1993 Bentley Continental RIf the 1982 Mulsanne Turbo was the first sign that Bentley was separating from its then six-decade inveiglement with Rolls-Royce, then the 1991 Continental R felt like the decisive end result. When I behold the massive form of this 1993 example it feels more like some distant descendant of the Le Mans challengers of the Twenties, even if I detect the slightest hint of Camargue in its roofline and the way its indicator strips wrap around beneath the quad-headlights. Its perfect proportions and sleek lines – again the work of Heffernan and Greenley – disguise its sheer size, making early tactile encounters with it surprising. It’s as tall as some modern SUVs, the doors are so heavy they feel like they’re lined with concrete, and I clamber up rather than step down into it.
Behind the wheel, it’s clear Bentley was proudly reasserting itself. The armchair seats hug without squeezing, and the driving position is remarkable – I’m in traditional grand tourer pose, back slightly reclined and legs straight out, and yet I’m sitting high with a commanding view down a long bonnet, the humped lines of which follow the curve of the radiator cowl from the nose to the base of the windscreen. From the outside the Continental looks like a fairly angular car, especially from the rear – perhaps the only aspect of the design that doesn’t really low properly – but that curvaceous bonnet and the angle at which I see it is only revealed once I’m in the driver’s seat, putting me in a Woolf Barnato mindset. One thing’s for certain – this car couldn’t be turned into a Rolls-Royce by merely replacing its grille. It’s just too driver-focused.
The interior design itself is leagues ahead of the Aston’s. Everything about it feels bespoke. Nothing I touch is plastic – there may well be other manufacturers’ components hiding beneath it all, but so far as my fingertips are concerned it’s all leather, polished wood, chrome and deep-pile carpets. But there are two key things that confirm I’m not in a badge-engineered Rolls – the gears are selected via an ergonomically-shaped lever on the centre console rather than a column stalk, and behind the steering wheel is a tachometer. Look in the owners’ manual and you’ll find real power and torque figures quoted too, rather than some faux-etiquette about ‘adequacy’. Adequate, to the Continental R, would be an insult.
Turning the engine on provides the only tangible link to Rolls-Royces of the era, in that after the briefest of heavily-muted sparkings it settles to a near-silent idle and remains hushed even when accelerating fairly hard. Then again, if you were spending £175,000 in the middle of the 1991 recession, you probably wouldn’t want to announce your arrival everywhere you went.
What’s most impressive about the Continental is the way it corners. Back when Bentleys were merely smooth-nosed Rolls- Royces they’d shudder and wallow when presented with a bend, but the Continental retains superb composure, adaptive suspension working hard to ensure it remains as level as possible all the way round. The steering may be light enough to guide with my fingertips, but it’s not devoid of feel and offers just enough communication and resistance to allow me to make – and feel the effects of – mid-corner adjustments.
Ultimately it’s not as wieldy on B-roads as the Aston – its mass finally catches up with it in tight, low-speed corners, the nose diving under hard braking to warn you that it’s reaching its limits and the brake pedal feels spongy and vague under duress too – but then again it doesn’t threaten to understeer into the bushes either – the ‘R’ in the car’s name stands for ‘Roadholding’ after all. However, tyre smoking is not what this car’s for – the real thrill comes when you point it at a straight piece of tarmac stretching of to the horizon and bury the accelerator pedal in the deep-pile carpet. The way the nose rises puts me in mind of a luxury jet on takeoff, and the 6.75-litre V8’s torque hits the base of my spine almost like a supercar’s does, albeit with a damped sense of decorum. The engine nudges through its soundproofing to give a pleasant whumphing growl as the car surges past 90mph, and yet thanks to the sheer composure of the chassis there’s absolutely no sense that it’ll leave me in a situation where I run the risk of losing control of it.
And yet this is a car with a better turning circle and more room in it than the Aston Martin Virage. It would take the Continental GT for Bentley to truly reclaim its role as a sports car manufacturer, but in the battle of the Nineties all-rounder GTs, the Bentley trounces the Aston on every count other than braking. And, of course, being an Aston. But being a Bentley is, surely, just as special. And after six decades of limousines from Crewe, this is at last a driver’s car, proved by its specification. It has rack-and-pinion steering, all-round independent suspension, ventilated front brake discs, active ride control – all things the Aston lacks.
They’re dependable if looked after, but like the Aston they can ravage your wallet if neglected, as Paul Wood of specialist P&A Wood explains, ‘Cylinder head gaskets are unpredictable – sometimes they’ll fail at 30,000 miles, yet there are also 100,000-mile-plus engines still going strong on their original gaskets. Zytek engine management, introduced in 1994 to take the power up to 385bhp, makes it difficult to access the engine for maintenance in order to check the gaskets, so be vigilant – replacing them costs £4000, although the cylinder heads aren’t prone to warping. The engine management system’s relays are prone to failure, so it makes sense to keep a spare relay in the car.’
Suspension suffers most on Continentals, a result of excessive weight and hard-working automatic ride control. ‘If it’s riding too hard at the rear and sitting too low at the front when standing it’ll be a problem with the gas springs in the height control,’ says Wood. ‘That can cost £1500 to ix.’ Corrosion isn’t a major problem on Continental Rs, but check sills, lower wings, door tops and window frames if you want to avoid bills running to anywhere between £1000 and £6000.
Still, so long as it’s been serviced, used sparingly and kept away from bad weather – as most have been – Continental Rs shouldn’t throw up the bad-servicing difficulties that an old wedding-hire T2 or Mulsanne often will.
Owning a Bentley Continental R
‘I drive it every two weeks to keep it running well, but only really use it for special occasions,’ says Jayesh Patel of his Continental. ‘It’s my wife’s favourite car, and my niece Aryana likes it too on account of its “fluffy carpets”!
‘Nothing’s gone wrong in three years of ownership, although I’ve spent quite a lot on routine maintenance, just replacing various worn-out parts – rubbers, suspension bushes and so on. Tyres are £400 each! Parts are more expensive than for the average car, but it compensates for this by being reliable, and so long as you find a good specialist to entrust it to rather than a main dealer and you look after it, this balance should mean costs are contained.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1993 Bentley Continental R
Engine 6750cc V8, ohv, Bosch K-Motronic fuel injection, Garrett TO4B turbocharger
Power and torque 333bhp @ 4000rpm; 485lb ft @ 2000rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive
Brakes Servo-assisted discs all round, ventilated at front
Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar, automatic variable ride control. Rear: independent, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers with automatic variable-height control, anti-roll bar
Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Weight 2402kg (5296lb)
Performance Top speed: 145mph; 0-60mph: 6.6sec
Fuel consumption 14mpg
Cost new £175,000
Classic Cars Price Guide £22,500-£47,500