My 1991 Bentley Turbo R: Sometimes the Perfect Car Finds You

a car parked in front of a house
My 1991 Bentley Turbo R: It Found MeMatt Farah
a man in a car
Matt Farah

“You have to come see this… now” my wife Hanna texted me from up the road. We have an elderly neighbor who has a sweet but energetic Pit Bull named Sadie. She is a very good girl who is too strong for her owner to walk, so Hanna walks her a few times a week, and this time, she is stopped a few doors down from us in front of a very cool mid-century modern home that we have never seen anyone go in or out of. I put on my Crocs and hit the bricks, and even from far away, I see what’s motivated the text: The cleanest Nineties Bentley I’ve ever seen is out in the driveway of this home getting a bath.

Our neighbors are overwhelmingly seniors, and as such, our neighborhood's garages are full of treasure. On our walks I’ve seen countless old 911s and Eighties-era Benzes, Ferrari Testarossas and 308s, minty-fresh XJSs on wire wheels, and old Rollers. But we’ve lived here a year and I’d never seen this.

a black car parked in front of a house
Matt Farah

Turns out, the owner had recently passed away at 93, and he was a somebody. He had a long career in the commercial flower business, and this car, a 1991 Turbo R in a stunning single-stage Metallic Granite over black leather with a double black pinstripe, chrome 15” wheels, burl wood walnut dash, red badging, and optional deep-pile carpets, was his present to himself. His sixtieth birthday present to himself, taking delivery from Rolls-Royce & Bentley of Beverly Hills, on December 27, 1990, specially ordered to his specifications. In 33 years, this one-owner example of one of the most expensive cars of its day had traveled just 20,300 miles. His family said it was his prized possession. It went to lunch on Sundays, occasionally to church, and took a couple of road trips to San Francisco. That’s about it. But it was time for them to let it go.

Hanna puts up with my car habit, encourages me to buy what I like, understanding that I have a pretty solid nose for the difference between parking money in something fun and wasting money on a dud. But it’s rare she actually wants a car. She immediately fell in love with the Bentley, and I did too.

a car with a logo on it
Matt Farah

I always liked Turbo Rs when I was a kid. Here was this luxury car, this stately, heavy, steel-and-leather freight train, badged like an Integra. Turbo R? Sounds like a JDM tuner special or something. I didn’t understand at the time how important the Turbo R was to Bentley’s identity.

See, at the time, Rolls-Royce owned Bentley, and Bentley hadn’t done a very good job of tapping into its “Bentley Boys” renegade-rich-boy-racer history the way Volkswagen has leaned into during modern ownership. From the mid-Sixties until about 2000, Rolls and Bentley made basically the same car, just with or without the Spirit of Ecstasy, like Buick and Cadillac did in the Eighties.

Also in the Eighties, Bentley was trying to figure out how to stand out from Rolls-Royce given the constraints of having basically the same car. Long story short, they put a Garrett turbo on the 6 3/4 liter V-8, and did… not much else. And that’s not a typo, it was a single turbo. They knocked three seconds off the 0-60 time, and bumped up the top speed by 30 mph. The Turbo R, with only 4500 RPM and three gears, would crack 140 mph. They put on some sporting touches compared to the Rolls version in an early attempt to position the Turbo R as a driver’s car.

It’s a testament to how overbuilt those cars were that they really didn’t need any reinforcing to handle a fifty percent increase in power and torque. Later variants got updated suspensions and a four-speed gearbox, but in the beginning, it was just the turbo.

They were neat cars, for sure, but I never considered shopping around for the best one, or why I would even want one in the first place. But now I’m standing in a driveway staring at an example that presents, literally, as new, with the nodding approval of my wife, and we are agreeing that we are absolutely not letting someone else get this car. This car has found us like a stray kitten, and it lives here now.

I called Donnie Callaway, the desert-dwelling lunatic who works on my old Italian stuff, and offered him a pastrami sandwich to check it out. That's the usual bribe to see if he could come down to L.A. and look at this car. You see, Donnie owns a Turbo R as well… and a Rolls Silver Spirit, the non-turbocharged variant of the same car… and a Corniche, the convertible one. Like I said, lunatic.

Not only did he approve, but also he hedged my bet. “You are buying that car,” Donnie said. “If you don’t want it, I’ll give you every dollar you spent on it in credit towards your Countach restoration.”

In case you missed that, I didn’t just have the opportunity to get out for even money if I suffered buyer’s remorse; I had the opportunity to pay for Lamborghini repairs in units of Bentley.

Maybe I am that sort of person after all? Send the wire, baby. Let’s go.

a person holding a device
Matt Farah

My pal Bruce Meyer has always said of car collecting, “Buy the best, get it right straight away, and it only hurts once.” Sage advice from one of the heaviest hitting collectors on the planet, right there.

