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A Drive to Be Savored...




Allen Polk Hemphill



This is an article about a motor car. Not just any motorcar, but the finest motorcar in the world, bar none, however you measure automobiles. It is about more, but the Genesis of the article is a Bentley Continental Series.

I have been an unabashed Anglophile for most of my life, driven by my love of their sense of honor but displayed in my love of their automobiles. I think it was the stories of the RAF dogged defense of the Isles during World War II, with a pinch of the British attitude of "Press on, Regardless" and the great poetry that surrounds their sense of honor: "…into the mouth of Hell, rode the six hundred"(Tennyson), and "…but it’s thin red line of ‘eroes, when the drums begin to roll. (Kippling)." The Brits are a stand up bunch who fight gallantly. I still think Lady Margaret Thatcher should be President of the United States.

The joke used to be that if two Brits met at a street corner, they would go to one of their homes and build a car. That love of cars is more than a cultural bent, it is a genetic proclivity. In the early part of this century, there were more than 350 automobile builders in the United States, but while we combined into the Big Three, the British retained the love of the specialty car builder. The Germans, like Americans, combined their car building into factories, and the Italians built a small number of very fast cars in small factories but only for the privileged few. The French, of course, took no discernable track and built very bad motorcars, much like everything else they do. (O.K. – Bugatti, but have you ever considered purchasing a Peugeot, Renault or Citroen?)

The British built many very fast motorcars that anyone could afford, and then they built a few motorcars that only Royalty could afford, like Rolls and Daimler. I have driven, and raced many British motorcars: Lotus, Morgan, Aston-Martin, Triumph, Jensen, Jaguar, MG, Austin-Healey. One had only three wheels, and another had a wooden chassis. One had a body that I swear was made of Aluminum Reynolds Wrap (D-Type Jaguar) because the racing game could be described as "Simplicate, then add lightness."

But the name Rolls-Royce has always stood in the mind of automobile buffs everywhere as the epitome of the automobile, and cost be damned. For those who know and love cars, the Bentley was even more rare because it was built by Rolls in the Rolls factory with a different hood so that it did not appear so ostentatious – but car lovers knew it was an understated Rolls.

Now mind you, Rolls cut their teeth on automobile racing after they absorbed the faster, independent company called Bentley, and were a racing car to be reckoned with for decades. Then Rolls took the luxury route and there they excelled. But in 1986, Rolls decided that their reputation for stodgy could use some burnishing, and they began building the Bentley Turbo R Series. They built only a handful a year, and rather than "Simplicate, and add lightness" they did their usual luxury excess and added horsepower. Gobs of horsepower, and huge brakes, and a stiff suspension.

I had the opportunity to drive a 1996 Bentley – a Bentley Continental R. We are talking nearly 400 horsepower in a greater than three ton automobile with all the luxury of Buckingham Palace, and a cost of about $335,000. The Bentley Continental R I drove, according to an Internet search, has 550 ft. lbs of torque. Only the Bentley Continental T passenger motor car has ever produced more torque – 650 ft. lbs. of torque.

I don’t know what the official performance statistics are, Rolls doesn’t publish that. but BMW does for the slightly tweaked "T" model, so the rated braking time from 100 MPH to zero MPH is 4.96 seconds! Now that is stopping with a vengeance. 0-60 is 5.7 seconds and I understand that the 0-100-0 time might be about 19 seconds! The R model is slightly slower but only enough to be measured by stopwatches, not by the driver.

This is not the neck-snapping power of the Ferrari Mexico Coupe I once drove, with its attendant ear-splitting noise. It is not the terrifying, face distorting acceleration of the Mickey Thomson Pontiac Special I almost put into the guard rails in turn six of Riverside International Rraceway because the damn thing couldn’t stop. This is a heavy and constant push in the back of a lightly loaded C-130 as it does a Short Take-off from a field being occupied by angry people with shoulder-fired weapons.

The top speed of the "T" beast is listed at 170 MPH, so the "R" model I was privileged to drive is a few MPH slower – but that is academic. In acceleration it goes to triple digits with no torque steer and willingness that shows it is not straining, and it comes off the speed with neither grab or fade. It is a very poised beast, tractable in traffic but unapologetic in a stop-light grand prix. Just imagine the look on the face of a Mustang or Z-28 owner as three tons of metal, costing a third of a million dollars, pulls smoothly and silently away!

This is the ultimate "Q-Ship". Q-Ship is a term of art among performance automobile enthusiasts. It denotes a automobile whose performance far exceeds the performance you would expect from its design. Think of it as polar opposite to a Nissan Sentra with a ground effects wing. The term Q-Ship comes from (appropriately enough) the British answer to U-Boats in World War II, which would surface and sink unarmed British merchant ships with deck guns, rather than use valuable torpedoes which needed to be hoarded for activities against naval ships. The British promptly designed a class of merchant ships called Q-Ships, with hidden guns. The surfaced U-Boat was no match for the Q-Ship. Subsequently, performance automobiles that do not look like performance automobiles are called Q-Ships. Some of us prefer Q-Ships.

Jean was accustomed to holding on in my racing youth. On our honeymoon 43 years ago we went from the city limits of Houston to San Antonio at an average of more than 100MPH, and she doesn’t want to talk about what Route 1 near Carmel looks like in the rain through the windscreen of a Jaguar XK140 Drophead Coupe. I have mellowed. In the Bentley Continental R she said "we were passing 90 MPH before I could even look for a handhold". Her only comment on the way to triple digits was, "Oh!"

I was not intending to drive the Bentley so fast. It seemed like I was defiling such great machinery by flogging it, but the motor car was designed just for this – although it should be driven on the Autobahn where it the S600 Mercedes would not be a challenge for it in the fast lane. I have ridden in a performance tuned 6.9 liter "Der Grosser Mercedes" but never before have I experienced such a combination of performance and luxury.

Ahhhhh! That was a drive to be savored, and I want to thank the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, for his kindness. He could tell by the look on my face that I was appreciative. Few people have such an opportunity, and I am blessed. It is not an experience to be forgotten.


Send mail to allen@allenhemphill.com or dolphinrealty@earthlink.net with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Allen Hemphill
Last modified: August 13, 2012