The Bentley Continental R was a luxury coupé made by Bentley from 1991 to 2003. It was the first Bentley to feature a body not shared with a Rolls-Royce model since the S3 Continental of 1965, the first to use the GM 4L80-E transmission, and the fastest, most expensive, and most powerful Bentley of its day. It was also the most expensive production car in the world at launch. A convertible derivative, the Bentley Azure, was launched in 1995.
As Managing Director of Rolls Royce Motor Cars in the early 1980s, David Plastow could see the potential in the Bentley brand. It had been neglected for the previous 15 years and made up only a very small percentage of the company’s sales at that time, particularly outside the UK in important markets such as the USA. The first move was to turbo charge the standard Bentley 4 door saloon: the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo was launched in 1982. On the back of this, Peter Ward, marketing director at the company (and later, Managing Director), wanted to further enhance the distinctive sporting nature of the Bentley brand and move away from a Bentley that was merely a re-badged Rolls Royce. They appointed stylists John Heffernan and Ken Greenley to come up with ideas for a new, distinctive, Bentley coupé. The fibreglass mock up was displayed at the 1984 Geneva Motor Show in Rolls-Royce’s “Project 90″ concept of a future Bentley coupé. The concept was met with an enthusiastic reception, but the Project 90 design was largely shelved as the company began to work towards a replacement for the Rolls-Royce Corniche. During this process, Graham Hull, chief stylist in house at Rolls Royce, suggested the designs before the board for the Corniche, would suit a Bentley coupé better. From this point it was decided the Corniche could continue as it was, and efforts would once again be channelled into a new Bentley coupé. In 1986 Graham Hull produced a design rendering of a new Bentley coupé which became the Continental R. Based on the Rolls-Royce SZ platform (which was an evolution of the SY platform), an aerodynamically shaped two-door coupé body had been styled.
John Heffernan and Ken Greenley were officially retained to complete the design of the Continental R. They had run the Automotive Design School at the Royal College of Art and headed up their own consultancy, International Automotive Design, based in Worthing, Southern England. Greenley and Heffernan liaised constantly throughout the styling process with Graham Hull. The interior was entirely the work of Graham Hull and the small in house styling team at Rolls Royce. The shape of the car was very different from the somewhat slab sided four-door SZ Rolls-Royce and Bentley vehicles of the time and offered a much improved 0.37 coefficient of drag. The Continental R also featured roof-cut door frames, a necessity to allow easier access into the car which had a lower roofline than its 4-door saloon contemporaries. A subtle spoiler effect was also a feature of the rear. The finished car is widely acknowledged as a very cleverly and attractively styled vehicle, effectively disguising its huge dimensions (the Continental R is around 4” longer than a 2013 long wheelbase Mercedes S Class).
The “Continental” designation recalls the Bentley Continental of the post-war period. The “R” was meant to recall the R Type Bentleys from the 1950s as well as the Turbo R of the 1980s and 90s where the “R” refers to “roadholding”.
The revival of the Bentley marque following the introduction of the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo, and then the Continental R, is widely acknowledged to have saved Rolls Royce Motor cars and formed the groundwork which led to the buyout and parting of the Rolls Royce and Bentley brands in 1998. Bentley was once again capable of standing alone as a marque in its own right
A completed pre-production Continental R was secretly taken to Switzerland for a surprise launch of the model at the 1991 Geneva Motor Show (It had been expected the car would be launched in 1992). It was driven from behind a wall on the Rolls Royce stand to Handel’s Zadok the Priest and the Sultan of Brunei purchased the show car at the event for over £2m. The new Mercedes S Class, W140, also launched at the show, was completely upstaged by the unexpected, vermilion red, new Bentley Coupé.
From launch, 1991, the 6.75 L Garrett-turbocharged engine from the current Bentley Turbo R was chosen for use in the Continental R. In early, first generation, cars (1991 – 1993) power output of 325 hp (242 kW; 325 bhp) at 4000rpm and peak torque of 450 lb⋅ft (610 N⋅m) at 2000rpm was available, although this was always estimated, as, at that time, Rolls-Royce still had a policy of not supplying official figures, preferring to describe simply as “sufficient”.
