I don’t think anybody else in automotive journalism can make this claim: I’ve put in nearly 37,000 miles behind the wheel of a Bentley Continental GT, in places as disparate as New York City’s West 48th Street (home of Rudy’s Music), the rural roads of northern Kentucky, and the Climbing Esses at Virginia International Raceway. Forget a lead-follow press event or the rich-for-a-week-wannabe experience of a loaner car: every mile I spent behind the Bentley’s wheel was at my own expense.
Of course, I’m speaking literally here: I’d actually purchased the piano-black-wood-rimmed steering wheel from a Continental GT and installed it, along with a set of Bentley paddle shifters, into my 2006 VW Phaeton V8. When I finally got around to driving the real thing, I couldn’t believe how close the driving experience of the $190,000-plus Bentley was to that of the $68,000 Volkswagen. “This car,” I thought at the time, “is a Phaeton for idiots, which is really saying something.”
Five years later, the Continental GT is still a Phaeton for idiots, except now it’s an old Phaeton for idiots. Old, tired, and showing no signs of life despite a twin-turbo-V-8 heart transplant. It’s time to pull the plug on a car that never even deserved to be called a Bentley in the first place.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “This is just another unnecessarily bitter rant from ol’ JB. How is this car any less deserving of the Bentley name than any of the radiator-grille-jobs of the Sixties, Seventies, or Eighties?” Well, let’s start by looking at the famous “ticking clock” advertisement, shall we?
I call your attention to sales point #13:
The Bentley is made by Rolls-Royce. Except for the radiators, they are identical motor cars, manufactured by the same engineers in the same works. People who feel diffident about driving a Rolls-Royce can buy a Bentley.
Other versions of the same advertisement noted that the Bentley was slightly less expensive than the $13,995 price of the Rolls-Royce, since the radiator shell was easier to construct. Conventional wisdom tells that this “badge-engineered era”, which lasted until the arrival of the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo in 1982, was the low point in the brand’s history. The people giving you that conventional wisdom have never had to watch Paris Hilton deliberately flash her insufficiently-radiation-proof underpants at a crowd of photographers as she gracelessly unlimbers herself from a quilted-upholstery Conti GT. More to the point, they are wrong.
During the badge-engineered years, the Bentley was the most sublime and desirable vehicle in the world. Why? It’s simple. It was the Rolls-Royce for people who were confident enough to not require the Flying Lady up front. A late Sixties Bentley T1, an outstanding example of which I had the chance to drive a few years ago, was probably the most tasteful luxury car to be built since the ’61 Lincoln Continental and it certainly hasn’t faced much competition in that quarter during the decades between then and now. Car and Driver’s infamous characterization of the Silver Shadow and its descendants as “really bad Town Cars” didn’t hold water when they wrote it and it doesn’t hold water now.
With the arrival of the Turbo engine, the Mulsanne and its descendants became rapid as well as tasteful. The sublime Continental R added bespoke coachwork to the mix. Finally, Bentley created a true modern successor to the “Bentley Boys” conveyances: the brutish, voluptuous, purposeful Continental T.
The company also supplied the Azure convertible and Continental SC T-top coupes, but you can ignore them and just look at the Continental T, which is one of the finest motorcars ever built, period, point blank. Shall I explain why? If you insist:
- It was bespoke. The chassis and bodywork were derived from the Rolls-Royce but they were perfectly tailored around the short-wheelbase, flared-fender concept.
- It was masculine. A Bentley is a man’s car. Sorry about that: it just is. The Continental fits the bill, being unsubtle and vicious without resorting to a Trans Am’s worth of trailer-park visual aggression.
- It was authentic. Our own Derek Kriendler will slap me around for using the much-derided word, but the Conti-T was authentic. It was built and engineered by Englishmen in the Rolls-Royce Crewe works, using an engine which was steeped in Rolls-Royce history and finished using an absurd amount of hand labor.
- It was rapid. I don’t mean fast. Fast is a crass phrase used to describe how well a Nissan GT-R circumnavigates the Burgerkingring under ideal conditions with brand-new tires and the boost cranked to fruit-fly life expectancy. Rapid means the owner/driver of a Bentley arrives quickly at his destination and has the power to execute two-lane passes or freeway sound-barrier runs at will.
Most critically, the Continental T didn’t depend on the Bentley “brand”. It would have been a kick-ass, hugely desirable vehicle with the Bristol, or Aston, or Triumph, or Ford badge affixed to the front. It didn’t require all that accessorized crap about “lifestyle” to be a great car. It simply was a great car.
