Driving a Pair of Turbocharged Youngtimer Legends: Bentley’s Turbo R and Continental T

Photography by Dirk de Jager
In 2002, two British crown jewels fell into German hands: Rolls-Royce was acquired by BMW, while Bentley was taken over by Volkswagen. We hit the road to compare the final generation of “imperial” Bentleys, the 1989 Turbo R and the 1997 Continental T.

The “imperial” Bentleys, the last to be produced under British ownership, represent the kind of dyed-in-the-wool Englishness that was already fading by the time they came along. Think of tuppence, lukewarm beer, biscuits with tea and, of course, the sublimely abnormal 6.75-liter V8 found under the hood of both the Turbo R and the Continental T. 

This L-series “six and three quarters” engine formed the backbone of the Bentley portfolio from 1959 right up until 2002; the final production run ended just this past June. Bentley’s history, of course, started decades before that, with W.O. Bentley setting up shop in 1919 in Cricklewood, just outside of London and some 164 miles away from Crewe, the town now associated with the brand. 

The Bentley Turbo R rewrote the rules, delivering supercar performance in a sedan that weighed about 5000 pounds. For those who desired a slightly sportier profile for that performance, the Continental T coupe followed. 

The Bentley story under W.O. is one filled with excitement and adventures, like racing the Blue Train and having the Bentley Boys win Le Mans no less than five times between 1924 and 1930. It’s a tumultuous history, however, that abruptly ends in 1931 when W.O. Bentley sees his company go under in the wake of the 1929 financial crisis. Not only does Bentley have to suffer the indignity of seeing rival Rolls-Royce buy his company at auction, but he is afterward retained by Rolls-Royce as just another employee on the payroll. 

Just prior to the outbreak of WWII, Rolls-Royce opened a new factory in Crewe, where it centralized the automotive activities. After the war, Crewe thus became the home base for both Rolls-Royce and Bentley, with the Rolls-Royce aeronautical division based out of Derby, U.K.

After a period of more financial instability, Bentley and Rolls-Royce officially separated in a complicated process that took place between 1998 and 2002. Once the two companies came out on the other side of that, BMW owned the Rolls-Royce name and essentially launched a new car company with a new factory in Goodwood, Sussex. 

The Volkswagen Group ended up with all the assets–and with the Bentley brand. Bentley would remain in Crewe, with the big change being who held the keys: They were now in the hands of Volkswagen.

Turbo R Sedan: Running Free

The Bentley Turbo R: plenty of space, plenty of power, plenty of luxury. 

Bentley’s relationship under Rolls-Royce was one that had few ups and a lot of downs. A highlight of their marriage was the 1952 Bentley Continental, but in the decades since, Bentley automobiles had become little more than Rolls-Royces without the Spirit of Ecstasy on the hood. 

Originally, Bentley Motors Ltd. had been about finding the right balance between sporty characteristics and supreme luxury. Unfortunately, when it was scooped up by Rolls-Royce, the manufacturer entered a family that epitomized Winston Churchill’s secret to a long life: “No sports, just whisky and cigars.”

Remaining stately in name only, Bentley was withering away–right up until turbocharging became viable for production cars. The parent company initially considered that option for an early-’70s Rolls-Royce model, the Camargue coupe, but it became clear that the turbo’s power hike was too much for the Rolls to handle. The car would need a complete rethinking, altering its character too much for, well, a Rolls-Royce. 

The turbo Camargue never went anywhere, but it got Marketing Director Peter Ward thinking: We have this other brand lying around here somewhere…. His idea would give Bentley a chance to grow without cannibalizing sales from Rolls-Royce, perhaps even return to its glorious past and the days when its ad literature boasted of the “silent sports car.”

In 1982, that first turbocharged Bentley was ready. The Mulsanne Turbo appeared at a time when it was considered uncouth to discuss topics like income or even horsepower, so Bentley famously listed its engine output as “adequate.” In reality, the turbocharged 6.75-liter V8 was rumored to produce close to 300 horsepower along with almost 500 lb.-ft. of torque. The stopwatch numbers weren’t considered too vulgar to discuss, however, and news that the Mulsanne Turbo could reach 60 mph in less than 7.5 seconds undoubtedly caused some embarrassment among Porsche and Ferrari owners. 

Ward’s hunch paid off, with the turbocharged Bentley attracting a herd of new clients. One thing they noted: An even more sporting setup to the chassis would be very welcome. 

Bentley answered their prayers in 1985 with this car, the Turbo R. It was a Mulsanne that was no longer called Mulsanne, instead just retaining the Turbo badge and adding an R for “roadholding.”

The R treatment brought bigger tires, heavier steering, stiffer dampers and a lowered ride height–just two-tenths of an inch, but it was something. The Turbo R also weighed 66 pounds less than the standard car, dropping the new model below the 5000-pound mark–the total weight, to be precise, was 4993 pounds. Less than a year after the release of the Turbo R, Bentley stopped building the Mulsanne Turbo. 

