Prior to the First World War, Walter Owen Bentley owned a car dealership with his brother, Horace. He was also an enthusiastic racing driver who won several races with cars he had improved himself. Having honed his engineering skills by modifying car engines for use in aircraft during the war years, Walter – known as WO – and his brother went on to found Bentley Motors Limited in 1919.
The first car built by the company was the 3-litre, introduced in 1919 but sold to the public only from 1921. A total of 1 622 were built in various versions, including a Super Sports model that could achieve 100mph or about 160kph – a sensational speed 100 years ago!
With the help of loyal drivers – wealthy British motorists known as the Bentley Boys who loved to compete at speed – Bentley Motors won more and more races, among them the 24-hour Le Mans several times during the 1920s. One of its biggest rivals on the track at the time was another vehicle bearing the legendary name of its creator: Bugatti. Although the Italian Ettore Bugatti once described the big, heavy British cars as “the fastest lorries on Earth”, his lightweight racers could beat them neither on the track nor in sales and marketing.
In March 1930, one of the Bentley Boys, Woolf Barnato, raced his Bentley against the famous French Blue Train from Cannes to London and won. Much publicity surrounded the event and the company gained a lot of positive press at home and abroad. But its focus wasn’t just on racing; Bentley also built elegant, luxurious cars that competed with Daimler and Rolls-Royce.
Its financial position wasn’t sound, though, and although Woolf Barnato, heir to the Kimberley diamond magnate, Barney Barnato, bought the company and spent a large part of his fortune trying to keep it afloat, his efforts were to no avail. The Great Depression took its toll and by 1931, Bentley Motors was bankrupt, giving Rolls-Royce the opportunity to take over the company and thus eliminate one of its closest rivals.
In time, Rolls-Royce, too, ran into financial difficulties and was liquidated, and Bentley Motors was eventually acquired by Volkswagen AG in 1998. From then on the focus returned to the Bentley heritage of combining sportiness with luxury, and models like the new Flying Spur Speed, with a top speed
exceeding 300km/h, have re-established the Bentley reputation. Moreover, Volkswagen has done the sensible thing and, while improving the brand, has retained its Britishness, to the extent that the cars still roll off the production line in the UK (although whether this will still be the case after Brexit – if it happens – remains to be seen).
Now, 100 years after Walter Owen established his famous company, I am sitting in the latest vehicle to bear his name; and smelling the leather of a small herd of cattle and feeling the surface of 10m2 of precious wood panelling. Each Bentley interior is handcrafted from nine bull hides and stitched together with 2.8km of thread. So impressive is the detail that the thread holes have even been counted: 310 675 in all. That’s what the 300 or so engineers working at the factory in Crewe, north-western England, describe as Bentley-fying: what starts out as a seat frame from a Porsche Panamera, for instance, after Bentley-fying turns into one of the most comfortable leather thrones on the planet.
With the roof down, the new Bentley Continental GTC is by far the quietest convertible on the market. Even at speeds of up to 100km/h, you can have a decent conversation with your passenger and your hairstyle won’t change dramatically in the wind. Thanks to a neck warmer that is seamlessly integrated into the headrest and heated seats, armrests and steering wheel, the only reason to keep the roof up is if it is raining.
The fabric top opens in complete silence, taking 19 seconds to do so. A new Z-folding system ensures it folds down very low, without disturbing the car’s beautiful silhouette. Inside, the car’s appearance and surfaces are clearly inspired by vintage aeroplane fuselages and the Côtes de Gèneve watch-making heritage.
Despite its weight of 2.4 tons and length of 4.85m, this land yacht can be fast and furious, yet refined – and surprisingly well behaved when cornering sharply, thanks to torque vectoring and electronic differentials. But the GTC wasn’t developed as a sports car; it’s more of a grand open tourer, best appreciated as you cruise in the countryside in bespoke style and opulent luxury.
In the Volkswagen family, sharing means saving significant amounts of development cash. Despite a strong and healthy rivalry between sub-groupings in the company, Bentley
works closely with Porsche and Bugatti, while Audi shares knowledge with Lamborghini. The new GTC has the same genes as the Porsche Panamera: the two-door GTC, for example, uses the same MSB platform as the four-door Panamera rather than that of the VW Phaeton, as its predecessor did. There are numerous other ‘behind the scenes’ parts that you, succumbing to the sheer luxury of the GTC’s interior, simply don’t notice. It has borrowed some of the best bits from Porsche and made them its own, like the double-clutch auto box adapted from the PDK system and the suspension from the Panamera, both of which have turned the GTC into a real dynamic driver’s car.
The GTC’s brakes are the biggest iron ones of any production car. The engine, on the other hand, is 30% lighter than that of the previous generation and it has moved 150mm back behind the front axle, thus creating a more balanced fun ride. According to the engineers, the entire car is 5% lighter at 2 414kg and 20% stiffer.
Much more obvious are the design changes to the exterior. This model looks so much better than its predecessor, with a wider grille, a more attractive face and a more streamlined body. The front overhangs are shorter now, the rear is longer with muscular haunches, and those 22in wheels just look the part. The front and rear LED lights are honed to look like whisky tumblers made from crystal glass.
A world first in cars is the three-way rotating dashboard, initiated by a push of the ‘screen’ button and dubbed the Hitech Toblerone by the engineers, after the triangular Swiss chocolate bar. The motorised panel has three different faces: blank wood veneer, 12.3in
infotainment screen or three analogue dials displaying outside temperature, a compass and a chronometer. The total amount of computer power in the entire vehicle adds up to 88 digital control systems.
Under the long hood is the mighty powerhouse of Volkswagen’s 6.0-litre turbo
W12, producing an output of 626hp despite being 30kg lighter than the previous generation’s engine.
A hundred years on, Walter Owen Bentley and Woolf Barnato would have indeed been proud of what their company has achieved.
Engine 6.0-litre W12 twin turbo, paired with an 8-speed double-clutch auto and all-wheel drive
Power 467kW and 900Nm
Top speed 333kph
0-100kph 3.7 seconds
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