What replaced it? The Continental GT, which was far from a great car. To begin with, it was styled to look like nothing in particular. It wasn’t even styled to look like what it was, which was a giant Volkswagen. The designer, Dirk van Braeckel, tried to make a front-wheel-drive sedan look like a rear-wheel-drive coupe, and the result was this horrifying mishmash that looked quite a bit like that one frog-eyed Celica you occasionally see outside strip clubs in the daytime. It was easily the least tasteful Bentley in company history up to that point, but since then Mr. van Braeckel has inflicted the Mulsanne on the public. The Mulsanne looks like nothing so much as as the pale, distended monsters seen at the bottom of the ocean by James Cameron’s deep-sea submarine, casting their enormous, bulbous eyes around in different directions while their nightmarishly unhinged jaws yawn open in the search for blind, wiggling prey.
The CGT’s bizarre proportions required huge wheels, and those huge wheels feel like anchors holding the Bentley to the ground whenever a directional change is required. The base Euro-market VR6 Phaeton steers and rides better than the Bentley, at a quarter of the cost.
Where is that 300% markup over the Phaeton returned to the customer? I figure it works like this: about 25% for the twin-turbo W-12 (or, now, poverty-spec twin-turbo V-8), about 50% for the interior upgrades, and 225% because the VW Group believes you’re stupid enough to pay it. The Bentley has a nice interior — as long as you ignore the fact that all the “hard points”, from the location of the vents to the positioning of the chrome-ringed radio power switch, are cribbed straight from the VW. Oddly enough, the Audi A8, which was developed concurrently with the VW/Bentley twins, got its own architecture both inside and out, and as a result is probably the nicest of the three.
It should also be noted that the Continental GT’s luxury appointments are, by and large, made by anonymous suppliers and trucked to the assembly points in Crewe and Dresden. Oh yes, Dresden. The infamous Transparent Factory made Flying Spurs, which are four-door CGTs, whenever demand exceeded Crewe’s ability to supply. It’s really all plastic in there, although some of the plastic is very convincing and there’s a thin veneer of expensive wood laid on top on parts of it. Plastic parts, made by suppliers right around the corner from the places where that one movie “Hostel” supposedly took place.
Needless to say, the words “Bratislava” or “Dresden production” never appeared in marketing materials for the Continental GT. With each revision, the car becomes more cod-British, adding words like “Speed” or “Specification” or “Works”. Simply no expense is spared, my good man, to confuse the fact that this car is an old Volkswagen wearing a funny hat.
Whom does it fool? Certainly not the old Bentley buyers, if any of them are still alive and solvent. The Conti’s appointed role as My First Bentley makes it prime meat for all those loathsome people one sees on TMZ or the various English As A Second Language exotic-car forums. None of these people care about the engineering of the W-12 engine or the considerable ability of the all-wheel-drive system. They like the fact that it costs $175,000 or more and everybody knows it. If the head of Bentley went on the “Today” show tomorrow and said, “You know, this is really just a Phaeton for people who have a lot of money, and it’s the same car, and I can’t even tell the difference until one of my underlings points it out, but it costs about three times as much,” the sales figures would stay the same. The important thing is that it costs money. It’s the Hublot Big Bang of cars: a vaguely impressive shell surrounding a very prosaic, mass-produced item.
If the Continental was an embarrassment to the brand in 2004 — and it was — then how much more so is it today? Quite a bit more, because now the car isn’t even recognizably expensive, and it’s been revealed to be a limited-lifetime piece of junk. While the men and women of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Clubs around the world labor tirelessly to keep their affordably-purchased Shadows and Spurs alive, Continentals are joining their Phaeton brethren in the discard pile as people realize the idiocy of spending $20,000 or more to fix a car that won’t be worth that much in a year or two. Bentley can’t apply enough lip gloss to the 2013-model pig to disguise the fact that it’s about the same as the $50,000 or cheaper variants from eight or nine years ago. The new model’s sole selling point is an engine that makes less power and is less impressive than what you get in an eBay special from 2004. When pressed about the virtue of buying a new one, the company’s PR mouthpieces will say something about “reduced consumption”.
For once, I agree with them. Bentley customers should start reducing their consumption — of Phaeton-platform cars. While they’re at it, they can stay away from that misshapen Mulsanne. Perhaps the more tasteful and educated among them could consider doing something like purchasing, and restoring, a 1965 S3. Then they could enjoy a dialogue along these lines:
Neighbor: What’s the difference between that and a Rolls-Royce?
Owner: The shape of the radiator grill.
Neighbor: What’s the difference between that and a 2013 Continental GT?
Owner: This one isn’t a Volkswagen.