“My first encounter with a Mulliner Fastback Continental took place at Le Mans in 1953… We glided around the famous course doing 120mph down the Hunaudières straight… I was so mesmerised by the speedometer that I hardly noticed the admiring crowds who had obviously never seen a touring car perform in this way before.” – Prince Sadruggin Aga Khan, later an R-Type Continental owner
The Bentley R-Type Continental Fastback
Summarised as “a Modern Magic Carpet” by The Autocar, the R-Type Continental Fastback in its time was the ultimate in transcontinental land travel for the super-rich owner-driver.
In drab post-War Britain, it was extraordinary that Bentley found 207 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.
Such was the demand for the new Continental that the first 30 were reserved for export and all but four A series were RHD. Among the first owners was Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli who purchased ‘BC12A’, the 12th Continental built, the car you see here.
As recorded in the definitive work on the subject, Bentley Continental Sports Saloon by the late Christian Hueber and David A. Sulzberger, ‘BC12A’ was completed on 31st October 1952, invoiced on 19th November 1952 and sold via Franco-Britannic Automobiles, Paris to ‘A. Agnelli, Italy’ on 9th February 1953.
The specification was typical of an early Continental fastback: H.J. Mulliner steel bumpers, lightweight seats, rear wheel spats and a plain radiator. The only listed extra was an armrest on the passenger door. As the model’s low weight was greatly prized, it’s worth noting that ‘BC12A’ was recorded as the second lightest built.
Typical of Agnelli’s patriotism and style, not to mention a nod to the wealth that resulted from the family car company, he chose a Fiat shade ‘Traffic Blue’, with Tan interior.
Agnelli, the unofficial ‘King of Italy’ and most influential man in modern Italian history, set standards for high living, exquisite taste and effortless style and it was entirely appropriate that he should be one of the first owners of an R-Type Continental.
Forever the playboy, one paramour was Pamela Churchill, then separated from her first husband and living in an apartment in Paris in the early 1950s. The match wasn’t to be when Agnelli left her for a new Italian love whom he was to marry, but the separation had some consolation for the English-born socialite, as contemporary reports record her being left his Paris apartment, the Bentley and a generous financial settlement.
Presumably not interested in ownership of such a car, ‘BC12A’ was sold via Franco-Britannic to French resident Robert Schasseur on 19th July 1954. It enjoyed six further years in Schasseur’s hands before export to Australia in early 1960. As attested by the car’s Carte d’Identité FIVA, ‘BC12A’ has stayed in Australia ever since, with just seven owners after Agnelli, each enjoying the car for healthy periods – one for over two decades. In 1995 it was subject to a restoration by R.A. McDermott & Co Rolls-Royce and Bentley specialists.
In the current owner’s hands, ‘BC12A’ has shared a garage with a McLaren F1, Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959, and the 51,797km showing on its odometer is believed to be the mileage covered from new.
From June 2012 to March 2013 the car was subject to the most particular refreshing and detailing to bring it to world-class concours standard. Totalling some AU$250k, the engine-out work included repainting and detailing all chassis parts, engine, gearbox, rear-axle and engine bay interior, plus re-chroming where appropriate, and re-hanging and rebuilding the doors. The bills accompanying the car run to many pages of gaskets, bolts, screws and washers – if it could be disassembled and made like new, it was.
The result of this stunning work was ‘Best in Show’ at Motorclassica Melbourne in 2012, and the car’s Traffic Blue paintwork was perfectly at home at the 2013 Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance.
The R-Type Bentley Continental deserves to be considered in the same company as the Ferrari 250 GT, Aston DB5 and London-Edinburgh Rolls-Royce Ghost: marque- and epoch-defining cars, all. This early example, to the definitive specification and ordered new by one of the 20th Century’s most charismatic characters, a key player in the post-War automotive and social worlds, is probably the finest available today.