I sent the Bentley, with notes from Donnie’s inspection, straight to Charles Agapiou Ltd. Rolls-Royce and Bentley Sales and Service, hereafter and forever referred to as “Charlie.”

Charlie is the best vintage Rolls and Bentley tech in the greater Los Angeles area, which puts him high in the running for best worldwide. It’s not that easy as calling, because Charlie’s place is one of those places where the very best people have too much work and don’t take on new clients, and Donnie had to make an intro for me to get on the approved list.

If the name sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because he was Carroll Shelby’s crew chief during the Ken Miles / Le Mans ‘67 / Cobra & GT40 era. Not exactly a lightweight. In fact, if you happen to own an original Cobra or GT40, this is pretty much the only place in California you want to send it. The photos on his office wall look like BTS shots from Ford vs. Ferrari, but they are the real deal.

Charlie is as charming and direct, and very complimentary about the condition of the car. We have every single service record going back to new, which I’ve organized into a binder and summarized with a cover sheet. “This car was loved,” Charlie notes, perusing the records. “Dealer serviced right up until the dealer stopped servicing cars like these. Good for my business!”

And he’s right. The first owner, while not a gearhead, gave this car everything it needed for about 28 years, until he got too old to drive it. Post-2018, it did a lot of sitting and not much driving.

“No worries,” Charlie assured me. “Nothing we haven’t seen before, we’ll get you going. Worst thing these cars can do is sit, so once we get it right, if you just start using it like a regular car, you’ll never have any problems. These are some of the best-built cars of all time.”

Without using the words “blank check” I told Charlie to fix whatever he found, and only ask me first if it was something obscenely expensive. I wanted the experience of what driving this car would have been like when new. And I was putting my wife in it. She likes the cars but is not mechanically inclined. I want her safe and in a dependable machine.

It wasn’t nothing. Two weeks later I picked up the car and went through the invoice. It needed some hoses, which had dried out. Some wires, which a mouse had eaten. It needed plugs and wires, a full fluid flush, and a pressure test of the hydraulic brake and suspension system. The rear windows weren’t working so those needed fixing (a common problem for the Turbo R), and the power seats, having not moved in 30 years, were seized. The A/C compressor was toast, the stereo speakers had turned to dust, and I wanted bluetooth and a USB port. And then it needed new Avon Turbospeed tires. Total? $12,600. YIKES. I only paid $20,000 for the car.

The tires and seat repairs were by far the most expensive, accounting for over half the total. Avon Turbospeed tires are the only tires that fit a Turbo R, and Avon knows it. They're $500 a corner plus shipping from the UK. And the seats, eight-way adjustable, two-mode heat, and four memory settings, needed new ECUs. (Yay, Nineties!) Those were thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, almost all of these repairs were one-time, get-it-right expenses. Hanna and I immediately drove the Bentley to Palm Springs for a weekend, and it was brilliant.

a person driving a car
Matt Farah

The problem with many old luxury cars, particularly sporting old luxury cars, is that they aren’t all that interesting to drive. Mid-Nineties Mercedes are a perfect example of this. I had an R129 SL500 Sport that looked absolutely fantastic and did everything it was supposed to do, but it wasn’t any fun in the way I had been led to believe it would be by its stunning good looks.

a close up of a car dashboard
Matt Farah

The Turbo R isn’t like that. Its opulence (led, no doubt, by its $241,000 MSRP) makes it far more interesting than contemporary Mercedes or BMW full-size sedans. The engine, six-and-three-quarters liters with a turbo, is like a steam train, with its effortless torque, 500 RPM idle, and literal, faint, “chugga-chugga-chugga” note. Unlike a Nineties Benz, the Turbo R is utterly devoid of plastic, save for a single row of buttons controlling tertiary functions - everything is either metal, leather, or wood. The hydraulic suspension reminds me of the last Citroen SM I drove, maintaining its ride height regardless of how many passengers are in the car and with a delightful series of power-up lights on the dash indicating that both shock and brake pressure is building and to not take off just yet.

a close up of a car radio
Matt Farah

C.F. Martin himself would be in awe of the wood trim on the doors - my kingdom for a guitar that looks like that. There may not be a single cup holder, but every seat gets its own ashtray and cigarette lighter, though none have ever been used.

a black calculator in a cardboard box
Matt Farah

Its happy speed is 75 mph. At 75, it’s settled on its springs, the steering is light but very direct, with your hands rested in a relaxed, underhand grip on the bottom of the thin-rimmed wheel. The engine offers a distant, baritone hum, and the wind noise isn’t too perceptible. There’s no buffeting should you decide to drop the windows on the highway.

