Only 208 R Type Continentals were built, but this Bentley had an impact far beyond its limited numbers. The brainchild of chief project engineer Ivan Evernden and chief stylist John Blatchley, it set a standard for Bentley grand touring that continues to inspire the company to this day. Hailed at the time by Autocar magazine as ‘a modern magic carpet which annihilates great distances’ the R Type Continental was the fastest luxury saloon car of its time and epitomised the finest in automobile styling. The Bentley Heritage Collection’s R Type Continental is JAS 949, chassis BC 16 C, originally built for a Swiss owner in 1953.
A MODERN MAGIC CARPET
Origin of the R Type Continental
Pre-war, two coachbuilt specials had shown the performance potential of aerodynamics. 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. In the early 1950s, Ivan Evernden took inspiration from these one-off creations to create a sleek coachbuilt coupé based upon the chassis of the R Type Bentley saloon. Aerodynamics and careful attention to weight would provide a welcome performance boost, while the standard R Type’s 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.
A car called Olga
The prototype – OLG 490, nicknamed Olga – was a semi-official project, and Evernden faced some opposition to the idea of a ‘sporty’ Bentley from members of the Rolls-Royce board. With the help of allies within the company and its overseas dealerships Evernden convinced them that the market existed for such a bespoke project. Olga vindicated their decision in September 1951, when it averaged 118.75 mph over five laps (with a best lap speed of just under 120mph) at the banked Montlhèry track near Paris.
The R-Type Continental in production
Orders came in from all over the world, even at £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.
The first production model was delivered to its owner in June 1952 and by the time production ended in 1955, 208 R Type Continentals had been made. Of these 193 were bodied by HJ Mulliner. Other coachbuilders making versions of the R Type Continental included Park Ward (four dropheads and two coupés), Franay (five bodies), Graber (three) and a single example by Farina.
During the R Type Continental’s three years of production many owners specified extras. To compensate for the extra weight a bigger bore engine with a capacity of 4,887cc was introduced for the ‘D’ and ‘E’ series chassis, delivering a practical top speed of around 115mph and easy cruising at 100mph.
To keep down to the target 34cwt weight, coachbuilders HJ Mulliner crafted the bodywork, window frames, windscreen surround, backlight, seat frames and bumpers in aluminium. Even a radio was considered to be superfluous extra weight (though many owners ordered one as an option).
Even at this pared-down weight, tyre choice was critical; no standard road tyre existed which could carry a two-ton car at speeds in excess of 115mph. Dunlop Medium Distance Track tyres were specified for the R Type Continental and even these were right on their performance limit.
The Bentley Heritage Collection R Type Continental JAS 949
R Type Continental chassis BC16C was built in 1953 as one of the 77 BC-C chassis models and delivered to its first owner, Dr Rowland Guenin of Switzerland in December 1953. It was ordered in Ivory with Red interior and a manual gearbox, a specification it retains to this day along with the original 4.6-litre engine. Although delivered new to Switzerland, it was specified in right hand drive as it was to spend all of its life in Australia.
Bentley Motors acquired JAS 949 in 2001, and has maintained it in excellent mechanical order while sympathetically preserving its patina. It has been shown and driven at Bentley events throughout the world.