1955 Bentley R-Type Continental Coupé by Franay
- The last R-Type Continental built
- Ex-Paris Salon l’Automobile 1955
- One of only 208 R-Type Continentals and just five Franay-bodied examples
- One-off coachwork; the last designed by Marius Franay
- Rare left-hand drive car and one of only nine with automatic gearbox
- Restored to original specification, shown at Villa d’Este in 2003
- The fastest production four-seater in the world
No post-World War II Bentley has acquired such cachet as the R-Type Continental. Two-door touring coupés intended for high-speed touring, most R-Type Continentals were bodied as fastback sports saloons by H.J. Mulliner. A few, however, were shipped abroad to be clothed by Continental coachbuilders, in this case the venerable French carrosserie Franay.
As early as 1950, Rolls-Royce management had recognised the desirability of a more sporting Bentley, more akin to the “silent sports car” Bentley of the 1930s. From this was born a prototype designated “Corniche II” by the design department but nicknamed “Olga” for its registration number: OLG490. Chief engineer Ivan Evernden was restricted in the basic chassis details, so in order to improve performance, he pursued reductions in weight and frontal area and looked to tall gearing and close gearbox ratios for high cruising speeds. Engine modifications were confined to carburetion and manifolding. The four-seat, two-door fastback body was drawn by Rolls-Royce stylist J.P. Blatchley and executed in aluminium by London coachbuilder H.J. Mulliner, long a Rolls-Royce clothier.
Mulliner’s careful craftsmanship shaved 225 kg (500 lbs) off the standard Bentley, and high-speed tests at Montlhéry in September 1951 yielded the desired 192 km/h (two miles per minute). It was, as its makers boasted, the fastest production four seater in the world.
The R-Type Continental, as it was christened, was produced from 1952 to 1955. There were five series of R-Type Continental, suffixed A through E. A larger, "Big Bore" 4.9-litre six-cylinder engine heralded the D series in May 1954, and a four-speed automatic gearbox became optional part way through the C series.
In all, 208 Bentley R-Type Continentals (including the works prototype "Olga") were built. Of these, 192 were bodied by H.J. Mulliner in a style nearly identical to the "Olga" prototype, six were bodied by Park Ward, three by Graber in Switzerland and a single example by Pinin Farina. Five, including the car offered here, were bodied in France by Franay.
Carrosserie Franay was established by Jean-Baptiste Franay at Levallois-Perret, a Paris suburb, in 1903. Franay’s son, Marius, joined the company after leaving school and took over management in 1922. By 1913 Franay’s work began to come into its own, reaching its zenith from 1927 to 1937, when it appeared most frequently on the chassis of Hispano-Suiza, Packard and Duesenberg. In the late 1930s, he began close ties with Delahaye and bodied a few Rolls-Royce and Bentley chassis as well.
After World War II, all European coachbuilders faced new challenges. The burgeoning use of unibody construction all but ruled out coachbuilding on inexpensive marques, and the French, in particular, had to contend with government policies that dealt luxury manufacturers severe handicaps. Franay was thus constrained to dwindling work, mainly for Delage and Delahaye, with the occasional commission from abroad. Post-war Franay-bodied cars are therefore extremely rare.
Of the five Bentley Continentals bodied by Franay, three were to the Mulliner fastback saloon pattern, with British panels accompanying the chassis on their journeys to France. One was a right-hand drive coupé of Franay’s own design. This particular car, BC.9.LE., was the last designed personally by Marius Franay, a one-off design with unique, two-door aluminium coupé coachwork with elegant tail fins. Just 43 Continentals had left-hand drive, and only nine of those featured the automatic gearbox, so this car was in select company.
BC.9.LE., the last Continental chassis to be completed, was ordered by a Monsieur Choumert of Paris and invoiced to Franco-Britannic Automobiles, Ltd., the French distributor, on 17th January, 1955. Built with left-hand drive and the enlarged 4.9-litre six-cylinder engine, it was shipped to France aboard S.S. Deal on 4th February, sailing from Folkestone to Boulogne. As supplied, it featured optional four-speed automatic gearbox, coil spring independent front suspension, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, four-wheel servo-assisted hydraulic drum brakes, a dashboard heater, flashing turn indicators, metric speedometer, Wilmot-Breedon Continental bumpers, French-type Marchal headlamps, fog-lamps, four high-frequency horns, reversing lamps and a flat petrol tank. A set of front floorboards, complete with nuts and bolts, was included with the chassis. A driver from Franco-Britannic Automobiles reportedly met the ship at Boulogne and drove the chassis, seated on a box, to Franay’s premises in Levallois-Perret.
Franay proceeded to construct the handsome aluminium fixed-head coupé body painted in silver grey. Trimmed in beige leather, the way it is presented today, and with Englebert wide whitewall tyres, it was equipped with lightweight seats supplied by H.J. Mulliner and weighed 1,762 kg (3,877 lbs) on completion. Franay delivered the completed car to M. Choumert on 28th May, 1955. The car graced the Franay display at the 1955 Paris Salon, held at the Grand Palais that October.
M. Choumert traded the car back to Franco-Britannic Automobiles in January 1960, and it was sold to another Frenchman, M. Labaden. In 1965, it was again sold through Franco-Britannic Automobiles to a M. Sarntier before being exported in January 1969 to the United States for new owner, Arthur Wagman, a Maryland attorney. Wagman kept the car for a very long time, up until 1990 in fact, at which point it was sold to B.D. Cooney, also in the USA. The present owner, a German collector, purchased it fully restored in June 1999.
Since that time, the car has participated in the 2003 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este before winning its class the following year at the fourth annual European Concours d’Elegance in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Finished entirely in black, the car exhibits a deep shine. The brightwork is tasteful and brief, a simple rocker panel moulding meeting a bright stone-guard on the rear wing. The other body highlights are provided by crease lines in the panels themselves, boldly contrasted by wide whitewall tyres. The interior is done in attractive beige leather with matching carpets. The dashboard and interior woodwork are polished to a high-gloss finish, and the engine compartment is clean and correctly detailed.
A unique and especially desirable R-Type Bentley Continental, this car comes with a documented history from Bentley Motors, its original handbook, a FIVA passport and a complete tool set. In addition, it still has the original French number plate assigned to its first owner. With the large 4.9-litre engine and optional automatic gearbox, it is ideally equipped for future concours events and certainly gran turismo motoring, for which it was intended.