Review and road test of the Bentley Continental (1991 - 2003)
By Andy Enright
The big Bentley Continental was most notable for being the first Bentley for over forty years that diverged markedly from Rolls-Royce in terms of body shape and kick-started a trend for ever more sporting Bentley models. Just starting to pique the interest of speculators who see the car as a key link between Bentleys past and present, the Continental coupe, in its various guises, has been criminally undervalued. Now is the time to buy to beat the market.
2 door coupe (6.75 litre petrol [Continental R, Continental S, Continental T, Mulliner, Le Mans])
First shown in prototype form at the 1984 Geneva Show masquerading under the title Rolls-Royce Project 90, the Continental first made production in 1991 when the Continental R thundered into the pages of the enthusiast press. Constructed from the Turbo R platform, the Conti's 'official' launch was at the 1991 Geneva Show where it wowed the crowds, the Sultan of Brunei reportedly demanding the show car from Bentley's stand.
Designed by Ken Greenley and John Heffernan, the Continental R's shape disguised its massive bulk effectively and despite being hugely space inefficient, rapidly became an aspirational pick amongst the luxury set. In 1994, the Continental S performance model was launched, the turbocharged engine now fitted with an intercooler to boost power. The real barnstormer came in 1996 with the launch of the Continental T, a car with for some time the most torque of any production vehicle. In 1999 Mulliner editions of the R and the T were launched which offered more luxurious fittings and, in the case of the Continental T, stiffer suspension. Development work on the next generation Continental GT saw the 'old' Continental quietly pensioned off in 2003.
What You Get
The Continental still has a panache and presence that even the later Continental GT coupe can only hope for. The exterior is massive, measuring fully 210 inches from nose to tail which means that parking the thing can be problematic in city streets. It's a job best left to the valet, The interior is surprisingly tight in the back, especially for headroom, but the two seats up front have plenty of room to sprawl out. The fixtures and fittings used inside tend to be a rather curious mix of high quality hides and wood finishes combined with some rather brittle plastics that jar somewhat by today's standards. Car nuts will have a field day trying to source a number of parts that Bentley quite clearly bought in from third party suppliers. That said, if you can live with a cabin that's not new enough to be modern and not old enough to be properly charming yet, the Bentley Continental is a fine place to be.
What to Look For
To avoid potential problems, try and buy from a Rolls Royce & Bentley official dealer. Otherwise get a detailed expert inspection carried out. Insist on a full Rolls Royce-approved service before you buy because running costs are huge.
(based on an M-reg Continental R - approx ex-Vat) A full exhaust system (excluding catalyst) is around £1,200 and an exchange gearbox around £1,500. Front and rear brake pads are around £113 and £74 per set respectively. A starter motor is around £480, a radiator (exchange) around £268, an alternator around £675 and a front headlamp lens around £67.
On the Road
Under the bonnet, you'll find a 6.75 litre V8 engine in normally aspirated and turbocharged forms, depending on your model choice. Despite the prodigious body weight, this unit still manages to shift this huge Gentleman's Conveyance at a surprisingly rapid pace. It's rather undignified to drive the car like this of course but for raising eyebrows amongst your fellow road users, you can't beat it.
Most of the time, you'll be content to glide from county to county, much as the standard four-speed automatic gearbox slides imperceptibly from ratio to ratio. You can hear the engine all right, but it sounds a bit like a thunderstorm happening fifty miles away. Handling is a little soft, even on the Mulliner equipped Continental T. Rapid changes of direction are manoeuvres the Bentley gently frowns upon and it's worth bearing in mind that when you fling 2,422kg of car from lock to lock that this car was built before the development of stability control!
The Bentley Continental offers a lot of car for a modest amount of money. If you're not planning on putting huge mileages on it, an early Conti R can work out cheaper to run than something like a new Citroen C6, which is quite something when you pause to think about it. I know what I'd rather be driving and it's not French.
Bentley Continental (1991 - 2003) review by Andy Enright