It may have been a £100,000 car when new, but today there’s a Bentley Turbo R out there for every budget. Here’s what you need to know
The modern-day Bentley range may be literally the preserve of the Premier League but oddly enough in real terms the cars produced under Volkswagen ownership are actually rather less exclusive than they were back in the Rolls-Royce days. The current range may kick off at £168,500 for the ‘entry level’ Continental GT, but back in 1991, the Bentley Turbo R was a whopping £116,265. Adjust for three decades of inflation and the exotic nature of the Turbo R is suddenly thrown into focus, with the Bank of England’s own inflation calculator putting the Turbo R at £255,266 today.
Away from the high-pressure hydraulics powering brakes and self-levelling, in most respects the mechanical engineering of the car is pretty straightforward, but you’ll frequently be thrown curveballs of the ‘why did they do it like that?’ kind familiar to Citroën and Alfa owners. For example, the heavy-duty chains which operate the door windows, or the elaborate sprung hinge to the bumper corners are things you won’t find on a BMW.
Leaving the tricky jobs to one of the many knowledgeable specialists though and tackling the smaller nuts-and-bolts or cosmetic jobs yourself can keep costs down but don’t be fooled into thinking a Turbo R can be run on peanuts: that old adage that a £100,000 car will always come with the running costs of a £100,000 car still rings true in some areas, but go into it with an open mind and ownership can be a relatively painless experience.
First though you’ll need to decide which model of Turbo R is for you. The model technically kicked off with the fast but unruly Mulsanne Turbo in 1982, which gained revised suspension to appear as the Turbo R in 1985. US dealers were soon clamouring for a Federal-spec version and Crewe duly obliged in 1989, a useful knock-on effect of making the V8 US emissions-compliant being the fuel injection which appeared on European cars.
In June 1988 the Bentley Turbo R received the new front-end style applied to the rest of the range with four circular lamps replacing the original rectangular units and in 1989 for the 1990 model year an adaptive damping system was added. This firmed up the dampers according to how hard sensors judged the car was being driven.
In 1990, the three-speed GM gearbox was replaced by a more modern four-speed version, the 4L80E and for the 1994 model year the ultimate Mulsanne Turbo was released: the Turbo S. This boasted a 408bhp development of the turbo V8 which produced a colossal 590lb.ft torque at 2000rpm and was good for 155mph. A limited edition of just 60 cars, this was largely built to prove the engine destined for the Continental T coupe and was an astonishingly fast car.
For the 1996 model year, the regular Bentley Turbo R was uprated to 385bhp at 4000rpm and 553lbf.ft torque at 2000rpm, courtesy of a water-to-air intercooler (‘chargecooler’) and Zytek engine management system allowing mapped control of fuelling, ignition and boost. More modern 17-inch wheels were also introduced at this point.
In 1997 the standard wheelbase car was discontinued and the sole turbocharged model was the long-wheelbase Turbo RL. Later in the year, the Turbo would appear in its swansong iteration: the Turbo RT. This effectively combined the Turbo RL body with the Continental T-specification engine rated at 400bhp.
The last of the Mulsanne Turbo line would leave the Crewe factory in December 1997 as the premises were geared up for the launch of the Arnage.
Pressed Steel made Bentley Turbo R bodyshells out of thick metal which explains the car’s 2.5-tonne heft. Like anything old and made from steel though, they can suffer in the British climate and the wheelarches are the first to go. The cars were originally fitted with rubber stonechip guards on the leading edges of the wheelarch and some owners remove them when they start to perish but it’s also worth questioning whether they were removed for arch rust repairs.
More expensive to fix though is bubbling around the screens, especially common at the base of the rear window where it’s a costly repair with the glass needing to be removed for welding access.
In a largely futile attempt at weight saving, the bonnet, boot and door skins are aluminium, so they won’t rust but reactive corrosion can be an issue, most commonly on the bottom of the bootlid. One easy fix is to fit an oversized rear plate to simply hide the area.
Wonky bumper corners are a common sight and are the result of the steel inner expanding as it rusts, but the Bentley aftermarket can supply remanufactured parts using a stainless steel insert which doesn’t suffer the same issue.
Faded paint on the bonnet doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been painted: the turbocharged V8 generates a fair bit of heat and if the insulation panels are no longer present on the underside of the bonnet then the paint will suffer.
Elsewhere, things like shrinking window scraper seals are par for the course, as are various holes for phone antennas and the like.
The long-serving 6.75-litre pushrod V8 is very much a known quantity and should spring no surprises. It’s an under-stressed unit and is lazy in operation, majoring on torque rather than high revs.