At launch, the Turbo R came equipped with Solex carburetors, but by 1987 Bentley replaced that setup with a Bosch Jetronic electronically controlled injection system and a catalytic converter in order to adapt the Turbo R to stringent U.S. emission demands. 

Performance remained strong, with road tests from the period showing the sprint to 60 mph taking 7.0 to 7.5 seconds. Top speed, which had been governed to 135 mph in the Solex-equipped cars, now reached 146. Along with fuel injection, the updated Turbo R also received ABS. 

Our test vehicle is one of the later, Bosch-controlled injection models. This 1989 Turbo R wears Dark Oyster Metallic paint combined with a Saint James Red leather interior. 

This is a long-wheelbase car, meaning it’s more than 17 feet, 9 inches long–5 inches longer than the standard model. It is massive, yet the square form allows it to pass almost unnoticed these days. It only stands out because of the amount of real estate it occupies, not so much because of a flashy design. 

Anonymous it may be, but no one will argue with the fact that this big Bentley still manages to look and feel very aristocratic today. You don’t doubt for one second that you should address its inhabitants as ma’am and sir (or lord and lady). 

This particular car was delivered new to Japan, but in left-hand-drive form. That’s a status symbol in Japan. 

Compared to the Continental T–more on that one in a bit–the interior of the Turbo R comes across as a low stimulus environment. The traditional wood-trimmed dashboard and the classic dials make for a timeless cockpit. Later Turbo R models like this one have an extra display with warning lights between the two central dials, and the radio is mounted higher up in the center console. 

With the wheelbase stretching to 124 inches, there is plenty of room in the back seat. The car predates touchscreen times, so a wooden stowaway tray is the only sign of contemporary luxury. That and the early cell phone antenna at the rear hint at the presence of an owner no doubt directly connected to Wall Street and ready to issue buy or sell orders at a moment’s notice.

The Turbo R, unlike a typical limousine that’s best sampled from the back seat, is a driver’s car, and this showed in the sales records. Production of the long-wheelbase Turbo R was left at 673 cars, whereas Bentley sold 3456 copies of the regular Turbo R. 

Those numbers mean the Turbo R proved to be a big hit for Bentley. The brand had accounted for a mere 1.6 percent of 1982’s sales in the Rolls-Royce family; by 1990, that number had grown to 50 percent. That idea of offering a modern take on the “silent sports car” seems to have worked.

Those sporting pretentions aren’t silenced from behind the wheel. While surrounded by rich perfumes of leather and wood, we hear a short burst from the V8 as we twist the key. It feels as if each cylinder needs to clear its throat momentarily–just momentarily, though, before silence takes back over. 

Once moving, you don’t notice that the automatic transmission–the GM Turbo 400–only offers three speeds. The acceleration feels plenty powerful. The engine effortlessly moves this tank along, and there is little point in ushering the tachometer’s needle toward the limit, which is set at a truck-like 4500 rpm. As soon as the needle hits 1500 rpm, you can feel a wave of torque building up. The only gear you can keep locked is first, but D is amply satisfying. 

On a cross-country drive, the miles pass effortlessly. Of course, once a turn presents itself, the Turbo R is handicapped by both weight and width. It’s a bit out of its depth on twisty roads, yet when you apply yourself to the exercise, it holds the road better than one would expect at first sight. It would appear these chassis modifications do serve a purpose. There is no point in hiding the truth: The Turbo R is big fun to drive, and not what you might expect when you first lay eyes on it.

Continental T Coupe: Brave New World

The Bentley Continental T offers even more performance than the Turbo R but less space in the rear seat and a slightly less satisfying package. 

The success of the Turbo R led Bentley to further an even more ambitious project: developing the coupe of all coupes to sit at the top of the brand’s offerings. 

Bentley gave the world a taste of what was to follow with the unveiling of the Project 90 concept at the 1985 Geneva motor show. Despite enthusiastic reactions from the public, Project 90 never went forward due to the high development costs involved. 

It became clear that a new coupe would have to make use of Turbo R underpinnings in order to keep the costs down. With this settled, the search could begin to define what would become the ultimate driver’s coupe. 

The new model received the Continental badge, cementing its place as the spiritual successor to Bentley’s R Type Continental–also known as the most famous car of the ’50s in Great Britain.

Thanks to its more fluid design, this new coupe stretched more than 3 inches longer than the Turbo R. In order to find a harmonious balance with the lower roof–by about eight-tenths of an inch–the design team came up with a Coke bottle shape for the rear end. 

