The Bentley Continental has been described as one of the most attractive and refined motor vehicles ever built and when introduced in 1952 was the world’s fastest saloon. The Bentley was perceived by many as a Rolls-Royce with a different radiator grille and badges yet the manufacturers insisted on promoting it as `The Silent Sports Car’. Silent it might have been but it was far from being a sports car.
To improve performance the Bentley Continental had a weight reduction from 1860kg to 1650kg and a change in gear ratios to allow a standard four-speed gearbox to run on a direct-drive top rather than an overdrive. To achieve the weight reduction the entire body was panelled in aluminium instead of the usual steel. Even the bumpers and seat frames were fashioned in alloy. With around 25mm pared from the prototype’s roofline and a 38mm reduction in bonnet height, together with a new fastback tail design, the target top speed was achieved.
At this point in the car’s development the conservative management wavered on whether or not to put this beautiful car into production. Only with solid backing from the Paris agent, who was convinced that the car would sell itself to his clients who had the advantage of miles of fast open roads that were not to be found in Britain at the time, did production go ahead. As it turned out France became the biggest importer.
To drive a Bentley Continental in the 1950s was to move into a different world. The reduction in weight made a great deal of difference to its handling and acceleration, but even more significant was the fact that the special bodies were so beautifully built that the Continental’s silent cruising ability was to remain unequalled for more than a decade.
Production was divided into five different lettered series, from A to E. In practice there was little difference between an A and a B series, the C-type was an interim model with the option of automatic transmission on the way to the near-identical D, and E with an enlarged 95.25mm bore engine giving 4.9 litres and an even more relaxed run up to 192km/h.
Left hand drive cars using manual gearboxes normally had an excellent steering column change, whereas the right-hand-drive manual Continentals felt more like Bentleys of old with their precise right-hand gear levers.
More than any of its contemporaries, the Bentley Continental – with its supreme combination of speed, silence, smoothness, dignity and restrained use of first-class materials fashioned by top craftsman – could aspire to share the title of Best Car in the World with Rolls-Royce.