There’s only a handful of automotive brands able to match Bentley’s lustre. However, being a fabled, desirable marque does not always equate to huge profits or full order books, and Bentley has often walked a perilous financial tightrope, needing a saviour or two with deep pockets. And this was certainly the case when Volkswagen acquired Bentley in 1998.
The famous yet-ageing Crewe factory had not been designed for vehicle production. It was a hastily-constructed ‘Shadow Factory’ with a huge, wartime workforce making the mighty Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engine. A Rolls-Royce executive allegedly once opined that Crewe was ‘unsuitable’ for peacetime car production.
In 1998 there was also the complex business of uncoupling Bentley from Rolls-Royce – no easy task as they’d shared the same site, engines and workforce for decades. Rolls-Royce’s future would ultimately lie in Sussex under the BMW umbrella, while Volkswagen’s immediate challenge was to create an entirely new car with global appeal that was definitively still a Bentley. Enter the ground-breaking Continental GT.
Unveiled at the 2002 Paris Show and with production starting in 2003, the earliest Continentals are already becoming modern classics. The Continental was designed without compromise thanks to Volkswagen’s financial clout and looked to the future while drawing inspiration from Bentley’s glorious past.
The future meant all-wheel drive, a power-packed 6.0-litre W12 twin-turbocharged engine mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox and a supremely sleek, curved and pre-painted body made in Germany but which had been envisioned by Bentley’s designers.
As for the past, that involved looking at founding father Walter Owen Bentley who’d constantly aimed for the perfect marriage of exceptional pace, considerable comfort, a degree of practicality and road presence. Walter Owen drove his cars on legendary, high-speed dashes across France to the Channel Ports – he was effectively chief road-tester – and did much to define what a luxury British Grand Tourer should entail. After seven or eight hours behind the wheel a gentleman should arrive unruffled and in time for a few cocktails and a fine dinner.
The Continental GT followed Walter Owen’s desire to blend the best of everything. It could hit 198mph and was searingly quick from a standing start. Yet this was balanced with an opulent cabin featuring the finest leather, wood veneers and glistening brightware. Breitling added the finishing touch with a unique console clock.
And there was comfort aplenty. The front seats were described as being superior to many high-end armchairs or worthy of a London Gentleman’s Club and the cabin is a largely silent, relaxing place.
On the downside there are the ownership costs. The 6.0-litre W12 is not vaguely close to being frugal and many consumables will involve a sharp intake of breath. There’s also the delicate matter of taste; a few interiors specified by the original owner are not necessarily a success and best left alone.
However, as a compelling and fresh start the Continental GT delivered, and Bentley’s order books quickly looked extremely healthy after some lean years. There was also more to come, with the elegant convertible GTC arriving in 2006 and the even sharper, faster Speed variant in 2009.
Would you be brave enough to take on a Bentley as a modern classic? Let us know in the comments below.