In-depth reviews

Bentley Continental R Mulliner: review, history and specs

A sublime GT with a stonking, turbocharged 6.75-litre V8, the 1990s Continental R was a landmark car for Bentley

The Ribblehead Viaduct and the Bentley Continental R. One dominating the landscape with its sheer scale, a colossal feat of engineering, a towering monument to a bygone age… the other a Victorian railway viaduct.  

Sorry, couldn’t resist. But there is something reassuringly substantial and undeniably last-century about this Bentley. From doors that shut like those of an Edwardian railway carriage to the solid metal eyeball vents in the dash, to the magnificent 6.75-litre V8, the origins of which can be traced back to the 1950s, this is a motor car heavy with old-school engineering and craftsmanship. Just how heavy? Two thousand, four hundred and fifty kilos. 

> 'The most magnificent thing of all, it turns out, is a Bentley Mulsanne Speed'

That’s a lot of Bentley. To propel it briskly down the road requires considerable motive force, hence the single, very substantial Garrett AiResearch turbocharger attached to that venerable V8. The peak outputs are 420bhp at 4000rpm and a truly gargantuan 650lb ft of torque at just 2200rpm. That’s enough shove to get the Bentley from 0 to 60mph in 5.8sec and, despite a CdA only marginally better than Windsor Castle, on to a top speed of 170mph.

Such a compelling combination of old-world Bentley charm, handsome, square-jawed lines and thunderous performance is more than enough to qualify the Continental for evo icon status. But there’s more, because the Conti was actually a rather significant car, a true landmark in the Bentley story. 

When it was launched in 1991 it was the first Bentley with an entirely bespoke body since the mid 1960s. It was born at a time when Bentleys were usually little more than rebadged Rolls-Royces, although the Turbo R saloon had shown there was an appetite for something a little sportier. The Continental R, designed by John Heffernan and Ken Greenley, took the Turbo R underpinnings as a starting point but clothed them in a two-door coupe body that had no Rolls-Royce equivalent. Here was a marque in the process of re-forging its own identity.

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The first Continental Rs had 325bhp and 450lb ft, though at the time the power was quoted in traditional Bentley parlance as ‘sufficient’. In 1994 the attentions of Cosworth – then also part of the parent Vickers group – saw outputs rise to 360bhp and 500lb ft. But it was with the introduction of the Conti T in 1996 that things got really interesting – a shortened wheelbase and chassis upgrades made it a touch more agile; a wider body with extended wheelarches made it look more of a beast, and from 1998 the power was ramped up to the aforementioned 420bhp and 650lb ft, which at the time was the highest torque output of any production car on sale.

So the T was a bit of an upper class thug, a bit Oliver Reed, and it quickly gained cult status. The only problem was that the 4in (10mm) shorter wheelbase came at the expense of rear legroom, which had become distinctly marginal (to travel comfortably in the back you’d need to be legless, and not in an Oliver Reed sort of way). So Bentley also decided to offer the hot engine and wide body with the R’s longer wheelbase. 

This new model was launched as the Continental R Mulliner in 1999. And that’s essentially what you see here, though this is one of the Final Series cars, which gained some extra cosmetic features to mark the end of the model’s production – most visibly Bentley-branded brake calipers, extra badging, black lacquered woodwork and diamond quilted leather.

When production ended in 2003, a total of 1854 Contis had been produced, including 158 Mulliner editions, and just eleven Final Series cars. The example we’re about to drive was the very last built and retained by Bentley at the famous Pyms Lane factory in Crewe, which is where we’re collecting it on a blissfully warm and sunny spring day.

And boy, has the site changed since the last time I was here. Pyms Lane itself is now closed to general traffic and the factory site has expanded on the other side of the road to include impressive new R&D facilities as the company works towards being fully electric by 2030. By then cars like the Continental really will be relics from a bygone age. But what a lovely old thing it is, gleaming in the sunshine outside the impressive new reception building. 

