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Bentley in Le Mans

A late May day in 1923 and a 3-litre Bentley leaves London for the coast. On board are two drivers, one mechanic and a few spares. Spool 79 years and one fortnight to an early June day. As you read this another Bentley is on its way to exactly the same place: Le Mans. 



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Bentley: Continental GT Concept



Bentley Continental GT  
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Bentley Motors is delighted to unveil the Continental GT Design Concept as it makes its world debut at the Paris Motor Show. Conceived to be a sporting coupé without rival, the Continental GT is not just the fastest Bentley in the 83-year history of the company; it is also the fastest genuine four-seat coupé in the world.

Bentley Continental GT  
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It combines all elements of the finest Grand Touring traditions and Bentley craftsmanship with some of the most advanced technologies ever brought to the automotive market.


Featuring a 6-litre, 12 cylinder, twin-turbocharged, engine with more than 500bhp driving all four wheels through a paddle-operated, six-speed automatic gearbox, the Continental GT offers true supercar performance combined with the interior space, versatility and ease of ownership to make it not merely viable as an everyday car, but a natural for the role.

In this respect as well as many others, Bentley believes the Continental GT to be unique.

The Continental GT is being designed and engineered by Bentley at Crewe and will be manufactured there in all-new facilities that combine state-of-the-art technologies with the unique hand finishing and attention to detail that has been the hallmark of all cars to wear the winged 'B'. It goes on sale in the second half of 2003 and will bring the prospect of Bentley ownership to a wider audience of discerning enthusiasts than ever before. And while the Continental GT is a Bentley from bumper to bumper, the role of the company's Volkswagen parent can scarcely be ignored.

Bentley Continental GT  
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The dream of building a new Bentley coupé is not new - indeed it has been alive at Crewe for over 20 years. But it was only the £500 million vote of confidence placed in the marque by VW that brought the dream to reality. And VW has more than merely made funds available to design an all-new car. It has also enabled Bentley to transform the Crewe factory into a thoroughly modern centre of manufacturing excellence, ensuring not only that Bentley is in better shape today than ever, but also guaranteeing its design, engineering and manufacturing sovereignty as far into the future as it is possible to see.

Bentley Continental GT  
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  • An all-new Bentley coupé, inspired by the finest Grand Touring traditions but designed, engineered and built using the most modern techniques blended with inimitable Bentley craftsmanship.

  • The fastest four-seat coupé in the world with a top speed in excess of 180mph (290km/h) and 0-62mph (100km/h) of under five seconds.

  • Powered by a Bentley-designed 6-litre, twin-turbocharged, W12 engine developing more than 500bhp. Tuned to provide not simply massive power, but also the unmistakeable Bentley delivery achieved only by the coincidence of high torque at low revs.

  • Drive is sent to all four wheels, a first for a Bentley - as is the paddle operated, six-speed automatic gearbox. All-wheel drive and electronic stability programme were considered essential not only for the Continental GT's performance, but also to provide year-round versatility in all conditions.

  • Styled in house at Bentley's design studios in Crewe to incorporate all traditional Bentley design hallmarks into a totally contemporary shape. Packaged to seat a family of four in comfort and to provide enough luggage space for a fortnight's driving holiday.

  • Styling cues include pillarless cabin, minimal front overhang, pronounced haunches, distinctive 'face' featuring large inner headlamps, flush mounted rear spoiler that rises at speed.

  • Designed entirely in the virtual world, using the very latest digital processes.

  • Chassis designed by Bentley engineers to provide responsive handling combined with an effortlessly absorbent ride quality consistent with Continental GT's Grand Touring role.


The styling story of the Continental GT dates back to August 1999 when newly appointed head of design, Dirk van Braeckel was briefed to prepare a concept for an all-new Bentley coupé: one that would use 80 years of Bentley design as its inspiration, yet look only to the future in its shape. It took just four months - until just before Christmas - when van Braeckel submitted his preferred design to the board of Bentley Motors. It was approved on the spot. "I'm still staggered it took four months," says van Braeckel. "When you design a car there's always a story to tell and this one involved gathering the right team of designers, all of whom understood what we were trying to create. It's a very emotional product and that's the way we approached it. It was a magical process."