Carb-fed cars use twin SU’s and can suffer with tricky hot starting, but the fuel-injected engines are much better in this respect and should be easy to live with. Clattery top ends can be down to worn tappets but by and large any significant problems should be obvious.
The ignition system on Bosch-injected cars is essentially two separate systems with two distributors, one driving the other via a rubber belt. If it breaks, you’ll be running on only four cylinders and will be lucky to limp off the motorway, so you want to see evidence of when it was last changed.
Suspension and brakes
Like the other Spirit-based cars, the Bentley Turbo R uses self-levelling rear suspension which is powered by the high-pressure hydraulic system shared with the brakes. This is one area of the car where DIY tinkering isn’t advisable and specialists can use the correct test gear to ascertain where problems are. One simple test is to have a couple of big chaps sit on the open boot sill with the engine running and check to see whether the rear end lifts itself level.
Problems needn’t be cause for panic, with used struts available at sensible cost and also OE-quality aftermarket parts.
From 1990, the cars used a dynamic damper control set-up dubbed Active Ride Control, which firmed up the damping according to how hard the car was being driven – taking signals from throttle, brake lights and accelerometer and varying the damping via a mechanical valve.
When operating properly it’s an impressive system despite not being as fast-acting as modern electronic equivalents and as you power through sweeping bends you can feel the whole car stiffening up.
A malfunctioning system will manifest itself as a strangely knobbly low-speed ride, so try a couple of cars to get a feel for how they should drive.
The high-pressure hydraulic system was licensed from Citroën and works in a very similar way with pump and accumulator spheres, although the pedal action is far more progressive than the on-off system of a CX or DS.
Again, this is one part of the car best left to specialist workshops who can measure the operating and residual pressure in the system.
It’s a fully powered system operated by the high-pressure hydraulics and uses two calipers on each front wheel. With the engine off, it should be possible to pump the brakes several times before the system runs out of pressure and if not, then suspect a fault with a pressure sphere.
The parking brake gets little use and as a result the linkage can tend to seize up. Regular use and sensible greasing is the answer.
On cars with ABS the warning light should come on with the ignition and go out with the engine running. If the warning light comes on while driving then a special Bosch diagnostic tester is required, but you can also check the wiring to the sensor for chafing – it’s a common issue at the front. New sensors are costly but Flying Spares can provide used replacements at under £100 and they’re easy to fit… if the existing sensor hasn’t corroded into the hub. In which case be prepared for a struggle.
This is one area where you don’t need to panic, as the three-speed GM Hydramatic and four-speed ZF box in the Bentley Turbo R are both robust units. Just make the usual checks of ensuring that it engages drive smartly both forwards and backwards and changes up and down smoothly.
Take care when checking the fluid and observe the warning label about pulling the wiper relay first, as access involves the danger of getting limbs caught in the linkage.
Part of the charm of any Bentley is the interior and it’s here that costs can quickly mount up when a tatty example needs bringing back to life. Take your time evaluating what can be revived and what needs replacement parts or specialist skills: for example, faded leather can be transformed with colour-matched dye from the likes of the Furniture Clinic applied with a simple hobby spray gun and plenty of patience.
On the other hand, damaged veneer needs specialist skills to repair, the cost of which makes a replacement used part more cost-effective. This is an ideal solution for door cappings, but with the dashboard you may end up with a pattern which doesn’t match the other panels. If the veneer has suffered and is cracked or peeling, use your nose: does the car smell damp and musty?
If the electric windows are slow, lubricating the drive chains and guides can work wonders, but when the bush comes adrift from the motor they will tend to seize up. Replacements are available though.
If the stereo sounds distorted, you’ll probably find the foam from all four speaker cones has rotted away. They’re not very good speakers anyway, so modern replacements are an easy solution. And if you want to fit a modern audio system then cars with the boot-mounted Blaupunkt amplifier will need an adapter cable making up if you don’t want to run new speaker wires up to the console.
If the dashboard warning light cluster (‘DIP’) has lost the gear selector indicator and the trip distance reading then a reconditioned panel is the solution. Likewise the electric seat modules, which tend to fail when the internal batteries powering the memory function leak on to the circuit board.
Bentley Turbo R: our verdict
Today though, the cars can be had for a fraction of that value, with their fast-growing classic status yet to give prices a boost to E-Type levels for example.
Like all exotic cars, there’s a certain amount of myth and rumour around them but a have-a-go DIY-minded owner can achieve a huge amount without getting in over their head – and can lower running costs significantly. In many respects these cars are no more complex than the oversized Mk4 Cortina they resemble from some angles: for example, removing a door card involves nothing more than bolts, screws and clips.
Still, the Bentley Turbo R will always be a Bentley, so be prepared for chunky running costs and the possibility for big bills. If you’re brave, it’s a great luxury classic choice.