Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis weren’t the only British heavyweights punching their way through the 1980s and 1990s, backed by the adoration of the nation.
From the Rolls-Royce Bentley factory in Crewe another fighter was making its name worldwide: the Bentley Turbo R.
A development of the Mulsanne Turbo, the Turbo R was launched in 1985 and dragged the old-world company’s Gentleman’s Club image into the new age, giving Bentley’s bruiser extra poise and performance. The boosted Mulsanne had arrived three years earlier with some 50 per cent more power than the naturally-aspirated model, but precious little was done to the chassis. Poor body control meant exploiting that extra oomph brought little joy and Bentley sold just 498 Mulsanne Turbos.
By contrast the Turbo R was a massive success, with more than 7,000 examples produced over the following dozen years, making it the biggest-seller of Bentley’s pre-VW ownership era.
The “R” stood for Roadholding and engineering director Mike Dunn made massive changes to the suspension, upping roll stiffness by 50 per cent, and fitting wider alloy wheels to transform the Mulsanne’s rather wallowy handling without compromising its sumptuous ride.
The venerable 6.75-litre V8 produced an estimated 300bhp, driving through a three-speed automatic transmission. (It would go on gain a four-speed gearbox, again sourced from GM, and that power output would grow, to more than 400bhp by the end of its life.) There was even a Sport button on the centre console, and a press of the accelerator deep into the Wilton carpet would send the Turbo R to 62mph in just seven seconds. For context that was faster than the Ferrari Mondial, yet more comfortable than the lounge at the Savoy.
If we’re persevering with the British boxing analogies, it’s probably more apt to compare the Turbo R to Chris Eubank. Dressed by the finest tailors, marvellously eccentric, spouting poetry – and then walloping the opposition.
After the Turbo R bested the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar Sovereign and Lexus LS400, CAR magazine declared: “Driving the Turbo R is such a special experience. The Bentley is in a different world. A world of unmatched cabin comfort, beautiful craftsmanship, superb quality materials. There is nothing else in the world like a Turbo R.”
My first experience behind the wheel of a Turbo R was three decades ago on a Rolls-Royce chauffeuring course, and it was indeed special. During the week-long training I was taught how to whisk passengers along A and B-roads without disturbing their drinks, how to apply the correct amount of force to close the doors without slamming them, and always to walk around the rear of the car so as not to be seen. Oh, and I also got to throw two tonnes of British beef around a skid pan. On over-inflated bald tyres I remember being the only trainee to drift the complete circuit, before being advised that the objective was to minimise, not maximise the slide.
More recently I had a go in an immaculate Brooklands Green over tan Turbo R from the Bentley Heritage Collection and, if anything, the experience is even more wonderful than I remembered.
In its day the Turbo R seemed imposingly large, but now far less so. It’s long – 5.26 metres – but no wider than an average modern SUV, and with thin pillars and plentiful glass the all-round visibility is better than any camera-equipped current car. You sit high up in soft Connolly leather armchairs in an acre of walnut, embellished with brightly polished chrome. The wool carpets are so deep and rich it feels like one should wear slippers (monogrammed, naturally) rather than outdoor brogues. The large, delightfully thin steering wheel is quite low, exaggerating the feeling of being command of grand vessel, not simply a saloon car.
To select drive, you depress the button on the end of right column stalk and slip it down a notch. Apply the throttle and there’s a mild woofle from the engine bay followed by a great surge of forward momentum. This really is effortless performance, and it seems to be on call no matter the gear or speed.
On the road the steering is finger-light but still precise enough to position the car accurately. Using the Flying B as a kind of gunsight at the end of the great expanse of bonnet really helps, too. All the while the suspension simply soaks up everything the road happens to throw at you. Potholes, speed humps, you’ll barely notice them.
You rarely feel the two-and-a-half ton mass of the Turbo R, either. Even under heavy braking with the seriously-servoed brakes there’s not as much dive as you’d expect, while that roll-stiffness fettling means it maintains cornering composure. Of course it’s no sports car, but it is remarkable just how briskly this Bentley can cover the ground.
Also remarkable is the value that a Turbo R offers today. Bentley’s own pristine example was, at £40,000, very much at the top end, with the Hagerty Price Guide suggesting that even #1 Concours condition cars can be found for a little over half that. If you’re brave then you can buy a Turbo R for less than £10,000, but if it hasn’t always been looked after then you could be in for crippling financial pain.
Former owner Warren Christie told Hagerty: “I’d always said that the Turbo R was a keeper, but the running costs just started to get silly. There was a Forth Bridge aspect starting to come through where I’d owned it long enough to have done quite a lot of things twice.”
Adrian Wort of specialists Prestige Services in Leeds advised Autocar readers: “I’ve worked on lots of Turbo Rs over the years. Like all prestige cars, they need to be serviced regularly by people who know what they’re doing and what to look for. Preventative maintenance is key to controlling running costs. Never buy one with anything less than full specialist or main dealer history. I’d avoid the early and troublesome carburettor engine.”
Buy wisely, and a Bentley Turbo R could well be a knockout.
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