1954 Bentley R-Type Continental

1954 Bentley R-Type Continental

We delve into the history of a very special R-Type Continental – and take it ‘home’ to the Birmingham-based works where it spent its early years as everyday transport. Words: Paul Guinness. Photography: Gerard Hughes.


P‑SERVING THE PAST

1954 BENTLEY R-TYPE CONTINENTAL

WORLD’S FASTEST FOURSEATER REVISITS ITS ORIGINAL HOME

The fascinating story of a very special Bentley and a nostalgic trip back to its original Birmingham-based roots


“The R-Type Continental was launched as a production model in June 1952 and wowed the world with its ability to make 80mph in second gear and 100mph in third”

Buying a classic that you haven’t even seen, let alone inspected at close quarters, is a potentially risky strategy. And when the car in question is a highly valuable Bentley R-Type Continental that’s situated 12,000 miles away in New Zealand, the risk is arguably even more acute. Nevertheless, when Gloucestershire-based Ian Owen decided to look for just such a vehicle to complement the S1 Continental he already owned, he wasn’t going to let something like geographical distance stand in his way.


P SERVING THE PAST 1954 BENTLEY R-TYPE CONTINENTAL

Ian has been the proud custodian of this fastback R-Type since 2010, when he took the plunge after several months of emailed discussion between him and its New Zealand owner, Jim Sawers. “It was the Bentley Continental specialist, Jeremy Padgett, who first introduced me to Jim,” explains Ian. “I was looking for a car that was original but could be improved and upgraded by Jeremy, and Jim’s example seemed ideal – even if its location wasn’t.”

“Leon Hudson’s use of his R-Type was extensive, with his love of European driving tours seeing him heading away for up to three months at a time”

The Bentley (chassis number BC61C) had been in New Zealand since the early 1960s, at which point it already had a six-figure mileage. The first owner, who took delivery of the brand new Continental in May 1954, was Leon Hudson, then managing director of J. Hudson & Co, the Birmingham-based family-owned firm with a history dating back to 1870 and best-known for launching the world-famous ACME whistle. This was the company that brought the humble whistle to Britain’s police and armed forces, as well as the world of sport.


1954 Bentley R-Type Continental

Indeed, the ACME and other whistles produced by J. Hudson have been exported globally for more than 150 years, their maker being the world’s leading manufacturer of high-quality whistles. These are the whistles that gave sterling service during both World Wars, and it’s an ACME whistle that was used at such historic sporting events as the 1966 World Cup. The fact that these very same whistles are still in production at the company’s historic factory in Birmingham is a testament to their quality and authenticity. And so for the photo shoot accompanying this feature, we couldn’t resist taking Leon Hudson’s old R-Type Continental back to its Birmingham roots, parking it outside the very same factory that it was driven to on those days when Leon was at work rather than touring Europe for pleasure. Today’s managing director of J. Hudson & Co, Simon Topman, was delighted to welcome us and the car to the company headquarters, and we’re extremely grateful for his hospitality and help with our research.

Leon Hudson’s use of his R-Type Continental was extensive, with his love of European driving tours seeing him heading away for up to three months at a time. He kept the car until 1961, when it was acquired by its second owner, John Melville-Smith. By the time John sold the Bentley just over two years later, it had 107,000 miles under its wheels – a sure sign that this was no pampered, little-used machine. It was a powerful car capable of high-speed, long-distance jaunts – and Leon Hudson certainly made the most of its talent, as you’ll read further on.


EXPORT PLANS

Late 1963 saw the Continental passing into the hands of Stanley Sedgwick, who dispatched it to Rolls-Royce’s Crewe headquarters for a pre-export overhaul. This included stripping the engine, reboring the cylinders, fitting new camshaft gears and bearings, changing the clutch and so on. The car had to be spot-on for its new life in New Zealand, where its third owner – Maxwell Stewart, who lived in Wellington – took delivery in June of the following year, keeping it for almost nine years in total.

A fourth owner was involved from 1973, but it was in October 1976 that Jim Sawers became part of the story, acquiring the Bentley when its mileage stood at 136,000. Remarkably, Jim went on to retain the Continental for almost 34 years, taking its mileage to 175,000 and ensuring the car was well-maintained throughout his ownership.

