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Feature: Continental Drift

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The pressure was on Michael Parchment earlier this summer. More than 500 prospective Bentley Continental GT owners were counting on him and his knowledge of the Bentley marque and its new coupe. Parchment, the business development manager of Miller Motorcars, a Greenwich, Conn., dealer, was required by Bentley to take an online exam to demonstrate that he was worthy of selling the vehicle. During the five-hour test, he encountered questions about the five pillars of the Bentley brand, the number of Le Mans titles that the marque has claimed, the exact placement of the Continental GT’s catalytic converters, and perhaps even the leaf of tea W.O. Bentley preferred with his crumpets.

If Parchment passed the exam, Bentley would deign to allow Miller Motorcars to sell the Contintental GT. If he failed, Bentley would deny Miller this privilege and, in turn, force the dealer’s customers, several of whom had placed deposits as early as two years ago, to scramble to find an unclaimed 2004 GT. “[Bentley is] taking this car very seriously,” Parchment said as he prepared for the exam. “There are things [including the test] that have to be completed before we get our first car. If they’re not completed, they’re saying we will not get that car. I have no reason to doubt them.”

As of July, Miller Motorcars had not received its exam scores from Bentley. However, Parchment was confident of the results; he had no plans of angering hundreds of his prospective customers. Like other American dealers, he expects Continental GT deliveries to begin in March. (British owners will claim their cars first, in October.)

Bentley’s insistence on such rigid controls at every checkpoint of the coupe’s release is as logical as its decision to turbocharge its engines. Aside from the inaugural 1919 Bentley 3-liter car, the $149,990 Continental GT might be the most important machine in the company’s long and storied history. Bentley, which earlier this year split from longtime partner Rolls-Royce, is aiming to distinguish the Flying B from the Spirit of Ecstasy. It is attempting, through the GT’s sleek styling and lower price point, to entice younger, first-time buyers, who, despite the history lessons that Parchment and other dealers had to memorize, would not know the Bentley Boys from the Backstreet Boys. At the same time, Bentley wants to retain its older and wealthier core of enthusiasts. And under Volkswagen’s stewardship, the company from Crewe is evolving from a small and eccentric band of strawberries-and-cream Brits—they raise their glasses and toast W.O. at every company gathering and meal—into a booming global brand with plans to boost its output tenfold by 2005.

If Bentley hopes to achieve this confluence of goals, the Continental GT must be a spectacular car. Fourteen hundred American customers—the full allotment of 2004 models for the United States—have already placed their bets on its brilliance. “The car got an incredible response—an overwhelming response,” says Paul Downey, sales manager of Bentley Boston, which had received 50 deposits as of June. Michael Gaetano, chairman of the Modern Car Society, an affiliate of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club, has several friends who have ordered the four-seat coupe. “It’s certainly going to be a car that will excel. The enthusiasts are clearly excited,” says Gaetano. “We are sold out,” says Juan Garcia, general manager of Bentley of Beverly Hills, noting that as many as 70 percent of his customers are first-time Bentley buyers.

The company expected nothing less. The Continental GT is more critical to Bentley than groundbreaking vehicles such as the Porsche Cayenne, the Cadillac XLR, or the upcoming Ford GT are to their respective companies. To Bentley, the Continental GT is far more than just another model. It is a marketing statement, a history lesson, and a map of the future rolled into a sparkling four-wheel package that peaks at 198 mph. “It’s a critical time period,” says Alasdair Stewart, president and CEO of Bentley’s U.S. division. “We’re at the end of one era and going into another. It’s a very important phase.”

Stewart, who has been with Bentley for the last 10 years, recalls a gloomy time seven years ago, when the struggling company was waxing nostalgic for Le Mans victories 70 years past and he was fearing for his job. Now, the marque is out from under the long shadow cast by Rolls-Royce. It has been recharged by a multimillion-dollar jolt from Volkswagen and welcomed to fish through the German giant’s technology toolbox for engine and chassis improvements.

Bentley’s return to relevance began well before its split from Rolls-Royce. In 1999, the company drafted an initial design brief for the Continental GT: a pillarless two-door coupe that paid homage to past Bentleys but sported a contemporary appearance. The GT would boast the handcrafted cabin that defined the classicism and refinement of prior Bentleys, and needless to say, the coupe’s performance would have to be unmatched.

That August, design chief Dirk van Braeckel and his team began the project, and four months later completed a concept that wowed Bentley insiders. The company immediately approved the GT, focusing a primary target in its crosshairs: the three-pointed star. “In America, there’s apple pie, baseball, and Mercedes-Benz,” says Stewart. “It’s sunk in to the culture the last 40 to 50 years. It’s a brand people aspire to.”