The interior was to have been a copy of the Turbo R, but then someone mentioned that a real sporty coupe needed a gear lever between the front buckets, not on the steering column as in the Turbo R. Giving this new coupe a console shifter required a completely reworked interior along with the introduction of a new four-speed automatic gearbox, again borrowed from GM. This 4L80-E transmission would become standard for the Turbo R in 1992.

The Continental R’s final interior design was distinguished by a center console that runs right up to the rear seats, dividing the car into four individual spaces. A new dashboard was designed with more wood, more aluminum, and a lot more gauges.

In 1989, Rolls-Royce’s coachbuilding division, Mulliner Park Ward, had the first prototype coupe ready. Power was at first identical to the Turbo R: 320 horsepower and 444 lb.-ft. of torque, with all that sent to the rear wheels. 

The coupe project looked so promising that Bentley decided to advance production by a full year, unveiling it to the public at the Geneva motor show in 1991. Bentley was back in full force. 

Production was deliberately kept limited to no more than 300 coupes per year. This made possible a steep asking price: 170,000 pounds sterling in the home market, or $287,300 on U.S. shores. An advance of nearly $35,000 was required to place an order. The Sultan of Brunei was so impressed by the red Continental R displayed at the Geneva launch that he bought that car on the spot for a purported 2 million pounds–that’s about $3.3 million. 

Bentley went another step further in 1996 with the Continental T, the other car seen here. This one was even more performance oriented, as demonstrated by a drastic cut in the wheelbase–nearly 4 inches. 

The 6.75-liter V8 was pushed to 405 horsepower and 664 lb.-ft. of torque. Maximum power would reach 426 horsepower in later evolutions. Despite weighing more than 5290 pounds, the Continental T hit 60 mph in less than 5.9 seconds. Top speed was 170 mph. 

In order to fit 18-inch wheels, wider wheel arches were necessary. Compared to the Continental R, the Continental T’s honeycomb grille provides a much more sporting look. The broad shoulders combined with the short wheelbase give it the look of a bodyguard: muscular, yet classy. Subtle? Not really. 

The same can be said for the interior. Bentley dressed the Continental T to impress. Where there was wood, there was now brushed aluminum–colder, but just as beautifully finished by the craftsmen at Mulliner Park Ward, which was at the time the exclusive assembly shop for the Continental T. 

Even by today’s standards, the level of finishing is mind-blowing. Aluminum and leather blend seamlessly, like they were meant to be married from the beginning. When the Continental T debuted in 1996, it was the most expensive production car available, costing a whopping 250,000 pounds sterling or, over here, $390,000.

This Continental T was built in 1997 for a Saudi Arabian owner, but he kept the car in Hamburg, Germany. It explains why the identification plaque has Arabian script. The Diamond Graphite Metallic exterior is beautifully matched to the light grey leather of the interior. The car has had two owners since new, but shows just 18,000 kilometers–about 11,250 miles–on the clock.

The Legacy: Are You Worthy?

We were perhaps rooting for a different outcome, but honestly, from behind the wheel, the Turbo R leaves the best impression. The Continental T never manages to convey the longed-for message, whether it be that you are driving the most expensive car 1996 had to offer, or that this is the ultimate driver’s choice in the Bentley catalog. 

The Continental T simply fails to engage the driver sufficiently. Maybe it has a built-in detector that tells it we’re not worthy, because the coupe just doesn’t seem to care whether we are there or not. Even in its slightly more compact package–compared to the Turbo R–the Continental T is the one that feels too big, especially on smaller country roads. 

The numbers might tell a different story, but on experience alone, the Turbo R feels like the sportier of the two. The Continental T rolls less in the corners, but it is clear it has no more preference for a quick drive in the mountains than the Turbo R.

Now consider the going prices for these two vehicles, which are not even close. The Continental T is extremely rare, and values show it. Production ran from 1996 through 2003, with just 322 cars built in those seven years. Of those, only 217 sported left-hand drive. Prices for Continental Ts now vary enormously depending on specs and mileage. About a year ago, values hovered around six figures. At RM Sotheby’s Amelia Island sale this past spring, one sold for $100,800. A few months earlier, Gooding got $117,600 for another. In the current market there have been more fluctuations, with a 64,000-mile Continental T recently fetching just $55,800 at auction.

The Turbo R feels more fun to drive and commands less money. The going rate now starts south of $10,000, although we’d recommend spending more for a top example, since running these cars will never be a cheap affair. Top prices for the Turbo R are right around $25,000.

Either way, both cars represent past times–and a link between then and now. When Volkswagen took over Bentley, it focused solely on the coupe, pushing sales numbers for the Continental GT, the successor to our test vehicle, to previously unheard-of numbers. But despite all of that refinement and performance, it’s still not quite as special as these old Bentleys from the Rolls-Royce era. 

Thanks to Albion Motor Cars for the loan of both Bentleys for our comparison.

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