Over the past decade and a half the Bentley Continental GT has become the most-successful model in the company's history. As the Crewe-based firm hit their centenary, Toby Keel takes a look at the latest iteration of their flagship model.
Walter Owen Bentley didn’t originally intend to set up his car company 100 years ago. If he’d had his way then ‘W.O.’ – as he was invariably known – would have been up and running six years before that, shortly after coming up with the lightweight pistons which had helped earn him and his cars a reputation on the testing track at Brooklands.
Yet the war that put his plans on hold turned out to give him an enormous boost in creating the great British car brand which still bears his name today. Bentley was recruited by the Royal Naval Air Service for his engineering experience, and he went on to create engines using his new pistons that gave a critical boost to the power and reliability of the engines. Many Sopwith Camels used his BR1 engine, while the later BR2 model would go on to power a huge number of RAF planes for years after the end of the war.
His key role in the creation of one of the war’s most successful fighter planes earned him both an MBE and an £8,000 grant from the Commission of Awards to Inventors – equivalent to over £400,000 in today’s terms. And thus it was that in 1919 he had both the experience and the funding to start his quest to make, as he described it, ‘a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.’
The company has since seen all manner of ups and downs. It came close to oblivion during the Great Depression, had 70 years of ownership by Rolls-Royce and, a generation ago now, became part of the enormous Volkswagen Group. Yet W.O.’s core philosophy has always been honoured: the brief, now as then, is to make cars that are not just fast, but good.
Bentley’s original Continental model, released in 1952, epitomised that approach – and J. Eason Gibson reviewed it in Country Life that year. ‘This car is not intended for those whose main motoring requirements are satisfied with the standard saloon,’ he wrote. ‘It is meant rather for high speed, long-distance motoring on the straighter and more traffic-free roads of the Continent.’
Gibson went on to say that ‘on the open road the car stood out in a class by itself, under all possible branches of performance,’ and marvelled that it was, ‘the world’s fastest production saloon, and yet it is as silent as the average town carriage.’
The only thing he didn’t like was the headlights; on testing a subsequent model nine years later, he was delighted to see how they’d improved: ‘The good headlamps and the subdued instrument lighting, in combination with the car’s general qualities, make it an ideal car for long journeys after dark.’ Funny the things we take for granted in the age of Xenon.
Forty years after the original Continental, it was the turn of the then-new Continental R to appear in Country Life, earning a rave review from David Tomlinson who described it as, ‘a glorious blend of old-fashioned craftsmanship and modern technology – elegant yet not vulgar.’
The more things change, the more they stay the same… All these words could just as well be written about the new Continental GT, and that’s just how Bentley want it.
At the latest car’s launch event last year, the full range of Continentals stretching back to 1952 were on display: they nailed down their recipe decades ago, and are proud of that fact. Rightly proud, indeed, since the cars today are just better than ever: faster, leaner, and with seats that can simultaneously warm and massage your backside.
The new Continental GT is the third iteration of a model which, since its launch in 2003, has become comfortably the most successful car in the company’s history. Forget Brexit jitters: the company’s continued success seems assured, at least for now. On turning up at the pre-drive briefing we were told by a (delighted-looking) team of engineers, designers and executives that the UK’s initial allocation was already sold out.
Getting in the car it’s not hard to see why. It’s everything you’d expect from a Bentley: polished wood, gleaming metal and leather seats so beautifully-made that you’ll never look at your favourite armchair in quite the same way. And that’s even before you realise that these seats have built-in massage, er, ‘things’, which knead your lumbar regions as you speed along in luxurious comfort.
And ‘speed’ is almost certainly what you’ll do. The car is powered by a new version of the company’s famous W12 engine – think of two V6s side-by-side – designed and built at the headquarters in Crewe. The numbers it generates are astonishing: 626 bhp and 664lb/ft of torque, 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds. Planting your right foot down doesn’t feel like pressing an accelerator pedal, more like triggering the launch button of a space rocket. No wonder the chap at the toll booth during out Alpine test drive chuckled and winked as he exhorted us to ‘drive carefully’…
That’s not to say it’s the fastest car on the road. In the same price bracket you could of course go for a Honda NSX and be half a second faster to 60mph, while Ferrari’s ludicrously-named 812 Superfast will crack that magic number in under three seconds. The Honda will even get you from A to B without breaking down or falling to pieces; the Ferrari might, but it also might not.
Yet what neither car will do is whisk and waft you about in state of blissful luxury. The Continent GT’s critical selling point is that, at least to anyone who isn’t a professional racing driver, it’s exactly as quick as those other supercars, while also providing true luxury. It’s the automotive equivalent of a stupendously pretty country house that’s full of old school character, yet has a roof that doesn’t leak, heating that actually works and a state-of-the-art sound system hidden behind your stucco ceilings and oak ceiling beams.
It’s also incredibly easy to drive – not always the case with supercars. You’ll be whipping round corners with startling ease and revelling in the 12-cylinder soundtrack when you want, but gliding round in blissful comfort and relaxing peace when you want a more sedate drive home.
Indeed, so serious are Bentley about making the car a cocoon from the world that they even have a rotating dashboard display: at the press of a button you can rotate the satnav screen back into the dashboard, replacing it with either analogue dials or polished walnut. It’s a lovely touch of digital detox to give you a purer, less distracting and more enjoyable journey.
And trust me: journeys by car have rarely been so enjoyable. Zip down the windows and blast the GT through a tunnel and the roar of the engine will vibrate through your internal organs as if you were flying a Sopwith Camel. But pop the kids in the back and you could happily drive to Scotland in a day without breaking sweat, and get out at the other end as if you’d been chauffeured in an S-Class Mercedes. Forget those cars with both electric and petrol engines: the Bentley is the original hybrid, equal parts limousine and sports car.
No existing Bentley driver will be surprised to hear this, of course. 100 years after the company was founded, it remains as clear as ever about its place in the world, the cars it makes, and the reasons why it makes them. And so long as that remains the case, there’s every reason to believe that Bentley will be around for another 100 years.
The Bentley Continental GT starts from around £160,000 – see www.bentleymotors.com/continental for more information
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