Driving a Bentley Continental on the busy streets of New York City

Photography by Bill Wolf

VINTAGE RACING: Lime Rock Park. Early morning. The mists are dissolving through the surrounding greenery. As you wander the paddock, your nose finds pleasure in the air perfumed with high-octane racing fuel and Castrol R. Your ears delight in the rumble of old internal-combustion engines: Jaguars, Lagondas, Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, Bentleys and more. Soon, the players will be going cheek to jowl cutting through Big Bend, the Paul Newman Straight, the Downhill, risking primal sheet metal, exhibiting their élan, attentiveness, courage and skill. 

NEW YORK CITY: Can we make the case that driving a 1960 Bentley Continental through the grid of Manhattan demands the same risk, the same skill and courage as Lime Rock? Consider the coin-size side mirrors, the rearview smaller than a postcard, and the large, thin steering wheel that takes some getting used to. Consider negotiating taxis, buses, bicycles, king-size SUVs, stretch limousines, fire trucks, pedicabs, bevies of Ubers, and flocks of Hondas and Kias. 

How about the jaywalkers and the tourists who pay closer attention to their cell phones than to red lights and traffic? Also, think about all the possible dangers that could befall an aluminum coach-built body underpinned with a light metal frame. 

On a spring Saturday, my friend Chuck Dooner decided to do some sightseeing. Chuck drove the Bentley; I rode shotgun. 

We left New Jersey, passed under the Hudson River, exited the Lincoln Tunnel and eventually were seen motoring under the elevated tracks above 136th Street–where, incidentally, part of a Spider-Man movie was filmed. We passed Tom’s Restaurant, where Seinfeld and his pals often hung out. 

There were stops for photo ops along the way. We visited Madison Square Garden, the Guggenheim, the Met, Lincoln Center and Central Park. Most of the New York throng ignored the Donegal Green Bentley as Chuck navigated the city, but we did get our decent share of smiles and thumbs raised in appreciation. It was a memorable automotive afternoon. 

The weather held until later in the day, when the overcast sky gave us a light rain. This underlined the fact that this car is not coddled. This Bentley S2 Continental is not a prima donna. It’s just a car to be driven anywhere, anytime.

Cricklewood Bentleys, the cars made under W. O. Bentley’s purview, were manufactured from 1919 to 1930. Rolls-Royce Ltd. acquired the Bentley name in 1931–underhandedly, some say. 

The first Bentley made by Rolls-Royce, in Derby, dug deep into the Rolls-Royce parts bin. The 3½ Litre was introduced in 1933. This model and all other Rolls-Royce Bentleys from 1933 to 1941 were dubbed “the silent sports car.” Classic Bentley Continentals first appeared in 1952 with a chassis made at Rolls-Royce, Ltd., Crewe, England, alongside the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith and other models. 

Ten Continentals were made on a modified Mark VI Bentley chassis. These were followed by the use of the modified R-Type chassis and, later, as sisters of the Rolls-Royce Silver Clouds, the modified S, S2 and S3 chassis. 

Horsepower was raised, the final drive ratio was changed, the steering column was raked, and the height of the distinguished Bentley grille was reduced. Tachometers, called rev counters back home, were standard. 

Starting with the S2 series, a 6230cc V8 engine was installed with two SU carburetors. The F-head engine was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. 

Big wheel, big juxtaposition. The Bentley saw many of New York’s sights, from the El above 136th Street to the Met on 5th.

When first introduced, the R-Type Continentals, with the H.J. Mulliner lightweight, fastback coachwork as seen on this one, were the fastest of all production cars. By the time of the S series cars, this was no longer the case–but they were fast enough. 

The Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, the Bentley S series and the Bentley Continentals, along with the relative handful of huge Phantom V and VI limousines, were the last of the Crewe-built cars with the body erected on a rigid frame. When the next model series, which included the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and the Bentley T, was introduced in 1966, these cars used monocoque construction. 

At this point, the company lacked any model equivalent to the classic Continentals, although the Continental name was used briefly on the Bentley-badged and-grilled Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible. It wasn’t until the 1980s and into the 1990s that the Bentley’s sporting heritage was revived, starting with the turbocharged Mulsanne that arrived in 1982. The Bentley TurboR followed and, in the early 21st century, the Continental label was resurrected on the Bentley Continental R. The sporting aspect was strong with the R, what with its muscular 385 horsepower and 450lb.-ft. of torque. 

In 1998 Bentley was sold to Volkswagen. The first non-Rolls-Royce Bentley made by the new company, the Continental GT, kept the model name alive. It’s still in use today. 

Unraveling any motorcar model history always becomes complicated, and dealing with the history of anything Rolls-Royce and Bentley undeniably adds an indelible cachet and importance to the project.

Lucky enough to own a vintage sports car or a touring saloon? If so, as the experts and enthusiasts advise, don’t be shy about driving it regularly. Don’t be hesitant to drive it through heavy traffic. Chuck Dooner had the grit to take a blue-chip Bentley through New York City on an overcast Saturday afternoon. Why not follow his example, forego the risks, and plan an automotive adventure of your own? 

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