A complete gearbox overhaul was carried out in 1988 (at 150,000 miles). New kingpins, bearings, cups and seals were fitted in 1994, while two years later the brakes were rebuilt and the rear shock absorbers reconditioned. A top engine overhaul followed in 1997, with a new cylinder head fitted along with new valve springs and guides, plus reconditioned carburettors. Anything that needed doing to the Continental during Jim’s time with it simply got dealt with, and so when thoughts turned to finally parting company with the car in 2009, it was still in fine running order and featured remarkably original bodywork. By the time a deal was agreed with Ian Owen the following year, the Bentley’s new UK-based custodian was confident of what he was buying. All that remained was to arrange to pay for the car – and to have it shipped back to Britain.


CLOSE INSPECTION

Upon its arrival here, the Bentley was taken straight to Jeremy Padgett, where it was assessed and a major service carried out, as well as new tyres fitted. Jeremy reported that the car was indeed in fine fettle, with a specification that still tallied with its original build sheets. In fact, so well-preserved and unrestored was the Continental, plans to have it subtly upgraded by Jeremy were put on hold: “It just looked so original,” recalls Ian. “Obviously, it had had work carried out over the decades, but this was ongoing maintenance rather than actual restoration. My priority changed from then on – I wanted my ownership of the R-Type to be about preservation rather than renovation.”

One of Ian’s biggest challenges was getting the Bentley’s original British registration number – 6 BMC – reinstated, a tricky task considering it had last been used on the car in the early 1960s. Copious quantities of paperwork were supplied to DVLA to prove authenticity, together with photographs of the car from Leon Hudson’s initial ownership – clearly showing 6 BMC in use on the Bentley. Finally, DVLA agreed that the registration number could indeed be reissued.

Ian went on to drive the Continental and enjoy it on various lengthy trips, including the northern leg of the Britain by Bentley tour (organised by the Bentley Drivers Club) in 2012, plus long weekends away in France in the company of other marque enthusiasts. There were, however, certain areas of the R-Type that he felt could be improved, and so Ian entrusted it to Essex-based Pride & Joy Classic Cars, where Tim Milbank and his team took an in-depth look at it – and they continue to maintain the car to this day.

“The R-Type was mechanically fine,” explains Tim, “but it was suffering in other ways after spending so long in New Zealand. For example, the roads there are made of compressed stone, and the underside of the Bentley was covered in it. The chassis and inner wings were plastered in the stuff, and so we spent a long time working underneath the car to remove every trace of that debris. We cleaned between the chassis and the frame, painted the underside and gradually brought the car back to how it would originally have looked underneath.”

The front end, meanwhile, was suffering from major stone chips, again the result of the road surfaces of New Zealand. Pride & Joy tried localised remedial work but weren’t happy with the result, and in the end commissioned more extensive paintwork. It’s an exact match to the green that the car was resprayed in several decades ago – a different hue to the Pacific Green that it left H.J. Mulliner with, but one that’s pleasingly ‘period’ and suits the Bentley extremely well: “It’s part of the car’s history,” explains Tim, “and we wanted to maintain that.” The Bentley’s brightwork was also carefully re-chromed as part of Pride & Joy’s preservation of the car.

The interior needed some attention, although the original leather upholstery and trim was extremely well-preserved, with just the right degree of patina to add to the car’s authenticity. “The rear parcel shelf was sun-damaged and needed replacing,” recalls Tim Milbank, “which gave us an opportunity to fit a high-level rear brake light at the same time – something that I’d always recommend for safety reasons, although it’s easily removed if a future owner chooses to.” The non-original carpets were also replaced with a set custom-made to factory spec.

The biggest interior problem was the car’s woodwork, with sections of veneer having broken away in small pieces. Fortunately, Jim had retained all the loose sections in a tin, enabling Tim to entrust the woodwork to ex-Hythe Road craftsman, Joe Crabtree. “It was a real labour of love,” confirms Tim, “and Joe did a superb job of repairing the veneer and restoring the woodwork to how it would have looked when new.” Having seen the interior of the Continental for ourselves, we can confirm the sheer quality of the work; it looks like extremely well-preserved rather than extensively restored veneer, complementing just perfectly the all-original leather.


