When Bentley Split from Rolls-Royce, It Decided to Revisit Its Golden Era of Racing

After more than seven decades of marriage, the divorce of Rolls-Royce and Bentley has become final. Rolls-Royce, now owned by BMW, makes its huge limousines at a factory on Lord March's Goodwood estate, while Bentley, which has recently enjoyed an investment of €760 million from parent company VW, remains in the family home, a sprawling factory complex in Crewe.

It has been interesting to see how the marques have differentiated themselves. Under BMW, the Rolls-Royce has become bigger, more expensive, more imposing and more of a car in which to be driven. By contrast the Bentley is becoming faster, sleeker and more performance-oriented. Bentley is keen to reclaim some of the lustre it had in the Twenties, when it dominated the motor-racing circuits of Europe. During that period the Bentley Boys raced to victory five times at the 24-hour race at Le Mans, driving the muscle cars of the day; big, heavy, noisy and fast, they thundered round the course and into the record books.

Until the late-Nineties, a Bentley was a highly eccentric car. It looked like a barge, packed a powerboat punch and handled like a wardrobe on ice. However, it was a splendid machine, punching its way up to 60mph in less than six seconds.

The new Arnage series of four-door Bentleys combines the stateliness of old with even more muscular hot-rod performance: the Arnage T is a two-ton, four-door, 450bhp super saloon that hits 60 in 5.5 seconds. But Bentley has also woken up to the fact that customers do not necessarily want a drag-racer disguised as a drawing room, and for them it has built the new Bentley Continental GT. The leather, the stitching, the wood and the signature "bull's eye" air vents are all here, but they have been cleverly reinterpreted; this is luxury with a sense of purpose and contemporaneity that will appeal to the serious driver. Outside, the look combines understatement with the suggestion of limitless power coiled tightly beneath the mellifluous bodywork.

In terms of stopping, starting, moving rapidly, going round corners and staying on the road, this will probably be the best Bentley yet. I say probably because few people except for top brass at Bentley and VW have had the privilege of driving it yet.

It will be powered by a twin turbo, 12-cylinder, 6-litre engine arranged in the W12 format (like a V12, but in a W configuration). This engine has already made its debut in a VW (the new Phaeton), but Bentley stresses that it will be totally re-engineered for its baby.

The car is intended to be a realistic alternative to a Porsche, Aston Martin or Ferrari. It will reach 60mph in around five seconds, hit a top speed of over 180mph, and have six gears (tiptronic, of course), a boot into which you could pile the contents of the nearest Louis Vuitton store, and a cabin that will seat four in comfort. It will indeed be the only car you'll ever need: fast, safe, comfortable, stylish and desirable. So there it is: if you only buy one supercar this year, make it the Bentley Continental GT.

The Bentley Continental GT will be on sale in the second half of the year at around €165,000

By Nicholas Foulkes

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.