Wheels: To Air Is Divine
Bentley’s Continental GT Convertible is much more than the third of the company’s triplets. The car represents the third ace in a full house, the third member of a trifecta, the completion of a hat trick, the final member of a blessed trinity.
The 2003 Continental GT coupe was first from the assembly line following Volkswagen’s tortuous 1998 acquisition of Bentley from beneath the nose of BMW. It was a 12-cylinder apple that tumbled far from Bentley’s square, decadent, clunky family tree by delivering 198 mph from a luxury two-plus-almost-two, which, beneath lighter toes, morphed into a casual daily driver. It cost a relatively paltry $150,000 because it shared systems and parts with other members of the Bentley-Volkswagen-Audi family.
Last year brought the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, a motorcar similar to the GT. Indeed, the same 552 hp, biturbo, W12 engine powered both vehicles, as well as Volkswagen’s Touareg SUV. The Flying Spur was longer, heavier, taller, wider, and a little more expensive ($165,000) than the coupe because the Spur came with four doors instead of two. It also was a genuine two-plus-three family car that could pounce from rest to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, making it one of the world’s quickest sedans.
It is worth noting that in 1980, Bentley did not sell a single car in the United States, and sales elsewhere plummeted to depths that had not been reached since 1926, when Woolf Barnato was running the company and spending liberally on the Bentley Boys’ racing and carousing. However, last year, Bentley delivered more than 5,000 Continental GTs and almost 3,000 Flying Spurs. It also sold 150 units of its flagship—the ponderous yet ultraplush Arnage, a three-ton mass from the 1960s with V-8 performance from the ’90s and a shape that belongs in the Smithsonian. In total, Bentley’s sales increased 51 percent from 2004, which itself was not exactly a barren year.
Now comes the GTC, a convertible that rounds out Bentley’s triumvirate of Continentals. It is an automotive supermodel that already has fulfilled one early projection of triumph: Although deliveries will not begin until December—when $190,000 will buy the Christmas gift that you will keep on driving—a year’s production of GTCs, or more than 1,500 cars, has been presold on the basis of early photographs and a single public appearance of the GTC, in April at the New York International Auto Show.
“I’ve always believed that convertible Bentleys have been amongst the most graceful and elegant machines on the road,” Bentley Motors chairman and chief executive Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen said during the auto show presentation, as he pulled the cover off the new convertible. “You only have to look back at the simply stunning drophead coupes from the 1950s and the Azure of the 1990s for proof of that.”
Elegant, distinctive, effortlessly modern—Paefgen wrung out all of these descriptors at the unveiling; then he touched on what he believes is the car’s true selling point: “It will appeal to people who are tired of driving sports cars that require too much effort, people who want to move up from more standard convertibles, and people who want to make a statement about what they drive, yet still own a car that they can use every day of the year.”
Bentley’s triple-A business plan—accessible, accommodating, and affordable—began to take shape during a directors meeting held shortly after Volkswagen’s purchase of the marque. “It was the Bentley board that identified a hole in the market,” recalls John Crawford, the energetic and engaging spokesman for Bentley. “ ‘What if we pitched a car between the most expensive Mercedes, about $125,000 in the United States, and the extravagant Arnage at $215,000?’ So we had the entire new Bentley philosophy right there.”
To control the cars’ research and development costs (and thus their sticker prices), Bentley determined that more than 60 percent of the Continental’s underpinnings would come from established sources: the 12-cylinder engine block from Volkswagen, Quattro all-wheel drive from Audi, the differential from Torsen, and a pair of turbos from Borg-Warner, which over the years has amped the power of everything from locomotives to Land Rovers. The transmission is a ZF 6-speed that is used by just about every performance car worth its weight in horsepower.
Bentley developed the three Continentals alongside each other within a two-year window at the factory in Crewe, England, with the convertible going from sketches to final clay in just four months. Designing a topless Continental was more intricate than simply decapitating the coupe. A roofless car typically is short on rigidity and inclined to develop the shakes unless the entire chassis and its members are reengineered to regain that lost stiffness. Bentley therefore strengthened the A pillars of the GTC and added steel reinforcements to the doorsills, additional cross-cabin braces, and a windshield frame—which together increased the car’s weight by more than 200 pounds.
The three-layer canvas roof, with seven bows and attendant struts and electric motors, adds more weight. Of greater concern was how that roof might alter the car’s silhouette, and how its bulk would intrude on the luggage compartment. Bentley reshaped the entire rear from the doors aft, raised the trunk, lowered the rear suspension components, increased the taper of the sills surrounding the rear seats, and lowered those seats. Thus it gave the GTC a butt that, compared to those of the other Continentals, is larger yet shapelier, and certainly more athletic. Wherever there was a need to reduce a plane or a flank, the designers added a discreet concave curve. They reduced the trunk space, but, claims Bentley, it remains roomy enough for skis and golf clubs together.
Like its siblings, the GTC has an interior that displays no compromises or shortcuts. It reflects the Bentley blend of harmony and quality and features rich veneers and baby-soft leathers. (It takes longer to stitch the leather of a Bentley steering wheel than it does to whelp an entire Ford Taurus.) If this is not enough, Bentley Mulliner can enhance the GTC by adding brushed aluminum fascia panels, contrasting stitching wherever leather unites, lambswool rugs over thick pile carpets, premium veneers, and even an alloy fuel-filler cap embossed with the Mulliner moniker to provide proof of an owner’s taste for life’s grander things.
“The Continental GT may be the driver’s car, and the Flying Spur the practical four-door grand tourer,” Paefgen said in summation at the auto show. “But the new Continental GTC is the showpiece for Bentley design.”
Our showpiece for an exclusive drive was the Silver Lake—Bentley’s term for pale blue—New York show car, the only GTC in the United States at the time. The car was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the start of a 36-dealership national tour, which should be more than enough one-night stands for any debutante. Although the GTC was unlicensed for public travels, we nevertheless were granted a permit to meander the 4.9 miles of two-lane blacktop circumnavigating Markham Park.
Under such restrictions, the test-drive was less than ideal, but it was certainly sufficient for anyone who has spent a ton of time at the helm of a Bentley GT and Flying Spur to see that the car has lost nothing in its translation from coupe to sedan to convertible. It produces the same basso bellow from twin tailpipes, offers more braking power and tire footprint than any emergency could ever stress, and has enough torque to pull an elephant from a mud hole.
The next addition to Bentley’s transfused bloodline is the already revealed but not yet launched Arnage convertible. It is a huge, beautiful, and oversize four-seater that will cater to the wealthier, older, Nixon-era, more traditional owner who continues to constitute 10 percent of all Bentley buyers. We also know that something else is in the works at Crewe, a smaller, smarter, less expensive, and more fuel-efficient car. But in theory at least, that economy should not corrupt the vehicle’s performance, cachet, heritage, or exclusivity.