Bentley Continental R

Is this old-skool brute the king of modern-classic Bentleys

Words Nathan Chadwick Photography James Pardon



adok the Priest was an apt musical choice for Bentley to use while launching its new coupé in Geneva in 1991. Though better known as the Champions League theme tune, Handel’s anthem was written for King George II’s coronation in 1727, and has been used for the coronation of every British monarch ever since. Ah, British patriotism. Bentley. Aristocracy. The king of automobiles. You can see how it all fits.

But the texts of Zadok the Priest are derived from the biblical account of King Solomon’s anointing. According to the Hebrew Bible Solomon had great wealth, wisdom and power, beyond that of all others – rather like Bentleys of the glory days. However, Solomon ended up a sinner. Again, very much like Bentley. 

By the early 1980s Bentley was struggling. Gone were the days of glorious Le Mans success, legendary speed records and show-stopping coachwork. Rolls-Royce Limited, its owner since 1919, went bust in 1970 and in 1973 the car section was spun off from the aeroplane engine firm to be run independently. By the time Vickers took over in 1980 Bentley was in the dumps – all that was available was a rehashed Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Fewer than five per cent of the cars that rolled out of the factory into the occasional Cheshire sunlight wore a Bentley badge.

The new owners quickly set about restoring the Bentley image, first with the Mulsanne and its turbo-equipped version. But it was the employment of Peter Ward that made the difference. Under his stewardship the thunderous Turbo R was released to much media fanfare, helping to drive Bentley to 40 per cent of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars sales volume by the end of the 1980s.

By 1990 Ward had shaken up the very old fashioned working practices at Crewe, posted a £36m profit – and was made chairman and chief executive. 

But though the Turbo R drove sales volume, in the mid-1980s he realised the brand needed a halo car; something sexy to evoke the R-type Continental of the 1950s. Say hello to the Bentley Continental R. 

The full version of this article appeared in issue 13. You can purchase that issue below: