Luxury Car Evolution: 1952 Bentley R-Type

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After the Great Depression and WWII, Bentley would rise to become one of the world's premiere luxury automakers.

Bentley started off as one of many automotive companies which had formerly made airplane engines. They set themselves apart with a stunning string of successes in motorsports, most notably in endurance racing. This included a stunning 5 victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans between 1924 and 1930. But the success of the Blower Bentley gave way to horrible financial problems at the outset of the Great Depression.

They would end up being bought by Rolls-Royce in 1931, and would take a back seat to the bigger marque for the next several years. It wasn't until after WWII that Bentley would have their first real success under RR ownership, but that car would serve as an excellent example of what defined a postwar luxury car. This was the Mark VI, which would later receive a bigger trunk, prompting Bentley to change the name to R Type, although they are essentially the same car. The most important aspect of the Mark VI is that Bentley (as well as their parent company of Rolls-Royce) recognized before the war ended that things would be different in the automotive world.

In other words, a more global approach to luxury car-building would be needed. It was this realization that would lead to the "standard steel" models, which started for Bentley in 1946 with the Mark VI. These were the first models to have a standard body built in-house by Bentley, and were made entirely out of steel. The idea was that customers who might not have access to a local coachbuilding firm would be able to buy a complete car right from Bentley instead, something which was far from the norm for luxury cars before WWII. Bentley would still supply a chassis to a coachbuilder should the customer request it.

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However, the rugged steel-bodied standard cars were what had the real appeal to the bigger market. The Mark VI was a big success, comparatively speaking, with 5,200 sold between 1946 and 1952, and a further 2,300 R Types sold between 1952 and 1955. Numbers like these could never have been achieved without the standard steel bodies, although it's important to remember that Bentley still managed to offer quite a few non-bodywork customization options. It's true that the Bentley models are very similar in almost every way to models offered by RR, but Bentley's cars were far, far better-selling than those of its parent company.

In the fashion that was typical of Bentley in the day, the engine displacement was expressed in fractions, and the company refused to disclose horsepower ratings, saying simply that it was "adequate". Early models had a 4 1/4 -liter inline-six engine, which was upgraded to a 4 1/2 -liter unit in 1951, which would carry over into the R Type. It was available only with a four-speed manual transmission, and the rear suspension was adjustable, not exactly the norm for luxury cars. Starting in 1952, Bentley began to offer a special version of the Mark VI. This was a two-door which was both lighter and more powerful than the standard car, and was also fitted with a special transmission.

This was the first Bentley Continental, and just 27 Mark VI Continentals were built, since it was right at the end of the Mark VI's production. This was technically sold without a standard body, and only in chassis form, in prewar fashion, but all of them ended up with coachwork from H. J. Mulliner & Co. The fastback body was beautiful, and the Continental became the most expensive production car in the world at the time. With the introduction of the R Type in 1952, Bentley essentially changed just the trunk, which was nearly doubled in size. This was the last tweak the model would receive.

The R Type can therefore be thought of as the ultimate expression of Bentley's highly successful postwar business strategy. With the introduction of the R Type, a new Continental also joined the ranks. Coachwork was again largely the work of H. J. Mulliner & Co., but a few were built by other coachbuilders, such as Park Ward, Franay and Pininfarina. Since the Continental version of the R Type was introduced much earlier in the production run than it had been with the Mark VI, production numbers are much bigger, totaling 207. The Continental would live on until 1965, before being eventually reintroduced as a separate model decades later.

In addition to the Mark VI and R Type Continentals, Bentley built versions out of the S1, S2 and S3 models which followed these. Mark VI versions are of course the rarest, although the R Type and S1 versions are easily the most beautiful. Bentley took a chance with a new kind of luxury car in 1946, and it paid off. The Mark VI/R Type was ideally suited to the postwar boom, and the standard body type has become the norm even for luxury cars.

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