The Bentley Continental GT is one of the most loved Bentleys; it’s a car of distinction and class. In addition, this car helped return the storied British brand to its feet and secure its place among the upper echelon of premium automobiles.
While the Continental GT embraces all the poshness that one expects with a Bentley, the car is also a blast to drive. And it’s this thrilling performance that has been at the heart of every Continental GT since its debut two decades ago. Let’s do a deep dive into the origins of this Bentley and how it transformed the automaker.
The Continental GT was the first Bentley of the 21st century and the first to be produced under the new ownership of Volkswagen. Under its previous master, Rolls Royce, Bentley chugged along with the more sedate cars like the Continental R (sedan) and Continental T (coupe) models.
But in one of the more intriguing stories of the automotive world, Rolls Royce gets sold to Volkswagen in 1998. And through a quirk of fate (and some bad lawyering), VW fails to secure the rights to the Rolls Royce name. BMW acquired the Rolls Royce brand after some legal wrangling, while Bentley stayed in VW’s hands.
At this point, Volkswagen goes for a reset with Bentley with the hopes of outselling Rolls Royce (and getting back at BMW in the process). The Continental T and Azure would soldier on for a few more years, but in the meanwhile, Bentley would get to work on an all-new coupe.
With inspiration from the Concept Java coupe developed under the old Rolls Royce regime, the Continental GT started to take shape. As part of VW’s efforts to reinvigorate the brand, Bentley returned to the legendary 24 Hours of LeMans in 2001. The new EXP Speed 8 track car gave Bentley needed credibility and ultimately a win in 2003.
Bentley debuted the Continental GT at the 2003 Geneva Motor Show. This two-door, two-row grand tourer coupe could trace its heritage to previous Continentals but represented a different direction. The new Bentley was sleeker, had broad shoulders leading to curvy rear arches, a smoother front with a slanted grille, and oval headlights. The brand had cleverly pulled off an ideal blend of new and old.
Under the hood sat a 6.0-liter twin-turbo W12 power plant producing an impressive 525 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque and connected to a six-speed automatic gearbox. Thanks to the all-wheel-drive setup, the newest Continental could do 0-60 mph in just 4.8 seconds and top out at 197 mph. In comparison, a 2003 Ferrari Spider took 4.4 seconds for 0-60 mph.
Its speed was remarkable for a car that weighed 5,320 pounds (almost double the Ferrari). And VW had a trick up its sleeve as the underpinnings of the GT were shared with VW’s Phaeton sedan.
This allowed Bentley to offer its newest offering for $149,000. While not an insignificant price, the GT proved an irresistible bargain for the elite. In addition, Bentley was able to halve production time. By 2007, Bentley sold more Continental GTs than the total Bentleys ever produced before the GT.
The debut model year featured six exterior color options, five interior wood accents, and eight leather choices. While the interior shared some components with its siblings, the GT was all about the latest technology and even included a dash-mounted timepiece from Swiss watch company Breitling.
Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Bentley went to work upgrading the 2004 edition with more technology and gear, including a voice-activated in-car telephone (remember, the iPhone didn’t appear until 2007) and 20-inch sport wheels. 2006 saw the introduction of the Continental GT Convertible or GTC.
The following year saw the introduction of the Bentley Continental GT Speed, a more robust and lighter variant of the GT. The Speed had Mulliner driving specs with 75 extra horses, a lowered ride height with upgraded suspension settings, anti-roll bars, performance tires, and an additional dynamic driving mode.
A Speed version of the GTC became available in 2009, and a new GT Series 51 offered customization options for the GT and GTC. At the same time, Bentley introduced the Continental Supersports as a limited-run variant.
Based on the GT, the Supersports was more muscular and relied on a larger grille to cool a potent 621-horsepower W12 engine. With a 0-60 mph time of 3.7 seconds, the Continental Supersports was the fastest Bentley to date.
The second-generation GT was unveiled at the 2010 Paris Motor Show and featured a reworked exterior, a posher interior, and an upgraded drivetrain. Among the improvements was a new eight-speed gearbox (the previous GT had a six-speed automatic).
In addition to the W12 engine, a new twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 became available. While less powerful (500 horsepower and 487 lb-ft of torque), it could still propel the GT in a respectable manner (0-60 in 4.5 seconds). Thanks to the reduced engine weight and cylinder deactivation technology, the smaller engine consumed 40 percent less fuel than its W12 counterpart.
The Continental GT Speed reappeared in 2012 with a 616-horsepower W12 power plant, an upgraded suspension, and reworked chassis. Bentley introduced the 2014 GT V-8 S to fit between the base model and the GT Speed so as to offer a “sweet spot” for specific Continental GT shoppers. A lowered ride height and improved body control accompany the 521-horsepower engine.
2015 saw a facelift across the model lineup, and the Supersports was brought back in 2017 in a coupe and convertible forms. A monster 700-horsepower W12 engine signified the most powerful Bentley.
The third-gen Continental GT debuted for the 2019 model year and continued the two-engine (V-8 or W12) and two-body style (coupe or convertible) approach. Variants include the 2020 debut of the GTC Mulliner for an over-the-top luxurious interior and the 2021 return of the GTC Speed.
The 2022 Continental GT lineup carries forward with the same power choices. Output for the base GT with the V-8 is now 542 horsepower, while versions with the W12 crank out 626 horsepower. Interestingly, with a 3.4-second time from zero to 60 mph, the V-8 is only 0.1 seconds slower than a GT with the W12. Mulliner customizations, now with a new Blackline series, remain available.
For upgraded GT performance, the Speed’s W12 engine offers 650 horsepower accompanied by an upgraded chassis, rear-wheel steering, and torque vectoring. And like all Continental GTs, an all-wheel-drive system is standard.
The GT’s interior remains as premium as ever. Buyers can choose from 14 leather choices, five veneer options, and four stitch selections. Most cabin components are customizable, so a buyer can pick the seats and the gear shift knob.
For the ultimate in top-end vehicles, there are few cars like the Continental GT. It’s a luxury appreciated by many but owned by few. If you’re curious about the history of other magnificent rides, explore more stories in our blog, like How The 1957 BMW 507 Became A $5 Million Car. And be sure to contact us with story ideas about other cars and automotive topics.
Posted Friday, February 11, 2022