This month’s cover car, the elegantly buxom Bentley Continental GT, may be the British company’s most intriguing product change since it stopped bolting superchargers to the outside of its cars. After 80 years of creating overweight, overwrought, overpowering personnel carriers—in a rare moment of graciousness, Enzo Ferrari once praised Bentley sedans as fine lorries—the eponymous firm of Walter Owen Bentley has introduced a comparatively tiny and relatively inexpensive motorcar.
In general terms, the Continental GT is about a third smaller than the Arnage sedan and approximately a half-ton lighter. With an estimated sticker (if one is allowed to stick anything on a Bentley) of $150,000, it is priced lower than any Ferrari and will save you $100,000 compared to the price of a Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph—or enough to buy your kid a Maserati Spyder so she won’t ask to borrow the Continental.
The car is an anomaly within the ancestral line, which is characterized by an abundance of oomph neutralizing an excess of avoirdupois. Instead, the Continental GT is a luxury grand touring coupe with a 550-hp engine that delivers speed and acceleration at levels rivaling those of million-dollar super cars.
Rumors had been flying since the early 1990s that Bentley was building a lighter, smaller, midsize two-door to broaden its brand and move closer to mainstream money. Indeed, at the Geneva International Motor Show in 1994, Bentley introduced the Java concept car, an apparent escape from its status as a cottage industry car builder and a rebuke to its reputation for making rebadged Rolls-Royces. The Java, which was featured in Robb Report’s January 1995 cover story, “Hot Java: Bentley’s Next Generation?” was shorter than a Cadillac and would have carried a projected 1999 or 2000 price tag of $150,000. Ergo, it is no great stretch to consider the 1994 Bentley Java a direct ancestor of the 2004 Bentley Continental GT.
“No way,” says John Crawford, an Australian-born spokesman for Bentley in the Americas who is revered for being blunt, a common characteristic in his native land. “Anybody who says there is a connection between the Java and the Continental, or thinks that a concept of 1994 has any relevance to a motorcar designed 10 years later, has no great knowledge of this company.” He repeats that there is no common DNA. Nor, he adds, was the Java even a real Bentley. “The Java was a BMW 5 Series that we purchased, cut in two behind the doors, and built up from there.”
It does not require intense scrutiny to dismiss further notions of a common gene pool. The Java was a lightly streamlined convertible. If the prototype had an engine, it would have been a twin-turbocharged engine with eight cylinders in a conventional V formation. (The car was literally rolled onto a green at Pebble Beach.) The Continental GT, designed with smooth aerodynamic curves that better represent a car of tomorrow, is a coupe fitted with a 12-cylinder biturbo engine. It was first sketched by Bentley Director of Design Dirk van Braeckel in 1999, not long after Volkswagen had claimed sole ownership of Bentley.
Alas, despite the warm reception the Java received from prospective customers at its U.S. unveiling at the 1994 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the car never went into production. The prototype Java was eventually dismantled and has disappeared into the scrap heap. Still, we were not completely off the mark when we wrote, “…the general belief is that the car will be built.” A Java, engine and all, was indeed built. It was quietly constructed and shipped without fanfare to the sultan of Brunei.