Bentley projected the typical GT owner to be a 35- to 45-year-old male who possessed two or three homes, with a two- or three-car garage in his primary residence that most likely housed a CL- or S-Class vehicle. Bentley recognized Mercedes’ considerable success in combining styling, performance, exclusivity, and everyday driving capabilities in the $100,000-plus machines, and gave its team the mandate to achieve similar if not superior hallmarks in the GT.

Bentley equipped the Continental GT with a 550-hp, 6.0-liter, twin-turbo, 12-cylinder engine. The block, mated to a 6-speed paddle-shifted gearbox, gives the GT a zero-to-60 time of 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 198 mph. To encourage year-round use, Bentley equipped the GT with all-wheel drive. Indeed, Parchment reports that one depositor, who also owns an Aston Martin Vanquish and a Ferrari 360 Spider, plans to replace his everyday Audi with the GT. Other dealers say that Porsche 911 Turbo and BMW 7 Series drivers have also placed deposits on the Bentley.

The company sold all of its 2004 cars without offering a single test-drive, which means that these future owners were sold on auto show appearances, VIP showings, or photographs alone of the GT, which Bentley first released in mid-2002. This does not surprise Geoff Wardle, a member of the transportation design department faculty at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. He recalls viewing the car for the first time at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. When he first heard of the GT, the Englishman did not have high expectations for it, but his opinion quickly changed after seeing the GT’s sleek lines, imposing front end, and menacing grille. “I was surprised at how much it impressed me,” Wardle says. “I studied it, then I felt a compulsion to go back and really take it in. It’s not the kind of car that I’m attracted to, and I don’t have a particularly strong urge to own one, but I was quite smitten by the car.”

Wardle praises the coupe’s lines, bold headlamps, simple surfaces, signature grille, and classic wood-and-leather interior, which he brands as British as the double-deck bus. While he pans mainstream vehicles such as the Toyota Matrix and Mitsubishi Endeavor for exhibiting “visual noise,” or unnecessary gewgaws and surface changes that can clutter a car’s exterior, Wardle lauds Bentley’s designers for emphasizing simple, strong, basic proportions that lend presence to the coupe. Its look, he believes, is a result of extensive study and research of classic cars. In the GT, he recognizes design elements from the 1952 R-Type Continental and the 1928 Speed Six, two benchmark Bentleys.

Such hints at history grant the GT a timeless appearance, but they also serve to appease longtime Bentley enthusiasts, who are typically older and wealthier than the projected GT owner. Excluding the GT customer, according to Stewart, the average Bentley driver owns five or six cars and three or four homes. He often pays cash for his $199,000 Arnage T sedan or $350,000 Azure Mulliner convertible, which he drives only on weekends or special occasions. Wardle says new-money entrepreneurs typically purchase Rolls-Royces; traditional Bentley owners come from families who have owned castles for centuries.

The company’s concern is whether a $150,000 Bentley might cause existing owners to blanch at the Flying B’s downmarket march. It won’t, says Gaetano, who owns a 1947 Mark VI and uses a 1991 Turbo R as his daily driver. True Bentley lovers are driving enthusiasts who enjoy pushing their machines at every opportunity, not badge snobs who concern themselves with issues such as brand dilution. “These are cars that like to be driven and are meant to be driven,” Gaetano insists. “They are not cars that do well sitting in the garage. They want to be out on the highway. They run better and perform better. They like to be driven, and they are a joy to drive. I expect this car is going to be the same thing.”

The GT already has a successor: the four-door version of the Continental, which has not yet had a release date scheduled. The company always intended to build a sedan, but it insisted on launching the two-door GT first. “Why start with a coupe?” asks Stewart. “You shake the image of what the brand is about. It’s about driving and not being chauffeur-driven. We need to shake the perception of Bentley. You probably could not do that if you led with a sedan.”

The perception of Bentley, however inaccurate, is that the English automaker runs neck and neck with Rolls-Royce as a marque that builds stately but stuffy vehicles. The future four-door Continental, along with the existing Arnage line and Mulliner bespoke coachwork division (which Stewart dubs the company’s birthrights), is Bentley’s answer to the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the Mercedes-Benz Maybach. The GT is intended to be a completely different statement.

During a video presentation at Miller Motorcars, Bentley executives showed a slide of a driver in a tuxedo getting into the coupe. This is the image they hope to shake. Leave that, they say, to their Goodwood counterparts; light shoes, driving gloves, and an open road are the GT driver’s proper accoutrements. “The Rolls-Royce is a car that you could drive in many parts of the world and expect to have a hand grenade land in your lap,” says Wardle. “If you drive the Bentley GT, people will look at it and say, ‘That’s a really fine-looking car.’ They would think you have a lot of money, but they wouldn’t get angry. Just envious.”

Bentley, www.bentleymotors.com

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