1954 Bentley R-Type Continental FastbackCoachwork by H.J. Mulliner
“Only the very fluent can coin the exact phrase to describe such a car – others have to copy. Personally, I will borrow a ready-made phrase from The Autocar’s Road Test article: a Modern Magic Carpet.” – Raymond Mays, amateur racing driver of note and the man behind E.RA. and B.R.M., writing about a journey from Bourne, Lincolnshire to Berne, Switzerland in an R-Type Continental.
The Bentley R-Type Continental Fastback
The R-Type Continental Fastback in its time was the most expensive, finest, all-round touring car in the world: the ultimate in transcontinental land travel for the super-rich owner-driver.
In drab post-War Britain, it was extraordinary that Bentley found over 200 buyers for a car with such a colossal price tag - £4,890 plus £2,083 purchase tax. But when the prototype was shown at the Paris Salon and the London Motor Show in the autumn of 1951, production was sold-out for many months ahead.
The car came about from Bentley’s post-War interest in producing a lightweight, high-performance, two-door four-seater. In 1949, H.J. Mulliner had produced three ‘Mulliner Lightweights’, streamlined coupés based on Mk VI running gear. In parallel, Franco-Britannic Automobiles of Paris commissioned Pinin Farina to design a sporting Bentley Mk VI coupé. The ‘Cresta’ was another aerodynamic design – but heavy.
Ivan Evernden, Bentley’s head of chassis design, combined the principle of the aluminium bodywork/frame of Mulliner’s Lightweights with many of the chassis developments of the Cresta. A tuned version of the new R-type’s 4566cc engine, coupled to a close-ratio gearbox and final drive ratio of 3.077:1 gave 28mph per 1000rpm in the overdriven fourth gear and a 120mph maximum.
The new Bentley was introduced to the public as the ‘Continental Sports Saloon’, a title that encapsulated its role as a long-distance express.
A total of 207 (plus the prototype) were built in five series: ‘A’ to ‘E’, from May 1952 to April 1955, and no two were the same.
First owners of the new Continental included the fabled American sportsman Briggs Cunningham, the Shah of Iran, Greek tycoon André Embiricos, the Guinness brewing dynasty, author of The Cruel Sea Nicholas Monsarrat, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli.
This motor car
A comprehensive document file accompanying the car, together with details from the definitive work on the subject, Bentley Continental Sports Saloon by the late Christian Hueber and David A. Sulzberger, record that the left-hand drive C Series, 4.5-litre ‘BC39LC’ was completed in December 1953.
It was clearly built to a discerning and sporting specification, with manual central gearchange (column change was standard), quaintly named ‘Colonial’ front springs, uprated dampers and a larger front anti-roll bar, lightweight seats, Wilmot Breedon bumpers, two foglamps, a kilometre speedometer, chrome side mouldings, wheel spats and a six-piece fitted luggage set. Just 26 left-hand drive R-Type Continentals left the factory with manual central gearchange, of which 13 had lightweight seats, so the ultimate specification is rare.
The subtle tone of its mid-grey livery was a shade made to sample: in this case to match the colour of a favourite suit of its first owner, Belgian textile magnate Edouard Zurstrassen.
The Bentley was shipped to Ostend on the SS Topaze on 8 January 1954, but before Mr Zurstrassen took delivery of his car on 4 February, from 16 to 27 January that year ‘BC39LC’ starred on the Bentley stand at the Brussels Motor Show.
Mr Zurstrassen owned ‘BC39LC’ for over seven years before selling it to Luxembourg resident E.K. Kjellerup-Hansen who enjoyed it until the early 1970s. On 1 January 1974 Danish enthusiast Jorgen Truelson took ownership and kept the car for a further nine years before it passed into the hands of an Italian fashion house founder on 1 July 1983.
After three decades of very sparing use, the car spending much of its time in a central Milan car park under the stewardship of the chairman’s chauffeur, this gentleman finally sold ‘BC39LC’ through Kidston SA in 2013.
With our assistance the new owner commissioned multiple award-winning British marque and model experts Clark & Carter of Braintree, Essex to carry out a total ‘nut and bolt’ restoration of the-then 60-year-old car to world class concours standard.
Accompanying documentation and photographs of the work when in progress show the painstaking lengths to which the craftsmen went to produce probably the finest example of this iconic model in existence today. From November 2013 to July 2015, work to the value of £419,050 (€570,000) has been completed by Clark & Carter, with no fastener, washer, screw or bolt too small to be replaced or, if unobtainable today, restored and replated.
A new set of fitted luggage to match the original was commissioned. The period-correct HMV Radiomobile radio was discreetly converted to FM/MP3. All chromework was replated, the windscreen glass and heated rear screen replaced, all with new rubber seals. The original engine (with new pistons and all bearings) and transmission were rebuilt. All steering, braking and suspension parts were disassembled, painted and then reassembled with the utmost care. Five new road wheels and tyres were fitted.
The body was removed from the chassis and all parts stripped of paint before painstaking hand finishing prior to final painting. All panel gaps were carefully measured and doors, bonnets and boot meticulously aligned. A new fuel tank was hand-made to fit the car. All wiring was replaced with a correct, Bentley R-Type loom. The exhaust system is a ‘New Old Stock’ original in the correct grade of steel to ensure the right exhaust note.
It should be noted that during this process the engineers at Clark & Carter not only restored the car, they also spent considerable time carefully realigning and then setting the body onto its many mounting points to minimise ‘stress’ and flexing. The result, with the rebuilt suspension and so many all-new parts, is a solid, ‘as-new’ ride; after only a short distance it is easily recognised as being as good as (or better than) Bentley intended in 1953.
Finally, all upholstery was replaced in original and matching tan Connolly hide, and the walnut veneer dash and cappings restored to new.
The result of this superlative work was a superb second in class at Pebble Beach this year in the category ‘Rolls-Royce and Bentley Post-War’ behind a 21-foot long Rolls-Royce Phantom IV which had taken part in the Tour (a tiebreaker which the Bentley did not enter).
There can be few R-Type Continentals finished to such exacting concours standards, yet with every desirable feature such as left-hand drive, lightweight seats, spats, fitted luggage and a manual centre change gearbox.
‘BC39LC’ is almost certainly the finest example of this iconic Bentley available today. The perfect UK registration ‘1954 BM’ is included.
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