Once you crack 85, the fact it only has three gears becomes noticeable and you really start to wonder why Bentley didn’t find a way to buy the four-speed from GM rather than the three-speed. (Turbo Rs got the four-speed GM 480LE automatic for the 1993 model year.) You’d think with all that torque it would be a no-brainer. Hell, the 1959 Continental S2 had a four-speed. It’s not like this was new tech.

Speaking of tech, I didn’t miss screens. Charlie installed a basic Pioneer single DIN stereo and new speakers. We had a USB port and bluetooth and a windshield mount for my phone to use GPS, and that is, really and truly, all the tech I need in my car. The Bentley has nine analog gauges, one of which serves two simultaneous functions, and I have all the information I need. Give me music and a way to keep my phone charged, and I’m good. The wheel-controlled dual-zone climate control can blast your face with cool air and your feet with hot air at the same time.

On the way home from Palm Springs, we drove through a torrential downpour, one of those “once in a century” deals that now happens every eight months in California. The old girl was a rock star, one of the best rain cars I’ve driven. It was sure-footed, with great wipers, and those brand-new 255/65R15 Avons--just the right width to balance grip in the corners but without hydroplaning.

That was 300 uneventful but brilliant miles down.

a car parked in front of a store
Matt Farah

Whenever you pull a car out of hibernation and put it into daily driver duty, even if you do the full service, there’s always one or two things that pop up a few hundred miles later. If you’re lucky, they are small and cheap. In my case, I got halfway there.

I first noticed the puddle under the front bumper, about an inch or two across. Maybe not even big enough to be a puddle, but just a splotch. Laying under the car, I noticed the steering rack boot was wet. Charlie told me to keep an eye on the fluid but otherwise not to worry. He would check it out.

A few miles down the road, I picked up a perceptible whine from the front of the car that seemed to be linked both to revs and to steering inputs. The power steering fluid was low, so I topped it off, and the whine instantly went away. Ten minutes later, it came back... on the highway at 60 mph, accompanied by a plume of blue smoke out the back.

Turns out the exhaust plumbing is directly behind the steering rack, and so it was leaking out of the rack seals, blowing straight on to the exhaust, and then burning off. I was near my garage, so I parked it, let it cool, and checked the fluid. It had leaked 10 ounces of fluid in just six miles of driving. Yeah, that was done.

Good news? Charlie stocks replacement steering racks and had the car fixed up and back to me in just four days.

Bad news? It cost me $2600. Ouch.

“Don’t let it scare you,” Charlie said. “This happens when they sit for a while - the seals dry out. Don’t let it sit. Just keep driving it and keep all the seals wet. Be happy you have a Turbo R and not a (Eighties) Mulsanne, Those are much rarer and a replacement rack for one of those is about twelve grand.”

a car parked in a garage
Matt Farah

Five days later, I piled my wife and two friends into the Turbo R and grand tour’ed it to Las Vegas to see U2 at the Sphere. The old girl was flawless, and even returned 15 miles per gallon over the entire 600-mile drive. The steering felt even better, though I plan to have an alignment done to reduce some of the sharpness and relax it at high speeds.

In Vegas, we were flagged down at every red light by people who wanted to ask about the car--young people. They loved the look, they loved the condition. And I don’t blame them, because Hanna and I were just as smitten with it in our neighbor’s driveway as these people are out on the street.

In Baker, we got the nodding approval of a rural family in a minivan, and from a trucker wandering into the Mad Greek Diner after a seemingly long journey.

a group of people standing in front of a car in a parking lot
Matt Farah

They all get it. This car is stately without being snobby. It's baller, but everyone else seems to know they could afford one, if given the right opportunity to get one this nice. It’s both a serious machine, but not to be taken too seriously. It’s right at that inflection point Nicolas Cage references in Gone in Sixty Seconds where someone driving it is no longer a self-indulgent wiener, but a connoisseur of the finer things.

The best cars in my collection have always found me, and not the other way around. Now, as someone who gives car advice for a living, if someone asked me about buying an old car, and I regularly answered, “It will find you,” I wouldn’t have much of a useful career. And that’s not to say every car I have owned has found me. I go find cars too, by doing the things I preach: by asking experts, by exercising patience, and by being willing to pay a little more, where possible, for the very best examples available. Generally that works out.

But when the cars find me, it works out better.

a black car parked in a parking lot
Matt Farah

So let me tell you something about this Bentley. I am going to drive it. I am going to enjoy it. I am going to take pictures of it and put them on Instagram because it looks fantastic with the French-inspired yellow fog lights. As a part of the Bentley Owners Club, I have access to a treasure trove of original build materials, factory floor checklists, order sheets, and other deeply nerdy paperwork. The miles will be cheap because miles always are. And if it costs money to maintain, so be it, because the car deserves it.

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