A Grand Old Lady

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The bonnet stretches endlessly ahead of the shallow windscreen, and the chromed wing tips of the Bentley radiator mascot seem far enough out of reach to belong in your dreams. Rather than stepping into this Continental, you climb up over the door sill and slide across the smooth leather of the big soft driving seat. Once ensconced, you are immediately transported into a bygone motoring age, even before you rest hands on a steering wheel whose thin rim is in stark contrast to its massive overall diameter.

You don’t so much drive the Bentley as guide it, proceeding like a galleon in full sail as you haul on that monster wheel and try to push to the back of your mind the all too solid column on which it is mounted. Collapsible? Such words had never been applied to automotive hardware when Crewe turned out this beauty in the year of the Le Mans disaster. Your chest, rather than the column, would perform any necessary deformable function now so taken for granted on modern steering systems.

That’s the key and, in a curious way, the charm of the Bentley. It’s a throwback to a different era, when elegance of appearance took precedence over pure functionality, when the car had yet to become accepted as an everyday mode of transport. A time when other road users treated such upmarket vehicles with due deference. Today, however, much to my amazement, virtually everyone still accorded this Continental great respect, gazing in awe as it overtook and smiling roundly at the sight of the 17 foot leviathan gliding suavely along. People even began to make room for it. It was the most relaxing car I’ve ever driven.

The Continental was always the rakish sibling in the combined Rolls-Royce/Bentley line-up in the immediate post-war years, and ours was the second prototype of the S1 range. Back in October 1987 Graham Johnson, the enterprising and effervescent Sales and Marketing Director of Alpine Electronics in Milton Keynes, hit upon the idea of creating something dramatic with which to demonstrate his company’s in-car hi-fi equipment. Alpine had already enjoyed success with its converted VW Golf GTi. Taking account of the nostalgia kick sweeping through marketing, it plumped for the dramatic Bentley, the epitome of grace in its ’50s heyday and, as our drive proved, still very much a head-turner.

Chassis BC 102AF was assigned to the Crewe works in July 1955 and embarked on an extensive road test programme which culminated in timed runs at MIRA. Today 0-90 in 27 seconds might not set the world alight, and a maximum speed of 113mph for such a car wouldn’t woo too many buyers. Back then, however, it was respectable stuff, especially for a creation scaling 4250lbs and powered by a mild 4887cc straight six engine driving through four-speed automatic transmission and producing a modest 178bhp at 4000rpm. And remember, the Jaguar MkII, the archetypal getaway car of the late ’50s and ’60s, was still four years away, and then only reached 90 in in 21.3s in its 3.8-litre, albeit automatic transmission, guise.

The Continentals did well, featuring a variety of bodies by the best stylists of the day: Mulliner Park Ward and James Young. Our car went through a variety of owners and a change of registration from VTU 524 to 878 NOT before a midnight transaction in Hertfordshire in January 1988 resulted in an exchange of money between Alpine and John Wiseman of Great Amwell.

Connaught Design of Hayes then stripped the shell completely of all chrome, trim and body fittings, before Surrey Car Styling of Woking used its expertise in working with difficult surfaces such as aluminium or carbon fibre composites to strip off the Regal Red paint and undertake a complete respray in its present 16 coats of Sikkens Oxford Blue. I’ve seen a fair few paint jobs over the years, and attempted enough spraying to appreciate the excellence of the work; it is unquestionably flawless.

Back at Connaught, the doors were redesigned to accommodate electric windows and all of the new electronic gear, a major part of the project being Alpine’s desire to demonstrate that modern hi-fi equipment can be incorporated into existing interior themes without compromising the aesthetics. As Whittle Brothers of Warrington reskinned the blue-piped red leather upholstery, Alpine designed the system specifically to suit the Continental’s acoustic qualities. Its heart is the 7905 compact CD player and tuner, which is of similar standard to the best domestic set-ups. Sensibly, in an age of soft footsteps and light fingers, it is removable.