Bentley's design philosophy for the Continental GT can be quantified as follows: the car must have a short front overhang and an overtly dominant bonnet expressed by the unusually large distance between the front axle line and the A-pillar. The pillarless cabin itself needs to be sleek and compact while the rear haunches should be taut and pronounced, giving the impression of a crouching animal ready to pounce.

Overlaying these individual highlights is a design language evolved straight from the hearts of the styling team. It dictated that the Continental GT be styled to be curvaceous and sinuous with a form that appears and disappears like muscle on a gymnast's arm, sculptural yet lean.

Having achieved such a clean design, it would have been easy to compromise given the dynamic challenges of such a high performance car. For instance, any car capable of being three miles away in just 60 seconds clearly needs carefully optimised aerodynamics to keep it safe at such speeds, and clamping a vast rear spoiler to the bootlid would have been one way of ensuring this.

In fact the aerodynamics department at Crewe, formed in 1999, had a rather more elegant solution in mind. The Continental GT is indeed fitted with a rear spoiler, but one so skilfully integrated into the design of the car, where the rear screen meets the bootlid; it is for the most part invisible. The spoiler works in harmony with the rear diffuser that sits out of site out of the car, deploying automatically when high speed merit additional downforce.

Another unique feature of the styling of the car is the Central High Mounted Stop Lamp, known somewhat awkwardly in the industry as the CHMSL. Regulations require the CHMSL to occupy a certain area, but do not dictate its shape. So, some free thinking later and the Continental GT is fitted with a CHMSL that is just 3mm tall but fully one metre wide. The effect of this is that it has no negative impact whatsoever on the styling, while at the same time ensuring that the driver of the car behind is left in no doubt at all when the brakes are being applied.


The cabin of the Continental GT is designed to make Bentley devotees and marque newcomers feel equally at home. Those familiar with the Bentley way of doing things will be reassured, comforted and cosseted by the expanses of top quality hide and fine wood veneers; those for whom Bentley ownership is a new experience will discover a new level of luxury, style and effortless good taste. Most notable perhaps is the symmetrical nature of the facia with a centre console rising up and curving left and right in front of the passenger and driver in a shape that intentionally reflects the design of the famed Bentley wings. It also has the effect of creating the same atmosphere on either side of the car so that the passenger feels almost as much part of the action as the driver.

Bentley Continental GT Bentley Continental GT
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For the man or woman behind the wheel, however, a unique driving environment awaits. It goes without saying that an ideal driving position is easily achieved - Bentley's interior designers have been as far as to measure New York basketball players to make sure all shapes and sizes can be accommodated.

Bentley is one of few car manufacturers to retain seat design as an in-house field of excellence, and anyone who has travelled any distance at all in a Bentley knows how important this area of design is to the marque. The particular challenge with the Continental GT was to offer a sublimely comfortable seat complete with considerable front and rear travel, a multitude of electric adjustments and integral seat-belts. Seat-belt performance is naturally one of the most important safety aspects of any car, and those in the front usually have their upper anchorages in the B-pillar. With a pillarless design like that of the Continental GT, however, this has not been possible and Bentley's designers are pleased not only to have met all the safety targets of the integral seat and belt, but to reach them without compromising the interior style of the car.

Most routine operations used frequently when the car is in motion - such as the cruise and basic music controls - can be operated direct from the steering wheel. Other functions such as the air-conditioning, navigation, computer information and more advanced entertainment features are individually controlled, but displayed on the same screen sited in the middle of the centre console.

Instrumentation is provided by classically styled dials that live in deep recesses ahead of the steering wheel, while a small screen directly in the driver's sight-line monitors all relevant in-car systems.

Though craftsmanship remains as important as ever, these enduring skills have been supplemented by some 21st century technology allowing, for instance, wood to be dramatically curved in a way that would simply not have been possible in the past. And while the leather is still applied to the car with as much loving care as ever, it is cut from the hide using a new digitised process that ensures minimal levels of wastage and maximum efficiency.


The design brief for the Continental GT was as simple to state as it was difficult to realise: create a car with as much room as the most spacious coupés on the market, equip it with the performance and responses of the world's most dynamic supercars and retain the whole within compact dimensions.

There are many questions raised by such a demanding specification and it took sizeable measures of blue sky thinking and detailed innovation before it could be realised.