TWIN REUNION

Both Ian Owen – owner of the car for the last twelve years – and Pride & Joy’s Tim Milbank are sticklers for history, with their research into the Bentley’s past being as important to them as maintaining the car’s originality. And so Ian was delighted to hear that Tim was in touch with Midlands-based John Melville-Smith, the second owner of the car after Leon Hudson: “I’ll never forget the day that Tim and I took a trip in the Bentley to meet John,” recalls Ian with a smile. “We went to visit him and took him out for lunch. He was in his nineties by then. John’s face lit up when I offered him a drive in the car – and considering he hadn’t seen it since the early ’60s, he got straight behind the wheel and drove very well… and quickly!”

On that same day, Ian and Tim also took the R-Type to nearby Barry Price, formerly of A.B. Price Ltd – the Warwickshire-based Bentley dealership that supplied the car brand new to Leon Hudson. And indeed, it’s Leon’s original order for the car – and the specification he chose – that also sets this example apart from other Continentals. “Leon was very specific in his demands,” explains Ian. “Special features that he ordered – and which are now still in place – included a passenger seat two inches wider than standard, an armrest on the passenger door, a pocket in the driver’s side sun visor, a telescopic driving mirror, an altimeter, a fire extinguisher, a radio, Lucas foglamps and more.” Every Continental was, of course, a car built to order – but Leon’s personal demands made BC61C a truly bespoke example.

These days, Ian Owen continues to enjoy the R-Type as part of his personal classic collection, making the most of its effortless cruising ability at every opportunity: “The time will probably come when it gets moved on to its next custodian at some point,” he remarks, “but I’m pleased that in the meantime we’ve managed to preserve and improve the car for future generations. That’s what it’s all about, after all.”

THANK YOU

We are indebted to Tim Milbank of Pride & Joy Classic Cars (prideandjoyclassiccars.com) for his help in bringing together all elements of the photo shoot and his assistance with research. We’re also grateful to Simon Topman of J. Hudson & Co (acmewhistles. co.uk) for allowing us access to the historic home of the ACME whistle. Finally, thank you to Ian Owen for supplying his muchloved R-Type Continental for the feature.

“Remarkably, Jim Sawers went on to retain the Continental for almost 34 years, taking its mileage to 175,000”

The car still features its original engine, rebuilt at Crewe in the early ’60s


CONTINENTAL CREATION

The R-Type Continental fastback by H.J. Mulliner is one of the most exclusive Bentleys of the early post-war years. It might have been based around the regular R-Type’s chassis and running gear, but the Continental was in a different league to those ‘Standard Steel’ versions in terms of rarity, desirability, price and performance. The evolution from MkVI (the first post-war Bentley model) to R-Type marked little more than a facelift of the ‘Standard Steel’ model, the most notable feature being a usefully enlarged boot. Indeed, the front end was all but identical to the later MkVI. And of course, the R-Type was powered by the same alloy-headed straight-six found in the later MkVI (which meant 4566cc and 130bhp), an ‘F-head’ design that used overhead inlet valves but sidevalve exhausts. The Continental was first envisaged under the project name Corniche II in 1950, when chief project engineer Ivan Evernden investigated the possibility of creating a MkVI derivative with increased performance but without detracting from its legendary refinement. The company was no doubt stung into action following the reception of a small series of MkVI cars rebodied by Pininfarina at the request of the Parisian Bentley importer. Known as Cresta, they featured more flowing lines than the standard Bentley style, plus a lowered steering column and a higher final drive ratio that permitted more relaxed high-speed cruising on European routes.

