Bentley started off as one of the most successful racing marques of the 1920s, then was acquired by Rolls-Royce in 1931. Thereafter, Bentley became the sportier sister marque of Rolls, but with their cars still quite sedate compared to other performance cars of the day.
In the post-war period, Bentley was in need of a new identity with more separation from Rolls-Royce. While their cars were beautiful and luxurious, they had little in common with the original Bentley marque, a company which managed to win Le Mans 5 times from 1924 through 1930.
The goal of the majestic Continental R Type was to create a luxurious Grand Tourer that could cruise reliably at 100 mph, with a top speed of about 115 mph. Just like today, high speed operation presented its own unique challenges. The limitations of the tires of 1950 meant that a car intended to cruise at 100 mph had to stay close to 3800 lbs. The focus of the Continental R Type was on weight reduction and improved aerodynamics, with increased power a distant second. The bodywork, window frames, seat frames, and bumpers were all made of aluminum to cut down on mass. Even the radio was eliminated to keep weight down.
The body itself was a wind-tunnel tested, beautifully tapered fastback with what was at the time a steeply raked windshield.
Power came from a 4.6 liter inline-6 that had been tuned from its normal output of 140 hp to 153 horses. While this was a high output for the day, it was not remarkable. Chrysler was already making their earliest version of the Hemi V8 by 1951 producing 180 hp. The Bentley engine was later enlarged to 4.9 liters, but overall the car's success in reaching its goals was due to an aerodynamic body and a relatively low weight of 3858 lbs for what was still a big Bentley.
|---- Specifications ----|
|Engine||4.6 liter||Weight||3,858 lbs|
|HP||153 HP||HP/Weight||25.2 lbs/HP|
|0-62 mph||--||Top Speed||115 mph|
In 1952, cars that could hit a top speed of 115mph were uncommon. Cars that could cruise at 100mph with four occupants (and luggage) were unheard of - until the R Type Continental. Although only 208 were produced, the R Type Continental created a template for Bentley grand touring that lasted decades. It even inspired the design team working on the first Continental GT, fifty years later.
Pre-war, two coachbuilt specials had shown what a Bentley of the future might be. Both the ‘Embiricos’ Bentley and the Corniche featured streamlined bodies and were capable of cruising at high speeds on the fast roads of the continent. One man who took careful note of these one-off creations was the company’s chief projects engineer, Ivan Evernden. Although a lifelong Rolls-Royce employee, he was inspired to reinvent Bentley for the post-war world and distance it from its more staid cousin.
He was assisted by John Blatchley, chief of the newly-created styling department at Crewe, who sketched a low, long and lithe body shape, with its radiator inclined backward from the vertical, a steeply raked windscreen, rear wheelspats and a fastback roofline. Fins were added to the rear wings to aid stability at high speed. A quarter-scale model was made and tested in the company’s aero-engine division’s tunnel at Hucknall, in Nottinghamshire. Evernden estimated that air speeds of up to 120mph were attainable. “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.”
Using the R Type chassis as a base, Evernden and Blatchley designed a grand tourer in the Bentley tradition, using aerodynamics and lightweight construction to create a vehicle capable of running for long periods at high speed across Continental Europe. It became an icon of its era; beautifully crafted, fast and exclusive.
Mechanically, the standard 4,566cc, six-cylinder in-line engine was gently tuned, raising the power from 140 to 153bhp, with a higher final drive ratio to take advantage of the lighter, more aerodynamic body.
Coachbuilders H.J Mulliner were tasked with creating the new, streamlined Bentley coupé. To save weight, the bodywork was made in aluminium, as were the window frames, the windscreen surround and the backlight. Even the seat frames and bumpers were aluminium. To pare weight to a minimum, a radio was considered superfluous.
Weight was the critical factor; tyres that could carry a two-ton motor car at speeds of over 115mph didn’t exist in 1950. Evernden calculated that if the new grand tourer were to cruise at 100mph or more, it would have to weigh a maximum of 34 cwt (around 1750 kilograms). Even so, this combination of weight and speed was right on the limit for the specified Dunlop Medium Distance Track tyres.
All the hard work paid off. In September 1951, at the Montlhèry track near Paris, the sleek new Bentley averaged 118.75 mph over five laps, with a best lap speed just under 120mph.
Up to this point the prototype - OLG 490, nicknamed Olga – was a semi-official project. Some on the board of directors felt it was ‘too sporty’ for a company that also made Rolls-Royce limousines. But with the help of allies within the company and its overseas dealerships, Evernden persuaded the board that a market existed for a coachbuilt Bentley grand tourer. As he had hoped, orders came in from all over the world, even at the immense price of £6,928 including UK purchase tax. To put this in context, in 1952 Britain the average annual salary was £468, and the average house cost £1891.
Many owners specified extras, which had an impact upon the weight of some models produced during the R Type Continental’s three years of production. A bigger bore engine with a capacity of 4,887cc maintained the performance, with a practical top speed of around 115mph and easy cruising at 100mph. Later production cars also differed from ‘Olga’ in having a lower roofline, a one-piece windscreen and revised wing line.
By the time production ended in 1955, 208 R Type Continentals had been built. All but 15 of them were bodied by H.J. Mulliner.
Accolades followed the launch of the R Type Continental. The Autocar summed up its appeal; “Whatever memorable motoring experiences one may have had, this was something different…this Bentley is a modern magic carpet which annihilates great distances and delivers the occupants well-nigh as fresh as when they started.”
• Inspired by the pre-war streamlined Embiricos and Corniche one-off coachbuilt Bentleys
• Unofficial project by engineer Ivan Evernden to re-establish Bentley as a maker of high performance cars
• Design created by chief stylist John Blatchley and tested in a wind tunnel
• Built using aluminium to a target weight of 1750kg: no tyre existed in 1950 which could sustain a heavier weight at 115mph+
• Prototype OLG 490 was created by coachbuilders H.J. Mulliner: became known as ‘Olga’
• At Montlhèry in September 1951 ‘Olga’ averaged 118.75 mph over five laps, with a best lap speed just under 120mph
• Originally offered with a tuned, 4,566cc, six-cylinder in-line engine producing 153bhp. Later versions 4,887cc
• To save weight, a radio was not fitted as standard
• Total of 208 produced between 1952 and 1955 – 193 were bodied by H.J. Mulliner
• Cost in 1952 was £6,928 including UK purchase tax: almost fifteen times the UK average annual income
• Later production cars featured a lower roofline, a one-piece windscreen and revised wing line