The car used the new 4-speed GM 4L80-E automatic transmission which had been exhaustively tested by Rolls Royce, over 1 million miles, and modified by them in order to deliver very high levels of refinement. The car featured self-levelling hydraulic suspension (adaptive ride/Automatic Ride Control), ventilated disc brakes at the front, with twin calipers. Engine management via the MK-Motronic digital fuel injection with fully mapped ignition control system. At launch, top speed was 145 mph (233 km/h), and a 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time of 6.6 seconds. The Continental R was priced at US$271,780 in 1992. £178,000 in the UK at launch.
All cars were equipped with a centre console mounted electronic gear selector (the first time Rolls Royce had made a car without the autobox selector on the steering column), with a Sport button to simultaneously adjust gearbox mapping and stiffen the suspension for more aggressive driving and handling. For such a large and heavy car, the Continental R was repeatedly acknowledged by road testers and journalists as displaying superb handling characteristics at high speeds.
The 1994 model year, priced in the UK at £180,120, saw a number of revisions to the engine, including revisions to the cylinder heads courtesy of Cosworth (another company within the Vickers group, alongside Rolls Royce and Bentley). The alloy wheels were also increased in diameter to 17″ and were of a completely new 7 spoke design. Power was now estimated at around 360 hp (268 kW; 360 bhp) at 4000rpm and peak torque 500lbft (677Nm) at 2000rpm.
The Continental S was a limited-edition performance model made in 1994 and 1995 with a liquid cooled chargecooler added. Only thirty seven were produced and offered to established Bentley customers. The late Alan Clark MP was one such owner. This engine had an estimated 385 bhp (287 kW; 385 bhp) (some sources estimate 400 bhp), and 0-60 times improved to 6.1 seconds.
The 1996 model year (chassis numbers between 53001 and 53514), priced at £187,354 in the UK, saw some of the most significant changes since the launch of the car, notably the inclusion of the liquid cooled chargecooler as standard, along with improved engine management, Zytek EMS3, which meant improvement in throttle response, improvement in fuel efficiency and digitally controlled turbo over-boost. It also meant an increase in power output, and a change in policy by Rolls Royce: this was the first time performance figures were officially released by the manufacturer, departing from a long tradition of describing performance as “adequate” or “sufficient”. Probably the reason for this is because the figures were very impressive: 385 bhp (287 kW; 385 bhp) at 4000rpm and torque of 550 lb⋅ft (750 N⋅m), peaking at only 2000rpm, and available up to 4000rpm (UK brochure). No other production car in the world at the time delivered such levels of torque, leading Autocar to suggest, when road testing the 1996 model year car in August 1995, that the makers could have almost deleted the gearbox altogether, such were the enormous levels of low down torque available. 0-60 mph was now officially quoted by Rolls Royce as “sub 6 seconds” and a top speed of 155 mph (249 km/h) (UK brochure). The 1996 model year also saw revised 17″ alloy wheels and steering wheel tilt adjustment for the first time. This was electrically adjustable and so could now be set as part of the seat and wing mirror memory positions. Electronic Traction Assistance System began to appear on the later 1996 model year cars (around late 1996 up to the introduction of the 1998 model year car in August 1997)
The 1998 model year (chassis numbers between 63001 and 63564) included the electronic traction assistance system and some cosmetic changes. Power and torque remained the same as 1996, but 0-60 mph now quoted as “6 seconds”, top speed 155 mph (UK brochure). The cosmetic revisions included fitting the same front seats as fitted to the Bentley Azure, which were lifted from the BMW 8 Series (E31) and trimmed by Rolls Royce, featuring an integrated seat belt. Other revisions included small mesh vents below the headlights, laser-cut mesh radiator grille as standard, revised alloy wheels and minor changes to front and rear bumpers.