Meanwhile, the coachbuilding firm of H.J. Mulliner, long famed for its Rolls-Royce and Bentley work, had developed a lightweight steel body construction technique. This used aluminium panels over a frame of Reynolds alloy tubes, with further weight saving achieved by using aluminium tubing for seat frames, bumpers and window frames. It was for this reason that construction of the prototype Bentley was entrusted to Mulliner rather than the in-house coachbuilding division, Park Ward. Using a quarter-scale model in a wind tunnel, the design was honed to produce an aerodynamically efficient shape presenting a smaller frontal area than the regular Bentley saloons, with the steeply raked front screen and fastback rear all contributing to its slipperiness. Marque historians suggest that the stylists wanted a streamlined front end but this would have been a step too far for conservative management. A compromise was reached, which saw the traditional Bentley grille retained but lowered by 1.5 inches and raked backwards noticeably. The brief for the car included a maximum weight of 34cwt (around 1700kg) and a top speed 20% better than that of the regular MkVI, which meant 120mph. Interestingly, although the requirement to keep the weight down obviously assisted the car’s acceleration, the overriding priority behind the brief was tyre choice. Back in the early 1950s, the only tyres capable of sustained speeds of 115mph were restricted to a weight limit of 435kg per corner. This wasn’t a problem for the lightweight Jaguar XK120, which was the only other production car to achieve this kind of speed, but it was a pressing issue for a big Bentley. The running gear was carried over from the MkVI but the Continental gained a high-efficiency exhaust system, good for an extra 25bhp.

The lowered steering column and raised final drive were copied from the Cresta cars and a prototype was built in 1951. Testing showed that the car topped out at 114mph with 500rpm still to go, the result being that the 2.79:1 final drive was lowered to 3.07:1, in which form the car was successfully tested to 120mph. It also reached 100mph in 36 seconds – a figure that seemed almost impossibly quick at the time. The R-Type Continental was launched as a production model in June 1952 and wowed the world with its ability to make 80mph in second gear and 100mph in third. It was also Britain’s most expensive production car, as well as the fastest four-seater available anywhere.


THE FIRST OWNER

The R-Type Continental featured here was purchased brand new by Leon Hudson, born to a wealthy family in 1906. We’re grateful to Simon Topman, owner and managing director of of J. Hudson & Co, manufacturer of the ACME whistle, for the following information: The Hudsons were fiercely proud Brummies. They believed in self-sufficiency, prudence, saving and self-betterment. They believed Birmingham offered them this and was something of a paradise where the God of Opportunity had his temple. They were positive people with a positive outlook. This was Leon’s inheritance; this culture was his upbringing and the paradigm for his own persona.

He was sent away to Wrekin College, an elite public school, where he boarded. He was the only generation of his family to have this kind of education and was imbued with a sense of superiority that his forebears never had. He, the third generation of his family to enjoy success, was taught to expect position and authority. He exuded confidence and, from his early twenties, he demonstrated a love of the high-life and an expectation that only the best was good enough for him.

Leon’s old-world manners were perfect. He was charming without the slightest effort or self-consciousness. He loved fast cars, fine wine and was well-informed on both. Nobody who met him disliked him, and most enjoyed his company hugely. He was humorous and a good raconteur. Add to that his good looks and, of course, the ladies liked him… and he liked them.

Despite growing up in manufacturing Birmingham and with a family whose hands-on business making whistles must have been a major part of his young life, he never had any desire to be an engineer. Such things bored him, as did the hurlyburly of business. These things he delegated to others whilst he planned his three-month-long holidays touring Europe. Switzerland, the Alps, Germany, France, the Low Countries and Spain were his home from home.

He loved his cruises to South Africa and trips on the famous Blue Train, but Europe – with its sophistication – was his true playground.

Every journey was intricately planned with ‘pit stops’ at the very best restaurants, such as Maxim’s in Paris – a great favourite – where he loved the exotic creations of Escoffier, the great chef of the day. And a week in Le Touquet, playground of the rich, was always on the agenda. Leon was so well-known there, he was always personally welcomed and had his own parking space at the casino. His Bentley was always mysteriously parked by the front door.

It was said that he once broke the bank; a bit of an exaggeration most probably, although on more than one occasion he did win inordinate amounts of money. How much he lost on other occasions is not known.

Although married for 56 years, Leon had no children of his own and was therefore the last Hudson of his family line.

“One of the biggest challenges was getting the Bentley’s original British registration number reinstated, having last been used on the car in the early 1960s”

BC61C was ordered with a passenger seat two inches wider than standard. The Bentley began its career with the MD of the ACME whistle manufacturer.

The original leather and sympathetically restored veneer trim complement each other perfectly.

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