I’ve come to Scotland, and everything is weird. Having been here before, I thought I knew what to expect: rain, gloomy castles, bubbling distilleries, dark lochs—maybe even a few witches around a cauldron talking trash about Macbeth. Instead, the countryside is ablaze in sunshine, the sheep are grazing in wool shorts, and the locals are out in droves sharing a bottle of Coppertone that expired in 1953. Also, I’m sitting in a leather club chair that can go 206 miles per hour.
There’s something utterly surreal about the 2015 Bentley Continental GT Speed. You look at its lusciously appointed cabin and think, “Nice digs. Classy. I’d like to relax with a cigar in there.” You might also rightly think, given its massive presence, “Bet it handles like a blimp.” But climb aboard, fire it up, mash the right pedal, and in 4 seconds flat your polished-wood cigar lounge is blasting through 60 mph—and it won’t stop charging until well clear of the Big Two. As for handling, the only thing blimp-like is that it’s a gas. You’ll never mistake it for a sports car—you certainly don’t flick it through turns—but despite checking in at 5100 pounds, the all-wheel-drive Speed seems to defy Sir Newton, cornering as deftly as a machine at least two classes below its fighting weight. Maybe the cauldron witches cooked up some magic.
But here’s the rub: Despite the Speed’s wondrous dual personality, company cofounder Walter Owen “W.O.” Bentley would’ve hated it. After all, when he was alive he turned up his nose at his company’s most famous-ever car, the 1929 “Blower Bentley,” because it was supercharged, and forced induction “perverted” his engine designs. (At that stage in his career W.O. had lost control of his company, so the Blower was built despite his protests.) The new Speed (like all of Bentley’s current engines) incorporates twin turbochargers, so it’s perverted as hell. Ah, but viva la perversion: The Speed’s blown 6.0-liter W-12 churns out 626 hp and 607 pound-feet, making it the fastest Bentley ever. This engine could make a dump truck dance.
If W.O. were reincarnated to see the Bentley of today he’d no doubt cut loose with a stream of juicy profanities at all the turbines whirling away in his namesake cars. But it wouldn’t last. Because what W.O. and his coterie of elite, speed-crazed pals from the Roaring Twenties—the Bentley Boys—couldn’t fail to notice is that Bentley circa 2014 is thriving. Last year, the company sold 10,120 cars worldwide—a record. Emerging markets such as China and the Middle East are booming, though America is still No. 1. An all-new model, an SUV, is due in 2017, and it’s so eagerly anticipated, it may well push Bentley past 15,000 vehicles annually. Most notably, unlike the old Blower—which never won a race and was famous for reliability issues—Bentley’s current forced-induction cars are simply fabulous. A few miles behind the wheel of a Speed and even W.O. himself would have to consider lifting his supercharging blockade.
Of course, W.O. would also have to swallow some pride after learning that much of the credit for Bentley’s current success owes directly to the parent company that has owned the British maker since 1998: Volkswagen. To its considerable credit, VW has managed Bentley brilliantly, stepping in where best able to assist (i.e., technology, plant modernization) but stepping back to let Bentley continue where it has always excelled (handcrafting, infusing its creations with unique character). Reports suggest the Germans spent at least $2 billion (but likely considerably more) to revitalize the classic British marque, and the investment clearly shows. One obvious change: From around 1500 workers in the 1980s and ’90s, Bentley today employs nearly 4000.
In World War II, the site that is now Bentley’s headquarters and factory in Crewe, England, turned out Merlin engines for the legendary Spitfire fighter plane. Today, many of the original structures remain, but the operation has been thoroughly modernized and expanded. “You have to remember,” says Paul Jones, Bentley’s director of project management, “that from 2003 or so we went from making about 1500 Arnages a year to only three years later turning out almost 10,000 cars. We grew six- or sevenfold. One of my greatest sights was walking into the main build hall and seeing Continental GTs as far as the eye could see.”
Inside, the Crewe factory is a curious scene—a rare blend of humans (about 80 percent of whom work on subassemblies) and modern production-line efficiency. Most conspicuous: There isn’t a robot in sight. Apparently, there is one somewhere; it applies the exacting strip of adhesive used to bond the windshield. Otherwise, though, Crewe is almost completely served by carbon-based life forms, many of whom, incidentally, are women. The massive W-12 engines, for instance, are hand-assembled one at a time, a process that takes 12.5 carefully timed hours. (Once a week, an engine is randomly plucked off the line and completely disassembled to ensure that exacting tolerances are being met.) The leather seats and panel pieces are hand-shaped, and any machine stitching is guided by human fingers. Each steering wheel requires four hours of artful leather-wrapping and hand-sewing to complete. The gleaming wood veneers that embellish the cockpit (some 30 square feet per car) are hand-selected, shaped, and finished with a precision and artistry that almost defy belief. Not surprisingly, to become one of the masters in the wood and leather shops requires a long apprenticeship starting as early as age 16.
The line moves with impressive speed given the reliance on handiwork, with about 40 Continentals and 12 Mulsannes per day. Yet it’s also leisurely enough to accommodate almost any special customer request. Along the long row of Continental bodies hanging from overhead transport racks are several painted bright pink—apparently a favorite in China. “We also once painted a car to match a female buyer’s nail polish,” chuckles director of manufacturing Michael Straughan. “Came out perfectly.” Fortunately, I saw no cars sporting customer-matched tattoos.
And what’s next for this classic label now sprinting headlong into the 21st century? “We’ll have plug-in hybrids, starting with the SUV in 2017,” says Jones. “After that, perhaps one day we could do a smaller vehicle. As long as it had all the essential Bentley DNA, why not?”
Maybe the crew from Crewe might even consider powering that future baby Bentley with a naturally aspirated engine. Wherever he is, imagine W.O.’s face then.