Bentley R-Type Continental vs. Continental GT
Bentley.Has a name ever had such gravitas in the automotive world? Powerful and evocative, it conjures up images of Le Mans victories, glamour, sophistication, speed and, above all, Britishness. Yet not long ago it floundered in the shadow of Rolls-Royce, staring down the barrel of an ignominious death.

The company has produced some of the most extraordinary, most powerful cars to ever grace the planet, and the two models here represent important milestones in Bentley's genealogy. Despite the fact that they're separated by 54 years, they have a lot in common.

The Continental moniker is apt, stating their raisons d'etre. They were both designed and built with the ability to cover enormous distances in supreme comfort, unrivalled civility and effortless pace. Both stand out like jewels, but honors for the most beguiling belong to the old-timer. This R-Type Continental (valued at more than $500,000 ) lives in the company's heritage collection and came out just for the day. It didn't fail to turn a single head.

By 1952, when the R-Type Continental was launched, Bentley had been owned by Rolls-Royce for 22 years and the rot, as far as individual designs were concerned, had set in. With each new model, Bentley lost more of its identity, eventually becoming nothing more than a Rolls-Royce with a less ostentatious badge. The R-Type was to change all that, albeit far too briefly.

Then it was the fastest four-seat coupe, capable of 117 mph. Third gear was good for 100 mph. These were figures unheard of for a luxury GT at the time. Just 208 were built between 1952 and 1955, with almost every one supplied with beautiful handbuilt coachwork by H J Mulliner. It's a stunning piece of metal when seen up close.

Park it next to the new Continental GT and its influence is obvious. The short front overhangs and pronounced rear flanks, the way the front fenders gracefully curve around the front wheel arches and lead to the rear. The new car, styled by Belgian Dirk van Braeckel, is a triumphant melding of old and new. It looks modern, contemporary, imposing and elegant all at the same time-particularly when viewed in profile. And it still holds true to the R-Type Continental's brief of being immensely quick and comfortable.

The old girl feels as though she's from another space and time. When you are privileged to experience luxury cars from five or six decades ago, you appreciate how far technology has come. The R-Type Continental had an advanced specification, including a push-button radio with an electric aerial. Now we have satellite navigation. But luxury is still evident, from the quality of the hides and wood veneers, to the feel of the carpets and the instrumentation that looks like it came from a jet aircraft.

It takes time to build up speed, but once there, the R-Type will happily stay at 100 mph all day. Fast cornering is entertaining, as the huge vessel lists from side to side, inducing a little seasickness. Better to take things easy, guide it through by slowing down in plenty of time, then letting it waft along in comfort and serenity. Even today, this could still be used as a continent-crossing grand tourer.

However, the new model is a truly special motor, despite misgivings from certain quarters about Bentley now being 'just a Volkswagen brand.' The feeling of unburstable quality is absolute and you can see where the money has been spent. The seats are magnificent and will give a nice back massage at the touch of a button. But the way the thing drives is a revelation. For a two-ton hunk of steel and glass, it shifts. It can handle too-which really is a surprise.

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