter button.
BIGGER, BETTER, WIDER
Two years later, traction control became standard on the Continentals and there were some cosmetic changes inside and out, such as retrimmed seats with integrated seatbelts, vents beneath the headlamps, a mesh grille, reprofiled bumpers and, naturally, yet another design of alloy wheels. Some of the features of the T also became available on the R, with the bigger wheel arches from the shortened model creating the ‘Wide Body’ Continental R. The first six of these were Continental R California Editions bound for well-heeled customers in the USA. Also known as the Beverly Hills — which gives away exactly the sort of clientèle the model was aimed at — this sextet had 18-inch alloys, the bumpers and arches from the T, a polished stainless steel radiator grille and exhaust finisher, and ruched seats and door panels. The turbo boost gauge also graduated to the centre instrument panel. The seventh Wide Body of 1998 wasn’t a California Edition but did become the first Continental R to receive the 420bhp engine that was fitted to Continental Ts from 1998. More would soon follow, including the five Continental R Jack Barclay dealership specials later in the year, which didn’t feature Wide Body revisions, but did have other modifications such as 18in wheels, a starter button, ruched leather, Holly Green paint and suspension lowered by 5mm. Following on from this came the more ‘mainstream’ Wide Body Mulliners, with 148 put together from 1999 to 2003. In total, it’s believed 194 Continental Rs received a 420bhp steroid injection between 1999 and the end of production in 2003.
Other 420bhp Rs included the Le Mans of 2001, which commemorated Bentley’s return to Le Mans with Wide Body wheel arches and bumpers, quad exhaust pipes, front wing intakes, red brake calipers and special Le Mans badges. Inside, the Le Mans had straight grain walnut facings, Winged B motifs set into the seat headrests, a chrome and leather gearknob, drilled pedals and treadplate plaques. The exclusive colours were Silver Storm, Black Oriole and, naturally, Le Mans Racing Green. The 46 Continental R Le Mans were accompanied by just five T variants.
Two offshoots of the Continental debuted in 1995 and ‘99. With the Corniche-based convertible Continentals departing in ‘95, a fully convertible Continental R called the Azure replaced it, while the Continental Sedanca Coupe (SC) arrived four years later with removable roof panels. Pininfarina was involved with the design, and despite the apparent simplicity of just cutting out a section of the top, development cost around £12 million. Still, with 79 of these £245,000 T-based models built, and six of those receiving extra cost bespoke Mulliner enhancements such as modified shock absorbers and stiffer torsion bars for even better handling, Bentley no doubt recouped its investment.
The passing of the 20th century was marked with 10 420bhp Continental R Millennium editions in 2000. Among their features were a green start button, the usual Wide Body modifications, a laser-cut stainless steel matrix grille, 18-inch chrome wheels and numbered treadplates. Three years after this, it was time to say goodbye to the Continental R and T as Bentley, now owned by Volkswagen, progressed to its all-new Continental GT. The last remaining SZ platform vehicles bowed out in 2003 with a limited edition run of 11 Final Series cars.
Among their special features were the usual Mulliner and Wide Body tweaks as well as five-spoke alloy wheels, Bentley-branded calipers, the now expected starter button (this time in red), chromed bezels, winged Bentley motifs on the waist rails, diamond-quilted sports seats and door cards, and dark-stained walnut or black lacquer finishing on the fascia and door cappings. And with those cars, the old Continentals R and Ts were gone, to make way for the new breed of GTs.
The Continental R and T models were significant in Bentley’s late 20th century hierarchy. They played a major role in the marque’s continuing renaissance as it emerged from underneath Rolls-Royce’s umbrella, and they injected a much-needed dose of individualism into the brand. They were the final SZ platform survivors, lasting into the 21st century and the era of Volkswagen-engineered Bentleys. Old school in many ways, but new wave in so many others.
From the back: Continental R, T, SC and Azure Convertible.
“...the German marque found itself completely shaded by its British rival, with a car that hadn’t even been on the radar”
Muscular 2001 Continental Wide Body, and below, Continental T and its distinctive dash.
