Bentley Turbo R

There was a time when turbo-something was about as cool as you could get. I had all sorts of plastic toys in my childhood arsenal that offered mega-this and ultra-that, but you could guarantee that anything with turbo slapped on the front was the supreme leader. These days, its presence on the packaging of razor blades and skin creams somewhat cheapens the effect, but back in the Eighties the only way to make something unsurpassable was to turbo it.

But what to do if you're already the maker of the most impeccable, sublime and ultimate machinery out there? Surely you can't just put a garish sticker on the back declaring it to be "turbo" and hope that an Arab will spend 20% more on it, just because he wants to be the coolest sheikh in the Sinai peninsula? Surely?

That was the dilemma facing the men down in Crewe, at Rolls-Royce headquarters, in the late Seventies. Being primarily an aeroplane manufacturer, the company had gone bankrupt and been nationalised in 1971. Desperate to redeem some sense of profitability, the automotive part was spun off as an independent company called Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd, and dragging Bentley with it, soldiered on in dire need of a new model to resuscitate its fortunes.

In 1980 that model came, in the form of the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. An entirely new car, it was rolled out as the ultimate luxury saloon, and fully lived up to the Rolls-Royce reputation. Yet the question of Bentley remained. For decades the marque had existed as the cheap version of whatever Rolls-Royce was making at the time, but the new owners of the firm, Vickers, rolled their sleeves back to their burly forearms and muscled in. No longer was Bentley going to live in the shadow of the Spirit of Ecstasy; it would bulldoze its own path through the luxury car market and make its own statement.

In that manner, the Bentley Mulsanne was released. Each frame lovingly worked from steel by hand, the Silver Spirit clone would share the same 6.75 litre engine as its sibling and its predecessors, with the only appreciable difference being that it wouldn't carry the Parthenon on its nose. Rolls purists may argue at this point that without the famous radiator grille, the car is nothing, but for Bentley it meant everything; most importantly the opportunity to cut loose the ropes that bound it to its bigger sister.

The Mulsanne moniker comes from one of the most famous straights of the Le Mans track, and under that name Bentley set its sights purely on performance, in the manner its founders conceived fifty years previously. With that in mind, the engineers analysed the carburetted engine and weighed up their options. The solution was simple, and it was snail-shaped.

An engine breathes. When you press the happy-pedal, you're not really doing anything with the fuel; you're controlling a little flap that regulates how much air the engine is allowed to suck in to make its explosions happen. In simple old engines, that draft would also suck fuel out of the carburettor, in much the same way as blowing across a beer bottle makes a noise. The more air, the more fuel, and the more noise you get from the engine. That means more power.

But there's a theoretical limit to the amount of air an engine can suck in all by itself, so anything you can do to push more air in will ultimately improve the performance. You could go for a supercharger, an electrical motor driving a fan, like the Lancia Volumex engines, or you can use a turbo charger. Turbos are a pair of fans; one in the exhaust, pushed along by the gases leaving the engine, which in turn drives another fan pushing more air in the other side. More air pushed in makes more gas come out of the exhaust, which makes the fans turn faster, which pushes more air in until you reach epic levels of power, and all of it at no extra cost to engine efficiency.

Or at least that's the theory. The downside is the octopus tentacles of pipework needed to make the whole thing work, and a little thing called turbo lag; the time between pressing the accelerator and the turbo having any effect. Aside from that, a turbo is a cheap way to get superior performance from an engine, as long as the engine is strong enough to cope with it.

The 6.75-litre V8 was more than capable, and in 1982 Bentley fitted its first turbocharger to the Mulsanne, christening the car the Mulsanne Turbo and in that way allowing it to carve out a fearsome new direction for the company. While Rolls-Royce modestly understated the power output of their cars, declaring them to be simply "adequate", the Bentley versions proved downright brutal in their power delivery, forcing up to 50% more out of the engine than Rolls' engineers had done.

This may seem like advertising hogwash, "new TURBO, with 50% more!", but Bentley were so confident that they modified the car extensively to make the Turbo its own model, and in that way 1985 saw the launch of the Bentley Turbo R, a 5000lb monster with 300hp to thunder it along, making the Rolls' 200hp pale in comparison.

If a Rolls-Royce is somewhat akin to driving a palace, the Bentley Turbo R is a fortress, fully armed and ready to fight. That's not to say it's not refined; tapestries and marble statues are guaranteed, and the Bentley is capable of the luxury you would expect from a hand-made saloon, especially one costing more than its Rolls rival. But plant your foot and this monstrous beast transforms into attack mode, squatting down on its stiff suspension and developing a throaty roar that belies its exquisite, classical exterior. Always ready to make a dig at the opposition, Bentley claimed they would need an extra 35hp if they wanted to achieve this performance with the Rolls grille on the front, since the chrome portico caused so many problems with the aerodynamics. In that way, Bentley were better of without it, blending their radiator shroud in with the surrounding paintwork.

Its presence on the market turned Bentley around, with that paltry 5% sales surging up to 40%, and by the Nineties, when this particular model was built, Bentley was on a level pegging with Rolls-Royce in production terms. That's not to say uptake was dramatic; less than 6000 Turbo R's were made before the model was phased out in 1996, but with each one lovingly crafted by old men with flat caps, hand stitching cow hide into sumptuous leather and trimming every available inch of the interior with walnut, you wouldn't want high sales volumes. One of the most reassuring elements is the exclusivity of owning such a machine, and in this case that exclusivity can be yours for just 90,000 zlotys; this one's for sale.

This Bentley may have been the first to sport alloy wheels and a turbo badge, but don’t let those flashy Eighties signs fool you into thinking this is anything other than a thoroughbred. The model went on to greater and better things, but as the car that brought Bentley back from the brink, the Turbo R could be argued as the most important Bentley in eighty years, and wears its badge with pride.