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.

It goes like a Ferrari in a straight line and corners like an Audi quattro. This is because there's a 550-hp twin-turbo W12 engine up front and computer-controlled air suspension, twinned with permanent four-wheel drive underneath. Yet at the time of its launch in 2003, many unhappy onlookers viewed the new machine as merely a rebadged VW Phaeton. Now we can stand back and judge the car on its individual merits-of which there are plenty.

The new model has sold in big numbers. That's probably why it failed to turn as many heads. In the UK, its reputation was sullied initially by its popularity among professional soccer players. In the US, it started appearing with alarming frequency on MTV, driven along palm-strewn boulevards flanked by silicon-augmented blondes and the latest R&B sensation at the wheel, name-checking the car at every opportunity.

Since then, things have (thankfully) calmed down and the Continental GT is once again bought and driven by people who appreciate the finer things in life. Sales remain strong and its sister car, the Continental Flying Spur, still holds the crown as the fastest production sedan. The fastest Bentley, though, will be the 202-mph Continental GT Speed, launched later this year. The future looks brighter than ever for Bentley. For that we should all rejoice.

1953 Bentley R-Type Continental
*Layout
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive

*Engine
4.6-liter in-line six, dual SU carbs

*Transmission
Four-speed manual

*Suspension
Independent w/coil springs (f), semi-elliptic springs (r)

*Brakes
Hydraulic fronts with servo, mechanical rears, 12.25-inch drums front and rear

*Wheels And Tires
Pressed steel rims with chrome hubcaps, 5x16 (front and rear), 6.5x16 radial tires (front and rear)

*Dimensions
Length x Width x Height (in.): 206.5 x 59.5 x 63Wheelbase: 120 in.Curb weight: 2980 lb

*Performance
Peak Power: 158 hpTop speed: 117 mph

2007 Bentley Continental GT
*Layout
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive

*Engine
6.0-liter W12, dohc, 48-valve, turbocharged and intercooled

*Transmission
Six-speed automatic

*Suspension
Progressive air springs, adjustable continuous damping with ride height control

*Brakes
Ventilated and drilled steel rotors, 15.9-inch (f), 13.2-inch (r), ABS

*Wheels And Tires
20-inch two-piece alloys, bespoke 275/35 tires front and rear

*Dimensions
Length x Width x Height (in.): 189.1 x 75.4 x 54.7Wheelbase: 108.07 in.Curb weight: 5258 lb

*Performance
Peak Power: 552 hp @ 6100 rpmPeak Torque: 479 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm0-60 mph: 4.7 sec.Top speed: 198 mph

Volkswagen: Hero Or Villain In The Bentley Saga?
Bentley in the hands of the Germans? Outrageous. That was the feeling in the UK when Volkswagen became its new owner in late 1998. Despite Rolls-Royce not really making the most of this coveted marque, it had gone on to outsell Rollers by nearly ten-to-one.

Investment was needed if eitherr brand was to survive and that meant selling the company. After much wrangling, VW bought Bentley and BMW snapped up Rolls-Royce. However, Bentley remained at the world-famous Crewe factory, while BMW had to relocate Rolls-Royce to a brand-new facility at Goodwood on England's south coast. BMW had basically just bought the rights to the name and the cars today have absolutely nothing in common with previous output.

Bentley, however, has retained its rich heritage and life at Crewe has never been better for its workforce. Volkswagen invested $1billion and breathed new life into the brand, creating a state-of-the-art production facility that can rightly claim to be among the world's best.

With this financial security, Bentley has soared. Initial protestations that these cars were now just VWs with Bentley badges have all but disappeared. Bentley has retained both its mystique and desirability. The cars are better and faster than ever, with much of the brand's potential being realized. And against the odds, Bentley has managed to retain the thing most observers thought it would lose as soon as a German owner entered the scene: Britishness.

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