“Would re-injecting Bentley with a sense of sportiness again be enough to kickstart the brand’s renaissance? Thankfully for all those who loved Bentley, it was”
1985 Project 90 concept Nepal Prototype, 1990
- Continental R (1991-2002) 1292
- Continental S (1994-1995) 39
- Continental R California Edition (1998) 6
- Continental R Millennium Edition (2000) 10
- Continental R Mulliner (1999-2003) 131
- Continental R 420 (2000-2003) 38
- Continental R Le Mans (2001) 46
- Continental R Final Series (2003) 11
- Continental T (1996-2002) 321
- Continental T Mulliner (1999) 23
- Continental T Le Mans (2001) 5
- Continental SC (1999) 73
- Continental SC Mulliner (1999) 6
- Azure Convertible (1995-2003) 1087
BEHIND THE BODY
The three men mainly responsible for crafting the Continental R’s styling were Graham Hull, John Hefferman and Ken Greenley. Hull joined Rolls-Royce as a stylist in 1971 aged 24 and by 1984 had become the company’s styling manager. In 1990, he was appointed chief stylist. Hefferman and Greenley were freelance designers who had run the Automotive Design School at London’s Royal College of Art and were also part of the International Automotive Design consultancy. They would become most renowned for penning 1988’s Aston Martin Virage. But before that, Rolls-Royce approached the pair to design the Project 90 concept in 1985, as a mock-up of a possible future Bentley two-door coupe. Hull then refined this design, which had been well-received at the Geneva Motor Show, adapting it to the SZ platform while continuing to collaborate with Hefferman and Greenley on the overall shape. The stylish interior, however, was just the work of Hull and his team at Crewe. Although the appearance was clearly derived from the Silver Spirit/Mulsanne, it was less angular and blocky and somehow looked more compact, even if it actually wasn’t. The curved roof definitely added a more sporting profile. There were echoes of past Continentals in the way the rear wings swept slightly upwards and the tail was sloping rather than abruptly vertical. Also apparent were some stylistic similarities with that other great Hefferman and Greenley creation, the Virage. Both had looks that were imposing but aerodynamic, dramatic yet dignified. The sleek Continental R was one very handsome beast.
THE BRUNEI CONNECTION
The Sultan of Brunei’s love affair with the Continental R began with the very first Nepal prototype unveiled to the public at the 1991 Geneva Motor Show. Over the next 12 years, he acquired many, many more, snapping up multiple examples of mainstream and limited-edition models. However, with a vast fortune which peaked at $20 billion and a collection of cars that once numbered over 2500, Rolls-Royce and Bentley were very happy to supply cars that went far beyond the norm. The vehicles created for the Sultan, and a few others of similar status and wealth, were codenamed ‘Blackpool cars’. The Sultan’s bespoke Continentals began in 1994 with his 14 Sufacon cars, the abbreviation standing for ‘SUper FAst CONtinental’. The Sufacons featured revised bumpers and vented bonnets, with P300 L410M300 engines generating a whopping 527bhp lurking under those louvred lids. These special Continentals opened the floodgates for the some even more extravagant exclusives, such as 19 four-door cars, 20 long-wheelbase models (with an extra four inches added) and four limousines, which were stretched by an additional 17 inches. It seems that the ruler of Brunei wanted to explore all possible configurations because he also commissioned 30 Sports Estates (some of which had armour plating), 12 Convertibles and a single 542bhp Supershort, with four inches removed from its wheelbase. This was later complemented by two very similar cars, known as Camelots. He also indulged in reskins such as the 13 convertible B2s and 13 B3 coupes and then went even further with complete restyles — of varying styles and levels of outlandishness — such as the two-seater Grand Prix and Silverstones, convertible Monte Carlos, Imperials, Spectres and Phoenixes and grand tourer Highlanders and Buccaneers and Pegasuses. In total, the Sultan ordered 202 special-bodied Bentley Continentals just between 1994 and 1996, spending tens of millions of pounds and seriously depleting his country’s Royal coffers in the process.
THE IntroCar VIEW
John Tupper, managing director of IntroCar, says: Not for nothing is this sub-range of Bentley models captured under the «Continental» sobriquet. Manufactured in small volumes and stylistically distinct from the standard four-door range, these hark straight back to the coachbuilt R-Type and S-Type Continentals of the 1950's and 1960's. They are considerably rarer and more sought after, therefore, than their four-door siblings. An owner of one can probably be forgiven for feeling a little smug! The style is now beginning to look a trifle angular and dated. The long boot pushes the cabin a long way forward to the eye, for example. However, I expect this to soon be seen as a feature rather than a bug as these take their inevitable place in the pantheon of true classics. Mechanically, anyone who is comfortable dealing with other Rolls-Royce and Bentley models of the same era will be on safe ground: they are more-or-less identical save some upgrades to performance and suspension. Continental-series cars tend to be equipped with stronger anti-roll bars and later models had their own front dampers. Engine management systems were tuned to provide a little more output. Maintaining these models from a mechanical perspective should be straightforward enough. Bodywork is a touch trickier, as many of the parts are becoming hard to find — manufactured as they were in small volumes. When buying, look for missing, damaged, or aging trim as sourcing replacements may call for more creativity than one would like. Values for these models have begun to leave their lowest point behind, but they are still remarkable value for money. For sure, they will be three to four times the cost of an equivalent «standard» model, but prices are almost certain to head north in the coming years. The convertible Azure and Continental SC (short for Sedanca Coupe) are more desirable still. Good examples do not spend long on the forecourt. I do not usually use the word «fun» in the context of Bentley models, but it is hard to imagine failing to smile when your garage door opens to reveal one of these!