1952 Bentley R-Type Continental 4.9-Litre Sports Saloon Coachwork by H J Mulliner Chassis no. BC24A Engine no. BCA23
'The vocabulary of motoring being a lame and limited thing, it is difficult to put into words the gulf that separates a Continental from the average car in all the qualities that have a bearing on safety at speed. In acceleration, in braking, in cornering power, in roadholding, in responsiveness to the controls, this Bentley is the equal of modern racing cars, and superior to some.' Raymond Mays, The Autocar, 2nd October 1953.
Described by The Autocar as, 'A new stage in the evolution of the post-war Bentley,' the magnificent Continental sports saloon has been synonymous with effortless high speed cruising in the grand manner since its introduction in 1952 on the R-Type chassis. Of all-welded construction, the latter enabled the incorporation of a much-needed improvement to Rolls-Royce's standard bodywork in the shape of an enlarged boot together with associated changes to rear wings and suspension. The standard R-Type was a lively performer, achieving 106mph in silence and reaching 50mph from standstill in 10 seconds despite a kerb weight approaching two tons.
The Continental raised this already superlative combination of high performance and exceptional refinement to hitherto unattained levels. Unlike the ordinary 'standard steel' R-Type, the Continental was bodied in the traditional manner and first appeared with what many enthusiasts consider to be the model's definitive style of coachwork - the lightweight, aluminium, wind tunnel-developed fastback of H J Mulliner. In developing the Continental, Bentley Motors made every effort to keep its weight to the minimum, knowing that this was the most effective way to achieve the maximum possible performance.
Rolls-Royce's six-cylinder, inlet-over-exhaust engine had been enlarged from 4,257cc to 4,556cc in 1951, and as installed in the Continental benefited from an increase in compression ratio - the maximum power output, of course, remained unquoted but has been estimated at around 153bhp. As the Continental matured, there was inevitably an increase in weight, which was offset by the introduction of a 4,887cc engine on the 'D' and 'E' series cars, commencing in May 1954. The Continental's performance figures would have been considered excellent for an out-and-out sports car but for a full four/five seater saloon they were exceptional: a top speed of 120mph, 100mph achievable in third gear, 50mph reached in a little over 9 seconds and effortless cruising at the 'ton'.
Built for export only at first, the Continental was, once delivery charges and local taxes had been paid, almost certainly the most expensive car in the world as well as the fastest capable of carrying four adults and their luggage. 'The Bentley is a modern magic carpet which annihilates great distances and delivers the occupants well-nigh as fresh as when they started,' concluded Autocar.
The example offered here right-hand drive chassis number 'BC24A' - was ordered new by the Canadian baronet and businessman, Sir Duncan Orr-Lewis, who kept a villa in the South of France and had previously owned such cars as a rare 1938 Bugatti Type 57 Aravis from new. These Series-A cars are considered the most desirable because they exemplify the Continental concept in its purest, and lightest, form. In the case of 'BC24A', the designers' preoccupation with weight reduction can be seen in its rare lightweight rear bumper that is contoured to the body. Other lightweight features range from the seats to the sun visors, even the latter being described in the H J Mulliner build sheet as 'lightweight'. The Series-A Continentals were delivered with the 4.5-litre engine but when the 4.9-litre unit with its hardened valve seats became available in 1954, Bentley Motors offered it to owners of Series-A cars. The engines were exchanged, with 'BC24A' being the first to receive a new engine from factory stock. Bentley Motors stamped the original engine's number on the new one. The original engine of 'BC24A', in up-rated form, was installed in Briggs Cunningham's Bentley Continental ('BC4A'), which he retained for 34 years.
'BC24A' has the manual gearbox and right-hand gear lever; the latter considered to be far superior to both the steering column and central gear changes, which have the disadvantage of additional linkages resulting in less precise shifting. A published road test of the right-hand gear change on an R-Type Continental noted that the expression, 'like a hot knife through butter!' was especially apt. The Radiomobile radio, which is correct for this car, has been converted to solid state internals with FM and broadcast band. There is an undercarriage antenna, so the body's smooth lines are not compromised.
Sir Duncan Orr-Lewis ordered the Continental on 10th August 1952; the factory road test of the completed car took place on 11th March 1953 and it was flown to Paris two weeks later. The Continental was finished in black with dark green leather upholstery, while for high-speed driving on the Continent, Sir Duncan specified a speedometer in kilometres as well as miles and 'high frequency horns', which are still in place. 'Special steering' and 'armrests fitted to both doors' were among his other specifications.
It is a significant tribute to 'BC24A' that its next owner was Lord O'Neill of Shanes Castle in Northern Ireland, who acquired the car in 1957 when it became clear there would be no new lightweight Continental of the Series-A type on the 'S' chassis. Lord O'Neill owned one of the most distinguished car collections in Europe. Among the other cars he owned at that time were an SSK Mercedes, a pair of 8C Alfas, a 4½-Litre Bentley, a pair of Le Mans Lagondas, a low chassis Invicta and a Type 57S Bugatti. Among his newer cars were three Mercedes-Benz 300SLs. Of all his highly desirable cars, it was to 'BC24A' that Lord O'Neill assigned his cherished registration 'ON 2' (which reflected both his initials and his driving philosophy). In the registration book, when he transferred the plate to 'BC24A' he wrote: 'Fondly known as ON 2.' Contained within the history file is a letter to the present owner in which Lord O'Neill writes: 'I have been fortunate to own a great many cars over the years and certainly it is one which I regret parting with but, alas, if I had it now I doubt if I would use it very much. Having said that, I have often considered buying another one but as I approach the age of 73 I think it is unlikely to happen.'
In 1960, 'BC24A' passed to the third private owner, the distinguished British physician, Dr Patrick Kendall, in 1965. He was followed in 1970 by the fourth private owner, Sir Thomas Houstoun-Boswall, a London banker, whose attachment to the Bentley was so great that when he took up a position in New York in 1970, he brought the car with him. When he was unable to bring the car back to the United Kingdom, he reluctantly sold it. The Continental's last UK registration mark was 'KMA 6'.
The first American owner was Christopher Owen, an architect in New York and London, who purchased 'BC24A' directly from Sir Thomas Houstoun-Boswall. Mr Owen brought the car to his country home where he kept it with his large collection of Bugattis, retaining it for 23 years. Extensive work on the exterior and interior was undertaken during his stewardship, resulting in a concours award from the Rolls-Royce Owners' Club in 1976 (restoration invoices and concours certificate on file).
'BC24A' was acquired by the vendor's family in 1994 and two years later passed into his personal ownership, joining his collection of racing and touring Bugattis. (The fact that so many Bugatti aficionados have owned this Bentley Continental is not so surprising when one considers that both represent the ultimate in design and performance). Early in the present ownership, 'BC24A' underwent mechanical and cosmetic refurbishment costing $32,000, during which it was stripped to bare metal, and since the work's completion has been used sparingly. It recently benefited from fettling both inside and out at a cost of $19,576 by Sargent Metalworks in Vermont, the respected restorer of Bugatti cars (including a Pebble Beach winning Atlantic), invoices for all these works are on file. The original mileage is 81,570.
'BC24A' is sold with its original owner's manual; a photocopy of the old-style UK logbook; the original major tools; a rare Series-A Continental sales brochure; copies of the Workshop Manual and Maintenance Manual; House of Lords Motor Club badge (found in the boot) and a full set of the H J Mulliner and Bentley Motors build sheets and related documents. 'BC24A' is described as in generally excellent condition and represents a rare opportunity to acquire a fine example of the most famous post-war Bentley, possessing impeccable provenance.