Instead of using two long banks of six cylinders, as featured on all conventional V12 motors, the W12 staggers the cylinders in each bank creating effectively two extraordinarily narrow angle (15deg) V6 engines sharing a common crankshaft and giving rise to the 'W' formation. This naturally provides a phenomenally short engine for its considerable capacity, and frees up space that can be reapportioned the car's interior. Indeed it is the shortest twelve cylinder engine on the market.

One key to maximising interior space is raising the so-called 'H' point - the position in which the driver and front passenger hips naturally sit, and which in all Bentleys is elevated above where it would be in a conventional supercar. The benefits are many: first it means the commanding driving position - another Bentley hallmark - is retained; secondly it means the driver and passenger's hip to heel angle is as close to anatomical perfection as is possible. Finally, and critically, a high and upright driving position liberates vital room in the back for rear seat passengers.

The result is a true two plus two, a phrase rather devalued today by being applied to cars with little more than a ledge behind the front seats. In the Continental GT it means a car capable of carrying two adults and two children in comfort for unlimited distances.

Another less obvious but no less important benefit of the Continental GT's design is the omission of a B-pillar. There are many aesthetic reasons for adopting the pillarless look, but for those inside looking out and particularly those in the back, the unbroken expanse of glass from the front to the rear of the cabin provides a feeling of great space and airiness. In the GT coupé, the pillarless feature and other design touches such as slimmed down front headrests mean an unparalleled view from the rear seat for a car in this class.

Even the 355litre luggage capacity has only been achieved through fresh thinking and innovation. In cars of this size, it is accepted practice to site the fuel tank between the boot and rear seat, adding to the overall length of the car, removing interior and boot capacity and, crucially, removing the possibility of loading long items through the boot into the rear cabin. The Continental GT's fuel tank, however, is under the floor of the car. It's a tricky piece of design, for to house a 90litre tank there requires it to straddle the transmission tunnel, but there's no doubting the effectiveness of the result. Not only is there enough boot space to swallow enough luggage for a family fortnight away, if that holiday happens to be to the ski slopes, it will take all four sets of skis inside the car or two pairs of skis and a couple of snow boards. All of this mind, without having to resort to an unsightly and insecure roof rack.


Even before it had been determined how the Continental GT would be powered, two crucial decisions were made and set in stone. First, the Continental GT would possess a new level of performance - one that placed it among the very fastest cars on earth; secondly the provision of that performance would remain inimitably Bentley. Reconciling these issues would require a great deal of power, but more importantly, huge torque delivered evenly across the rev-range.

The W12 formation engine was a natural choice for Bentley. Not only did it have the potential to deliver these objectives, it also boasted the incredibly compact dimensions required to realise the Continental GT's packaging requirements.

Once this decision had been made, it was necessary to change entirely the specification of the engine to adapt it for the very particular purpose needed by the Continental GT. First of all it was clear that the power output of the standard engine - while impressive for a normally aspirated engine - was not going to generate the kind of power and torque figures required to make it not only a great engine but, more importantly, a great Bentley engine.

Using two turbochargers on an engine with two banks of cylinders has many advantages over the old, single turbo method. For a start, because there are two of them, each turbo is much smaller than would be a single unit designed for the same purpose. This means they have less inertia and therefore accelerate up to and back down from operating speed much more quickly, minimising turbo-lag. Two turbochargers also means the car's catalytic converters can be sited next to the exhaust manifold where they heat up extremely quickly, offering greatly reduced exhaust emissions, particularly when the engine is cold.

For this application KKK turbochargers were chosen and carefully integrated into the under-bonnet package.

The use of four-wheel drive was decided in the earliest stages of the project and if this sounds like something of a departure for Bentley - which has only ever made rear-wheel drive cars in its past - it was felt that this new level of power demanded a commensurate level of control. Besides, if the Continental GT was to be exploited by its owners to its maximum potential, it would need to be not just useable, but utterly at home in all environments from the Santa Monica Boulevard to the compacted snow surfaces of Alpine resorts.

It is a fair observation that a 6-litre, twin-turbo engine with tremendous torque does not strictly need six gears to keep itself on the boil. Then again, to look at any element of Bentley performance in terms of need is perhaps to miss some of the point of the marque. It's true that many Continental GT drivers will spend much of their time allowing the transmission to shift itself or even using the Tiptronic function to lock the gearbox in a certain ratio and allow the engine's massive torque to carry the car along. However, Bentley also knows that most of its customers for the Continental GT will be enthusiasts who will relish the prospect of flicking up and down the gearbox at the pull of a paddle or the push of a lever. Under the circumstances, six speeds seem entirely appropriate.