This is allied to a four-way divide network to the speakers. The network comprises one speaker at the rear driven by a fan-cooled amplifier, and a brace in the doors, each driven by amplifiers to provide 150 watts per speaker. That is real power. There are squawkers in the doors, with further speakers balancing the bass and driven by a four-channel amplifier, while tweeters look after the upper range.

Within the sumptuous confines of the Bentley’s cockpit, its drawing room opulence leaves one in no doubt that this is a ’50s luxury car. You sit high, commanding a good view to the front and the side, but the small rear-view mirror and the slope of the fastback require a duck of the head to see much out of the flat rear window. The lack of external mirrors further sharpens one’s awareness of the need for utmost vigilance, especially to the three-quarter rear.

That 18 in diameter wheel dominates the walnut burr dashboard, with its easily read instruments and solid, chromium switchgear which includes a neat remote control for the fuel filler flap. So much for modern inventions. The gearlever and handbrake are to the right, the former on the steering column, the latter an umbrella type lever just below the dash. The brake and clutch pedals are non-pendant, sprouting from the floor. They reminded me of the Rover 90 on which I learned to drive.

Subconsciously I expected the Continental to handle like the Rover, but was in for a pleasant surprise. Graham admitted that the straight six powerplant really needed a rebuild, and in deference to the car’s age our outing was not in any case to be anything approaching a performance test. That said, once one had eased the car up to cruising speed it would maintain it without difficulty and was more than capable of keeping up with other traffic on motorways, something I certainly hadn’t expected. From beginning with a leisurely gait in the slow lane. I soon became confident of its ability to use the overtaking lane whenever necessary. At 70mph the engine is turning over well below 30001-pm, and the redline is at 4250.

On our longest run, from Darlington to London, it loped along happily without baulking our Sapphire Cosworth ‘chase’ car, and actually proved a thoroughly practicable proposition for commuting. Its most endearing feature is its effect on others. As well as the smiles, it aroused immense (and unexpected) courtesy from everyone. Perhaps they just felt that they couldn’t afford to argue with anyone wealthy enough to own such a car…

After the Rover I fully expected the Bentley to be a case of terminal understeer revisited, but it was well balanced in the main, and the steering is surprisingly accurate even if you do have to do a lot of winding on the wheel. Every fuel stop requires a top-up of Jet Redex to keep the cylinder head happy, and the driver is required to pump an under-dash lever every hundred miles or so to keep the chassis lubricated. Other little idiosyncrasies include turn indicators that don’t cancel, a la Citroen CX, and the old-fashioned quarter lights I’d almost forgotten all about. With drum brakes all round I’d also expected a degree of fade after prolonged use, but they stood up well, even if you did need to borrow one of Arnold Schwarznegger’s legs to apply them.

The grand old lady had a few creaks and groans, mainly connected with a broken leaf in the left rear spring, but as it takes a year to obtain one we took it easy on right-handers and made sure we didn’t overload that side of the car.

Cocooned within, inhaling the heady aroma of real leather, making the most of the plentiful leg and headroom and the supple ride, the occupants can further indulge their hedonistic tendencies via the in-car entertainment. I have to confess that, although the majority of the music I listen to is played in cars, I am no expert on equipment. I wouldn’t know a woofer if it bit me, a squawker if it cold called or a tweeter l was served one in aspic. But in my ignorance even I was impressed with the pure quality of the Alpine system. You can take it up to eardrum popping decibels without the slightest distortion or interference. Indeed, the human side of the set-up gives up long before the electronics.

The Continental has now been pensioned off after an honourable two years as Alpine’s show car, as its current Lamborghini Diablo project took shape, but nothing else is ever likely to provide quite the same blend of majesty and visual appeal. And nothing could match that delicious feeling of incongruity when cruising two tons of Crewe steel and aluminium on the motorway, with Alpine’s 7905 working overtime on a Jan Hammer disc (supplied with the car) tracked to the Miami Vice theme. Sacrilege? Perhaps, but ah, happy days… D J T