And absolutely huge. It might be slightly lower slung than the R-R and Bentley saloons of the period, but it’s almost five and a half metres long, most of which seems to be either bonnet or boot. You pull open the fantastically heavy door with its big chromed handle, slide straight onto the plump driver’s seat – the floor is high and flat with no lip at the sill – and survey the cliff-face of a dash with its myriad dials, knobs and switches, rather like the flight deck of a 1990s light aircraft. The ignition barrel is set into the right hand side of the facia; insert the surprisingly diminutive key, twist, then thumb the centrally mounted starter button. That immortal V8 smoulders into life; distant, immense. Select D with the console-mounted shifter for the four-speed GM auto, and away…

The last time I drove a Continental of this generation was back in 2000, when we took a then-current Conti T down to Pau on the French/Spanish border (evo 026). It was an epic journey, the best part of two thousand miles there and back, so I can certainly vouch for the Bentley’s grand touring ability. I can also vouch for the fact that c110mph is very much its natural cruising gate.

Today’s journey is rather more modest, not least because of the current cost of fuel. A quick calculation reveals that at the Bentley’s typical 15mpg it would cost the best part of a grand in petrol to get to Pau and back. With a mind to the wellbeing of Mr Gallagher’s editorial budget, we set our sights rather closer to home – on the Yorkshire Dales and specifically the Ribblehead Viaduct, built in Victorian times to carry steam trains travelling from Settle to Carlisle.

Such a feat of railway engineering is an appropriate destination for a Bentley, whose home town is steeped in the rail industry; the huge Crewe Works were one of Britain’s main centres for building and maintaining locomotives; founder WO Bentley himself began his career designing railway machinery, and the earliest Bentleys had a certain locomotive scale and weight to them. The very welcome bonus is that the Dales offer some very fine roads as well as a suitably magnificent backdrop.

An hour and a half after leaving Crewe, we turn off the northbound M6 and point the Continental’s massive prow down the first of those roads. The motorway miles were meat and drink to the Bentley – silken powerplant pulsing somewhere below decks, 2000rpm at an indicated 80mph, tall 285/45 ZR18 Pirellis soaking up all but the worst pockmarks and potholes, your immediate surroundings like the leather-lined study of a rather raffish count with a gadget fetish. But now it faces a much sterner test. How does a 20-year-old luxury car weighing two and a half tons cope when you start asking serious questions of its chassis?

Surprisingly well, it soon becomes apparent. The basic underpinnings were carried over from the Rolls and Bentley saloons of the day, so the Silver Spirit and the Mulsanne, which in turn were developed from the 1960s Shadow – none exactly paragons of handling acuity. But the engineers worked small miracles with unpromising source material. The engine and transmission were now controlled by electronics; the then-new GM 4L80-E was the state of the torque-converter auto art; there was traction control and ABS for the vast, vented disc brakes, the fronts having two sets of calipers per disc. The all-independent suspension had hydraulic self-levelling with Automatic Ride Control. 

There was even a Sport button on the transmission tunnel to switch to more sporting gearbox mapping and stiffen the suspension. I’ll be honest, when I press the button I can detect little meaningful change in the suspension, though the gearbox does hold on to each gear a touch longer under acceleration. But if it’s a sports car you want, then you may be looking in the wrong place. This is a GT car in the grandest sense.

Yes, it rolls a lot – and floats over crests, and pitches under braking and acceleration too – but power it through a bend and it feels settled and composed, carrying surprising speed and clinging gamely to the chosen line. The chassis deals well with mid-corner bumps, too. The steering is weightier than you might anticipate for a two-door limo, and while you wouldn’t expect Lotus levels of feedback, you do at least feel a connection with the machinery. In summary, it’s as much fun as a two-and-a-half-ton luxury mile-eater with roots in the middle of the last century could reasonably be.

The only black mark is for the brakes – or rather the pedal feel. The first four inches feels like pushing through a thick duvet, the next two like standing on a dead sheep, before eventually they start to bite.