The Continental R California Edition was a limited edition of 6 wide body coupés produced in 1998 only. Other than the California Editions one other wide body was made in 1998. Number six only was fitted with the full-spec Continental T engine that just became available in 1998 with some 420 hp (313 kW; 420 bhp) and a maximum torque of 650 lb⋅ft (880 N⋅m). This car was the first Continental R fitted with the 420 engine, and the only one under English ownership. The larger dual-caliper brakes were also fitted to number six as well as numerous other features that later were incorporated into the 2000-2003 Continental R420 including push button start, eight gauges, and other unique features. Perhaps number six was the inspiration for the later R420, both of which performed similarly to the Continental R Mulliner.
The Continental R Mulliner model range, offered from March 1999, was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show. The Bentley Continental R Mulliner was equipped with the most powerful engine after the Continental T. This engine had a power output of 420 hp (313 kW; 420 bhp) and a maximum torque of 650 lb⋅ft (880 N⋅m). The car could be pushed to a top speed of some 170 mph (270 km/h). 0-60 mph (97 km/h) times dropped to 5.6 seconds with the computer nannies left on, and if an owner was willing to shred their tires for 50 or more yards, capable of 5.1 second times with the traction control off and abusive driving practices. One of the reasons the Continental R Mulliner came to life, was some customers (wanting the T) need for the longer leg room space offered in the R. The T was 4 inches shorter.
Between 1999 and the end of production in 2003, Bentley indulged customers in a variety of special customised cars under their Personal Commission programme with a number of cars fitted with the 420 hp engine including the Le Mans, Continental R,420 and Millennium. A total of 194 Continental R motor cars had the 420 engine — some of which were also wide body cars.
he launch of the Continental R had the effect of stimulating the imagination and demands of some of the world’s wealthiest individuals and throughout the 1990s Rolls Royce was tasked with creating numerous special cars, a service beyond that of mere customisation. Code named “Blackpool cars”, these were vehicles, generally based around Continental R, but with unique body shells often costing several million pounds to tool up, from which a handful of examples would be made. The best known customer for these cars was the Sultan of Brunei who had numerous unique vehicles made reportedly placing orders worth tens of millions of pounds with Rolls Royce during this period
Launched in 1996, the Bentley Continental T was a short wheelbase version of the Continental R offering slightly more power and torque and tighter handling, at the expense of rear passenger leg room.
At launch in 1996, the Bentley Continental T offered an additional 15 bhp over the 1996 model year Continental R, at 400 bhp, and an additional 40 lbs ft. of torque at 590 lbsft. For the 1998 model year, this was increased to 650 lb⋅ft (880 N⋅m) and 420 bhp. The Continental T was a 2+2-seater coupé developed from the Bentley Continental R with a more athletic outward appearance due to a 4-inch (10 cm) shorter wheelbase and extended front and rear wheelarches. The interior featured an engine-turned dash with chrome-finished instruments (as opposed to the wood finish in the Continental R), although some cars were specified with traditional wood. The Continental T’s engine responded to a separate push-button starter. Performance, due to 200 lb (91 kg) less weight, was slightly better than the Continental R cars with the same 420 bhp engine.
The Bentley Continental T Mulliner was introduced in 1999. Modified shock absorbers in combination with stiffer torsion bars (front +40%, rear +20%) increased the Continental’s handling ability.
The Continental SC ‘Sedanca Coupé’ was a short production version of the Continental T of 73 units, with a lift-out glass sunroof over the front two seats. Produced in 1999, owners for this model included boxer Mike Tyson. There were also six Mulliner SCs built.
Continental R/S: 1504
Continental R (1991–2002): 1236
Continental S (1994–1995): 37
Continental R California Edition (1998): 6
Continental R (2000) Millenium Edition: 10
Continental R Mulliner (1999–2003): 131
Continental R 420 (2000–2003): 38
Continental R Le Mans (2001): 46
Continental T: 350
Continental T (1996 — 2002): 322
Continental T Mulliner (1999): 23
Continental T Le Mans (2001): 5
Continental SC (1999): 73
Continental SC Mulliner (1999): 6