1954 Bentley R-Type Continental 'Fastback' Sports Saloon
Coachwork by Franay
Chassis no. BC51LC
Engine no. BCC50
Chassis no. BC51LC
Engine no. BCC50
4,887cc SOHC Inline Six-Cylinder Engine
2 SU Carburetors
4-Speed Manual Transmission with Center Change
Front Independent Wishbone Suspension - Live Rear Axle
4-Wheel Servo-Assisted Hydraulic Drum Brakes
*One of only five Continentals bodied by Franay, two of which were fastbacks, only one of which was left-hand drive
*One of 208 Continentals built, only 43 of which were left-hand drive
*Factory center gear shift
*Excellent, known ownership history
*$85,000 in receipts for recent, complete mechanical overhaul
The R-Type Continental
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 R-Type and its Rolls-Royce sister car, the 'E' Series Silver Dawn, were notable as the first Rolls-Royce products available with automatic transmission. The company opted for General Motors' Hydra-Matic, a state-of-the-art four-speed unit permitting manual selection. The standard R-Type was a lively performer, achieving 106mph in silence and reaching 50mph from standstill in 10 seconds despite a curb weight approaching two tons.
The Continental raised this already superlative combination of high performance and exceptional refinement to hitherto unattained levels. 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. 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, wind tunnel-developed fastback of H.J. Mulliner.
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 The Autocar.
The Motorcar Offered
During the Continental's 1953-1955 production run, only 208 motorcars were produced, of which 193 were fastbacks. The vast majority was ordered by enthusiasts in the Home Countries, and as such only 43 exited the factory with left-hand drive. With the newly available Hydra-Matic automatic transmission available, fewer still were ordered with a manual transmission. This example has the most desirable and least commonly seen specification of original left-hand drive with a manual center gear changeand a bit more to boot.
Bentley worked closely with a number of coachbuilders, but the one most commonly associated with the Continental, the one that bodied the vast majority of the production from Crewe, was H.J. Mulliner. Their superb construction and elegant design was appreciated by English customers and, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Rolls-Royce, their bodies were essentially 'factory'. But as with any coachbuilt car, other options were available and R-Type Continentals emerged with bodies from the likes of Park Ward and Franay.
Carrosserie Franay was one of the grand Parisian coachbuilders. Formed in 1903 by Jean-Baptiste Franay following his departure from the employ of Henry Binder, the company would go on to put sleek, provocative, and elegant bodies on cars from Delahaye, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce, and Bentley for clients who included the kings of Morocco, Romania, Egypt and Sweden as well as Edward VIII of England and France's Charles de Gaulle.
Following WWII, Franay managed to continue finding commissions despite the shift in market trends toward factory bodies. For the Bentley R-Type Continental, Franay would produce only five bodiesincluding the sheet metal for the last Continental built (BC9LE). Of those five cars, only two were fastbacksone was right-hand drive (BC20D) and the other is this carBC51LCthe only left-hand drive Franay bodied R-Type Continental fastback ever produced.
According to factory records, BC51LC was ordered by Franco Britannic Autos, Ltd. for Messrs. Vandendriessche & Fils, 170 rue de Guise, St. Quentin (Aisne) France. It was not uncommon for individuals to purchase their motorcars through their company names and this case was no different with the original owner being Mr. Edouard Vandendriessche. The managing director of his family's thriving textile company, Edouard had taken control of the family business following his brother Robert Georges' move to South America around the death of their father, Gustav, in 1946.
Post-WWII business had clearly picked up by the time Mr. Vandendriessche placed the order for his Bentley. Ordered as a '(chassis-only) Continental Sports Saloon', the coachbuilder on record was of course indicated as Franay. The chassis was completed on December 16th, 1953, sent to the shippers on the 18th, and departed for France aboard the S.S. Deal on the 21st. The completed car was delivered about five months later on May 20th, 1954. Among the special features indicated on the factory sheets were a central gear change and a radio.
One can only imagine Mr. Vandendriessche's joy upon receipt of his new car. The gorgeously clothed fastback bore striking resemblance to the fastbacks' of H.J. Mulliner but was distinguished by a raised bodyline along the bottom edge of the car and a powerful front fenderline that faded into the bodywork along the sides of the doors. Remaining in France with its first owner for nearly 21 years, BC51LC was acquired by it second owner on record, D.J. Smith, in January 1965. A pioneering West Coast collector, Mr. Smith brought the car to the United States and kept it for the next dozen years. In July 1977, the fastback entered the collection of respected Rolls-Royce and Bentley collector and professional golfer Gene Littler, also of California.
BC51LC would remain on the West Coast through the better part of the 1980s, changing hands in 1983 to Barry Cooney of Oregon and again in 1984 to Norman Herstein of Washington. In 1989, the car briefly entered the collection of John Cory of New Jersey, a well-regarded post-WWII Rolls-Royce and Bentley enthusiast, before moving on to the garage of Chicagoland collector Bill Jacobs, Jr. Following Mr. Jacobs's ownership, BC51LC came into the possession of Rolls and Bentley marque specialists Vantage Motor Works in Miami, Florida where it received extensive service and restoration work. From Vantage the car crossed the country to join the Blackhawk Collection in California. The current owner acquired the car in 2010.
Since acquisition, some $85,000 has been spent on a complete and thorough mechanical restoration by Vantage Motor Works. Work included rebuilding the engine, transmission, and clutch as well as detailing the engine bay and chassis. Nicely finished inside and out, the Bentley was shown at the prestigious 2012 Amelia Island Concours.
On a recent drive, the elegant Bentley started effortlessly in the cold and shifted smoothly through the gears. Along a twisting mountain road it provided a delightful ride as it powered up the incline. Coddled in the Connolly leather trimmed cabin surrounded by magnificently finished French burl walnut trim, comfort and luxury are a given. Currently fitted with a larger cylinder head for a late S1 and a dual 2" SU carburetor setup for added reliability and power, it is accompanied by its original equipment.
Replete with its books, jack, tools, exceptionally rare Continental Overseas Touring Spares Kit, and recent service records, it would be a welcome entrant to any number of highly sought after eventsincluding the California Mille, Colorado Grand, and Copperstate 1000. It is an especially rare example of an already uncommon vehicle with all the best bitsleft-hand drive, center gear shift, unique French coachwork, and known history. The opportunity to acquire a vehicle of this stature is a rare treat, one not to be missed.