But what you’re really here for is to experience the propulsive thrust of 650lb ft of torque brought to bear on a prime piece of English Heritage. So when the road eventually opens up for a clear half a mile or so ahead, you squeeze the big, floor-hinged throttle pedal half-way to the carpet… There’s a momentary hesitation while the request for full steam reaches the engine room, then the nose lifts, the tail squats a touch, the muffled V8 rouses itself with a deep, rumbling growl as the blower fills its cheeks, and the Bentley picks itself up and launches for the horizon. 

The sensation of such vast forces at work, and all at such low revs – the red line is at 4500, but with peak torque at 2200rpm you don’t even need to go to those dizzy heights – cannot fail to make you grin, perhaps even laugh out loud. A current Speed model Bentley would trounce it by every objective measure. But that doesn’t make the experience here any less stirring, while the Conti’s old-money ambience makes it all the more unlikely and all the more entertaining.

At sunset, photographer Aston lines up the Bentley beneath one of Ribblehead’s towering arches. There are 24 of them, each with a span of 45ft and the viaduct is more than 100ft above the valley floor at its highest point. It is quite awe-inspiring to stand beneath it. Work started in July 1870 and would take a little over four years. Up to 2300 men were engaged in its construction, around 100 of whom lost their lives in construction-related accidents, or from outbreaks of violence or smallpox in the shanty towns that sprung up to house the workforce and their families. Different times…

Cruising back to nearby Ingleton and our hotel for the night, the Bentley is deeply seductive. Dial back to seven tenths or so and it covers the ground effortlessly and in great style, the deep background burble of the V8 overlaid by the occasional shushing of the turbo and the gentle whirring of what sounds like a compressor, presumably the hydraulic pump for the rear self-levelling system. It all somehow adds to the car’s rich character.

We’ve an early start the next morning to catch the sunrise, and dawn light reveals the silken depth of the Conti’s Silver Pearl coachwork, picks out the swollen arches, glints off the brightwork. It’s a handsome thing all right; stately with just enough muscularity to hint at the potency beneath.

Aston’s happy. Back at the hotel just before 9am, we tuck into a full English breakfast, Fellsman-style, which basically means all the components are doubled up, just like the Bentley’s front brake calipers. It’s what WO would have wanted, we decide.

On the run back to Crewe, I reflect on the significance of this car. The Continental was compelling evidence that Bentley could stand as a marque in its own right – a key factor in VW’s decision in 1998 to buy the brand, triggering the massive investment that has seen Crewe transformed over the last two decades. But while the Conti was the harbinger of a new dawn, it was also the last of the old, coach-built guard – new platforms and new manufacturing techniques were already being ushered in, even before VW’s takeover. 

One thing that did live on, though, was that mighty engine. When in 1998 Rolls-Royce launched an all-new Bentley saloon, the Arnage, it was designed around a new, much lighter and more efficient BMW twin-turbo quad-cam 4.4-litre V8. But new custodian VW was understandably wary of being dependent on BMW, so it quickly adapted the Arnage to take the old V8 as an option. Perhaps to no-one’s great surprise, customers much preferred the old, torque-heavy 6.75-litre single-turbo engine. So much so that it would continue on, albeit in much-modified form, until the demise of the 2010 Mulsanne in 2020, a truly astonishing run of six decades. 

That V8 is the strong, slow-beating heart of the Continental R Mulliner and fundamental to its appeal all these years later. It’s a car with a monumental quality, arguably the ultimate expression of a line that can be traced right back to the late 1960s. A car of unique character. The full English.

Bentley Continental R Mulliner specs

EngineV8, 6750cc, turbocharged
Power420bhp @ 4000rpm
Torque650lb ft @ 2200rpm
Power to weight174bhp/ton
Top speed170mph
Price new£230,000 (£400,000 in today’s money)
Values todayc£80,000-£120,000

This story was first featured in evo issue 299.

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