Perfecting ride and handling is one of the most complex and difficult areas of car design. For the Continental GT designers this job has been doubly tough for few cars, if any, have been brought to market with a greater expectation of excellence in both areas.

The basis of the Continental GT's chassis strategy is an extremely stiff body, without which, even the most sophisticated of suspension systems can be undermined. To this was applied the very latest in suspension technology featuring an innovative double wishbone arrangement at the front - designed to minimise torque reactions through the steered wheels - and multi-link rear axle behind. Extensive use of aluminium has been made, notably in the control arms, to lower unsprung mass while the entire front subframe of the car is fashioned from than stainless steel.

Air springs are used at each corner in place of conventional coils, each one containing its own infinitely adjustable electronic damper. The application of pressure to an air spring (best thought of as bellows contained within a metal tube) is uniform while coil springs are subject to side forces that, in turn, lead to damper friction, the bane of any chassis engineer's life. Also the bellows can move through different shapes as they expand and compress, effectively allowing variable spring rates to be used.

Two more advantages of air springs are that they can be smaller and therefore easier to package than conventional coil systems and secondly, they allow a car to maintain its static ride height, regardless of load, so the car does not suddenly become spongy to drive when fully laden.

The electronic dampers fitted to the Continental GT do more than offer a few different settings for the driver to play with. Within their set parameters they are, in fact, capable of adjusting themselves infinitely and continuously without the driver ever being aware of it. A central computer processes information fed to it from sensors around the car and instructs the dampers accordingly, each damper is capable of adjusting its damping control many times during a single event, such as a wheel moving up and down over a bump. The key is for the computer to analyse both the car's body and wheel movements to ensure both remain in harmony with each other.

Naturally both traction control and the latest Bosch Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) are fitted though they can be disabled at the discretion of the driver. The secret to understanding their function is to see them as additional to the Continental GT's exceptionally well-mannered dynamic behaviour, rather than as an essential ingredient in keeping a car of these capabilities safe. Bentley knows that many of its customers will want to turn the electronics off from time to time and they need to be certain that even without these aids, the Continental GT's handling remains supremely secure and capable.

Most of the time, however, the ESP will be enabled, but inactive; should it be required by the driving conditions though, it will be deployed automatically but unobtrusively, so as not to intrude on the Bentley driving experience.

The Continental GT is capable of monitoring a whole range of dynamic attitudes such as lateral acceleration, individual wheel speeds, throttle position and brake pressure. No car can defy the laws of physics and there are certain extreme conditions that even ESP will be unable to guard against, but as an extra line of defence for the unfortunate driver caught out by unexpected circumstances, its safety value is real and evident.

Braking will be provided by all-new, ventilated disc brakes at each corner featuring the latest Bosch anti-lock system with Brake Assist and Emergency Brake Force Distribution.

Once all the specifications of the chassis had been determined, the Continental GT was put through the most rigorous real world evaluation programme of any Bentley in history, a process that continues to this day. From race tracks such as the famed original Nürburgring to mountain passes and sinuous switchbacks all over the world, the Continental GT is being tested and re-tested to fine tune its exceptionally promising chassis specification to provide ride and handling standards that don't merely rise above the class standard but define it.


The Continental GT is equipped with the full suite of passive safety equipment. As well as possessing exceptional front, side and rear deformation characteristics on impact, there are two front airbags, four side airbags and two side curtain bags that, unusually for a coupé, each run along the full length of the cabin. Seat belt pretensioners are used for all four seats.

Of course prevention is better than cure and avoiding the accident in the first place has to be preferable. To this end, the Continental GT is specified like few others in the market. All-wheel drive, when correctly exploited, has colossal safety advantages in adverse conditions, while the latest traction, stability and brake control systems offer further opportunities for drivers to extricate themselves from danger. And of course there is the not small issue of the powerful engine and its ability to keep time spent on the wrong side of the road during overtaking to an absolute minimum; and should you ever have to accelerate away from trouble, few will do so more quickly than this.

Photos: Bentley

Sept. 2003


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