Never has the iconic 'winged B' emblem been more apt, says Sean O'Grady. Get ready to experience automotive lift-off
Time was when Bentley Motors would announce a new model about once a decade. Even then, they weren't always worth bothering about. Until the 1990s, most Bentley models were merely re-badged Rolls-Royces. Indeed, sometimes the folks at the Crewe factory couldn't even be bothered to change all the badges, so you'd find little Rolls-Royce logos on the dials of your (supposed) Bentley. A low point.
Then Rolls-Royce decided to make their Bentleys more special, more sporting. A few years ago, the two brands were finally divorced in a messy split involving new parents VW (for Bentley) and BMW (for Rolls-Royce).
Since then, however, both brands seem to have prospered, and the Bentley side of things particularly so. Bentley makes an operating profit these days – of €85m (£57m) on turnover of €739m. Sales are projected to break the 10,000 mark next year, as the company probes deeper into new and lucrative markets; China, India and so on. Bentley – appropriately enough, given its "winged B" emblem– is flying.
So are the cars. The latest variation on the Continental is the Speed. They've given it a little facelift, as they have the Continental GT, which continues. You'll spot a slightly more upright grille and, in the case of the Speed model, a darker filling to the grille.
Some chrome bezels on the headlamps don't sound like much, but they really lift the front; the original Continental had a slightly "piggy eyed" look to its face. There's a new spoiler, a nicer, smaller steering wheel and, er, that's about it. Their customers – increasingly loyal it seems – told them not to "mess" with the look of the car. They didn't.
What they did "mess" with was the stuff under that elegant coachwork. More power and efficiency have helped to push the car's top speed beyond the 200mph mark, thus creating the fastest production Bentley ever. It is a 6.0-litre, 12-cylinder, 600bhp wonder, and an instant classic.
If your interest extends to this sort of thing, I may as well mention the obvious pride the company's engineers have in their car's improved crankcase breathing, new con rods, upgraded gearbox, adjustable electronic stability control, revised chain-drive arrangement, unique bespoke Pirelli tyres, clever tyre monitoring equipment and, to top it all and stop it all, its great big ceramic brakes – the biggest and best in the world, by all accounts, and a £10,000 option that is highly recommended (it's cheap compared to the bill for fixing the crumpled front end of your Bentley).
But is the GT Speed worth the £17,000 premium it commands over the Continental GT? To me, sad to say, it's a bit like comparing a 1989 Bordeaux with one from the 1982 vintage. Both are superb, but only the most trained and discriminating palate could detect the difference.
I can't claim to have one of those. I can say that this GT Speed is a bit more magnificently responsive and a little speedier than than the already awesome GT. As it happens, I think I prefer the grille arrangement on the newer car, and the fact that it's slightly more likely to take to the air. More of a flying Bentley, if you see what I mean.