One of the pitfalls of ‘badge engineering’ is the inevitable dilution of individual character suffered by the marques concerned. In the case of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, the latter’s image as merely a ‘cheaper’ Rolls had seriously undermined its sales by the end of the 1970s. At the decade’s end Bentleys accounted for a mere 3% of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ production, clearly a situation which could not be tolerated if the once-famous marque was to avoid extinction. The solution was to seek to re-establish Bentley’s credentials as the purveyor of high-performance luxury cars and, in a move calculated to evoke memories of the company’s glorious past achievements at Le Mans, the name ‘Mulsanne’ was chosen for the Silver Spirit’s counterpart. This strategy would succeed brilliantly. Launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1982, the Mulsanne Turbo provoked a rash of headlines in the motoring press proclaiming ‘The return of the Blower Bentley.’ The Bentley Turbo R of 1985 continued the theme, but with the added refinement of suspension better suited to the car’s increased performance.
So far, the Bentley resurgence had relied on models whose basic architecture was shared with other Rolls-Royce products; but also on display at Geneva in ’85 was Project 90, a mocked-up coupé intended to gauge public response to the idea of a high-performance car unique to Bentley. When the real thing – the Bentley Continental R – was unveiled six years later, the waiting crowd burst into spontaneous applause. Styled with the assistance of consultants International Automotive Design, the Continental R benefited from computer-aided design and wind tunnel testing in the devising of its sleekly streamlined shape. Despite the need to incorporate non-traditional features such as doors recessed into the roof, the result looked every bit a Bentley, albeit one re-stated for the 1990s. Also new was the gearbox, a four-speed automatic with an ‘overdrive’ top ratio, but the main focus of interest was the newcomer’s performance. Needless to say this was staggering, the combination of the Turbo R engine in the new wind-cheating shape cutting the 0-60mph time to under six seconds and boosting top speed to more than 150mph.
The Corniche convertible had been a major success for Rolls-Royce so it can have surprised few onlookers when a soft-top version of the Continental R was announced, albeit a full four years after the Coupé’s introduction. Once again, Geneva was chosen to launch what would turn out to be the first Bentley model in several decades to use an entirely new name – ‘Azure’ – which, like ‘Corniche’ and ‘Camargue’, evoked exotic destinations in the South of France. The famous Italian styling house of Pininfarina a firm with unrivalled experience in the design of soft-top Gran Turismos had been chosen to develop the Azure on the four-seater Continental R platform and there was no questioning that the result was most successful. Bodyshells were assembled in Italy by Pininfarina, fitted with the automatic soft-top, painted and shipped back for finishing at Crewe.
Mechanically similar to the Continental R but with an engine further up-rated to 385bhp, the Azure was launched in 1995 and cost £215,000 in the UK. Hailed by its maker as ‘the world’s best convertible’, the Azure lived up to that grand title, proving an immense success especially in North America where its combination of unmatched luxury, effortless performance and soft-top style was found highly attractive. When production ceased in 2003 a total of only 1,321 Azures of all types had been built.
This example was supplied new on 25th August 1995, records enclosed in the car’s file depict it as the Earls Court show car, and one of 80 such examples produced that year worldwide. The current vendor purchased the Azure this year from a friend. The Azure on offer today is described to be in excellent overall condition, the rouched hide upholstery is crisp while the special burr maple door cappings and steering wheel perfectly compliment the Garnet red coachwork and complentary black hood. The latter is reported to have no creases or signs of wear on the folds and to operate very smoothly. All wheels are described as good, as are the tyres, while the coachwork is in excellent condition.
Driven regularly over the summer, ‘MIL 7574’ is described as a tight car that clearly has been regularly and comprehensively maintained throughout its life. Representing an exciting opportunity to acquire a little-used example of this rare and highly sought-after soft-top supercar at a fraction of the launch price, ‘MIL 7574’ comes with service history, a quantity of expired tax discs and MoT certificates, current road fund licence, Swansea V5C document and MoT to November 2015.