1955 R Type Continental by Franay Chassis BC21D

R-R made 208 R Type Continentals and most were Mulliner Fastbacks. Towards the end of production five chassis were released to Franay who produced three identical and two different cars. This is one of the different ones.

The racing successes of ER Hall in an unofficially backed Derby Bentley, the Embiricos Bentley and the Corniche models are clear evidence of R-R’s commitment, at the time, to a sporting image for Bentley. After the war this continued, the MKVI was still sold as “The silent Sports Car” and owners such as Wolf Barnato, his daughter and Raymond Mays reinforced that image. Also MKVI chassis had been sent to Facel Metallon in France and Pinanfarina in Italy and they produced some very distinctive and sporting looking cars. It was these designs with lowered or removed radiator shells that influenced the Fastback Mulliner, although one cannot help wondering if the vaguely similar Cadillac of the Forties was not also a factor. R-R were great admirers of the US manufacturer and they undoubtedly influenced the design of the post ’55 cars, for by then it was clear where the largest market was.

The Continental chassis is remarkably similar to the standard steel cars and most of the extra performance is obtained by reduced weight, reduced drag and slightly reduced frontal area. The shock absorbers were also re-valved and the spring rates were changed to give a surprisingly compliant ride for a car that was at least the equal of the finest grand tourers of the era.

The engine had a better cylinder head and slightly higher compression ratio; the exhaust system was a straight through, two chamber (one about twice the volume of the other) with a larger diameter downpipe than the MKVI but the same size tail pipe. It is reputed to have given up to 29 BHP more the standard MKVI/Silver Wraith system. They are very quiet but distinctive sounding and one cannot help wondering why R-R were so wasteful of power with the standard models. Power loss through restrictive silencing means hotter engines, more fuel used as well as less acceleration and hill climbing ability. I’ve fitted a version of the Continental system to my 4.25L MKVI and it is a big improvement.

The close ratio gearbox was similar to Clubman’s Racing motorcycles of the time and helps to explain why, although the cars are so fast when you drive them, the 0-60 time seems slow. First gives about 30mph, second 80, third 100 and top around 120 at peak revs. The idea is to maintain maximum possible speed and maximum car control on roads that comprise a mixture of slow and fast bends, lots of bumps and some straights. Off the mark acceleration is less important than maintaining high average speed. Think: no freeways but fast empty roads through beautiful countryside, eventually arriving at Biarritz or the Mediterranean coast, relaxed and refreshed after a truly invigorating drive in one of the greatest cars of all time.

Most British cars of the era ran with comparatively low final drive ratios, so that changing gear was rarely necessary. Fine in the UK with no motorways, endless narrow twisty roads and quite a few steep hills, but not good for the engine if you need high speed cruising on fast straight, empty roads. Standard MKVIs had a 3.7 to 1 axle and Continentals 3 to 1 so they can cruise effortlessly at 100 mph.

The first 27 cars had MKVI chassis and this is why I make the comparison. However, once the R Type appeared its was used and these are recognisable by the absence of the mixture control on the steering column. The choke was automatic. Also the early models were sold with 4.5 Litre engines although most were later bored to 4.9L when they were reconditioned. Presumably so that full-length liners could be fitted without R Type and MKVI owners demanding them too!

This Franay was delivered as a manual with a 4.9L engine and it is clear that they were anxious to avoid putting on weight as had happened with the standard cars. The seats are extremely light but supportive and the trim elegant and of the highest quality but basic. The car is also 16” shorter than the Mulliner and lighter. Tom Solley (US Citizen living in Switzerland), the present owner has weighed it and John Hodson (www.alpineagle.co.uk) who followed Tom back from Switzerland in it, cruising in the region of 95-100mph, tells me that it pulls noticeably better than the standard car above 80mph!

This Franay was found by Roy Partridge (of Alpine Eagle) in a terrible state, it had a broken windscreen, the doors were hanging off, the gearbox was completely worn out and previous history very sketchy. Roy pays tribute to Tom for taking such a brave decision in having it completely rebuilt, although I understand that as soon as it was finished, it was clear that it was going to sell for more than the cost. It is after all, an extremely important car in almost perfect condition.

I was lucky enough to drive and ride in it in and I have to say it was a breathtaking experience. It is worth remembering that Autocar described the Mulliner Fastback as a “motoring first”, it was the most expensive and fastest four-seater ever built and that the Franay is the only one and cost even more!

Alpine Eagle are based in Clanfield not far from Oxford, the roads (other than main ones) are quiet and open, the villages beautiful, Kelmscot Manor was where William Morris lived and Gertrude Jekyl designed the garden and Kate Moss is in the picturesque village of Little Faringdon so all tastes are catered for! It is not quite France but it is stunning and it does give you an idea of just how special these cars are. Suspension is firmer than the Clouds and their Continental derivatives; there is less roll and grip is much better. The car has been fitted with Pirelli Cinturatos and they suit it well, it runs straight, steers precisely and bump steer is almost non-existent. Most impressive of all is the tremendous reserve of power, it’s completely linear and progressive; you touch the accelerator and before you know it, you are well over the legal limit in a country that is paranoid about speeders!

Seats are superb, visibility excellent and discretely fitted air conditioning, quite an advantage in a very hot British summer. All in all, it is hard to imagine you are in car built fifty years ago until you get out and admire it. It is extraordinarily elegant with hints of the Gull Wing Mercedes and the Mulliner Continental but still with a delicacy that can only be French. I and a small group of Register members have just spent a week in France with one Fastback, 2 Dawns, 3 MKVIs and an R Type and everywhere we went, we were clapped and cheered and we even appeared in to two newspapers. It was quite extraordinary and very heart-warming to bring such obvious pleasure to people. I cannot begin to imagine how they would respond to a Bentley built by one of their country’s finest coachbuilders but I am sure they would be even more dramatic!

Sadly, after ten years and 15, 000 miles since the rebuild, Tom has decided to sell the Franay, it is last of his collection and his favourite, so if you are interested then please email me and I will put you in touch with the vendor.

Recommended reading: The dedicated website and the Rolls-Royce Heritage trust publication by Ken Lea entitled “Rolls-Royce- The first cars from Crewe”

Ashley James - 22nd june 2005