How have we managed to get most way through Brave Pill's second year having never featured a Bentley Continental GT? Create a three-part Venn diagram with the headings "desirability", "enticing price" and "petrifying peril" and the bit in the middle is Conti Island. Can you think of another car that better exemplifies the heroic jeopardy that the BP was established to encourage?
Like adverts for gambling, Brave Pill tends to SHOUT ABOUT reward and [whisper quietly] about risk, not wanting to discourage you from doing something rash and exciting. But it would be professionally remiss of me not to point out that the monetary hazard posed by an aging Bentley is on a different level to that of most Pills. In the same way the summit of Ben Nevis is on a different level to the Norfolk Broads.
I realised this several years ago when I got to witness somebody else's misfortune first hand. I was borrowing a Mercedes SL from a top-end dealer for a story and saw a dusty Continental GT parked at the back of the warehouse that stored his surplus stock. The business proprietor - a man who knew more about luxury cars than I ever will - said he had taken it as a part-ex, bidding low as it had a permanently lit check engine light and a misfire.
His plan to repair it and flip it for an easy profit had been stymied. Indeed, after spending more than ten grand trying to fix it, he'd given up. Everything obvious had been replaced, as had a fair amount of non-obvious stuff, and even a Bentley main dealer had been unable to trace the issues. The car was stored with its engine in pieces - the cylinder heads were in the boot - and the dashboard had been partially removed to reach less accessible electronics. This had happened to a bloke who specialized in complex, exotic cars - what hope is there for mere mortals?
Yet despite the dangers, it is very hard not to be drawn to early Contis, especially as they have fallen through the £20K barrier. There are many reasons why this is the most successful Bentley of all time in terms of production volume, and although the current Conti W12 is considerably more advanced in terms of tech - and gets those natty 'cut glass headlights' - the basic appeal of huge brawn and a wuffly/snarly 12-cylinder engine remains the same.
Bentley had been planning a more accessible entry-level model for decades before the Continental GT happened, but had never been able to raise the cash necessary to make one. (As some of the proposals from the 60s involved renosing and retailing BMC products, this was probably a good thing.) But once Volkswagen took control in 1998 the corporate cheque book was soon burning and a plan quickly evolved to build a car around the W12 engine that Volkswagen uberboss Ferdinand Piech had already ordered his German minions to begin work on.
The 6.0-litre engine's breadth and mass dictated a fairly substantial car would be required to fit around it, and - once turbocharged - the W12's output would be sufficient to dictate all-wheel drive; bringing a correspondingly drama-free dynamic brief that could be encapsulated in the phrase "effortless performance." Like it said on the tin, the GT was a Grand Tourer - a hugely fast and occasionally agile one, but it wasn't a pure-blooded sports car. Something that led some early reviewers to wonder if owners might find it a bit soft.
Anything but: Bentley's engineers and marketeers had called it perfectly and the Conti was soon setting sales records for both the brand and its segment. Bentley built nearly 3,000 cars in 2004, the first full year of production. Contrast that with the Aston DB9, which crept over 2,000 annual global sales just once in its long life and was outsold by at least 2:1 by the GT in every year from 2007 onwards.
Many of those considering both cars were doubtless drawn to the Conti's headline-grabbing performance figures. The early car's official top speed was 197mph, but it was actually capable of cracking the double-ton out of the box, a point I saw proved on a quiet stretch of Autobahn with a GPS speedometer. The DB9 could only manage a snail-like 186mph. But equally important was the other side of the GT's personality, that of the Gently Bentley, able to travel slowly and deal with the real world without complaint, schlepping along on a scant percentage of its enormous performance, while drivers enjoyed the refinement and specialness of the cabin.
Contemporary write-ups mostly likened the Continental's interior to a gentleman's club - the sort with liveried porters and oak paneling rather than girls called Roxy and shiny poles. The black plastic binnacle and surrounding switchgear in the centre of the dash now looks quite dated, and the sat-nav will seem truly prehistoric, but any GT remains a seriously nice place to spend time. Standards of fit and finish were better than in any previous Bentley for the simple fact that it was less hand built than its predecessors - although the hand-stitched trim was all hand stitched in Crewe.
Considering the GT's early success and how many there were out there, residuals stayed strong for a long time. But nothing this grand, complicated and plentiful can escape depreciation forever, and as values fell so the Conti's ownership demographic changed. It is definitely possible to find what could be termed "old money" examples out there - with one or two owners and impeccable maintenance records. But at this end of the market it's fair to say it is far easier to find GTs with little or no history and which have been passed between large numbers of keepers, each trying not to be the name on the V5 when the music stops and a really big bill drops.
There are many potential pitfalls with less-loved cars. Coil packs are prone to fail, turbos can turn smoky and stinting on the (non-trivial) spark plug changes can make it extremely hard to persuade them out. Electronics can fritz, suspension can knock, gearboxes can expire if shown insufficient love and the variable CDC dampers can surrender expensively. Brake components are both short-lived and pricey to replace when they do get chewed. Electronic faults can be hard to trace, and replacement trim will be hugely expensive. Any buyer of a cheap GT needs to be ready for bills worth a substantial percentage of the car's modest price.
Yet this is possibly the hugest amount of car available for the money, certainly if you multiply size with prestige. Our Pill is the cheapest GT currently in the classifieds and the advert text is light on the sort of reassuring detail anyone looking for a cherished heirloom grade example would expect to find. The pictures show a fine-looking early example in silver with oxblood trim. It is riding on diamond-cut 21-inch rims too late for it to have left the factory on, with two of these wearing Pirelli P-Zeros and two, appropriately enough, carrying Continental SportContacts. One of the wheels also seems to have picked up a parking graze and the headlight lenses look a little discoloured in the dead-on image, but the rest of the car has scrubbed up well and the overall effect is still of something you'd expect to cost multiples of the £18,999 pricetag it actually wears. MOT history only goes back to 2016 - suggesting a private plate change - but supports the mileage and doesn't throw up anything too scary.
Don't worry, the next buyer's imagination will probably fill in the blanks on that one. But even if the worst does happen to an early GT it will always leave a fine-looking corpse. Will cars like this ever get substantially cheaper?
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