Revolution is expensive and not always strictly necessary. The spate of automotive brand buying, bolstering and reinvention that characterised the British car industry in the late 1990s and turn of the century saw a flurry of design archaeology, as the new stewards of old marques cast about for ways of making their wards profitable and contemporary, without losing the elements of heritage and history that defined them.
Bentley, with the mighty VW Group at the helm, came up trumps first time with the Continental GT, an automotive balancing act that swathed high technology with a thick veneer of craft and tradition.
For a two ton machine, the GT was unfeasibly rapid. The styling managed to reference classic British coachbuilding and fastback Italian grand tourers without being especially retro and the interior was, without question, a very fine place to be.
People don’t buy Bentleys to shout from the rooftops. If they must err on the side of ostentation, plenty of after-market companies exist to jazz up the basic package. Perhaps mindful of these outfits, which inevitably result in a taste bypass, Bentley has spent the past few years diversifying the basic product with a series of special editions and sport-focused models, without ever losing sight of the qualities that made the GT so popular in the first place.
Now the GT has been overhauled with a broad set of design and engineering revisions to take it deep into the decade. However, at first glimpse, the series two GT does a very passable impression of its forebear. This is intentional. Short of parking each model beside one another, the new styling job is so calm, evolutionary and understated that only those with an acute talent at spot the difference could tell them apart. Bentley’s reasoning is that since the GT is now ensconced as an icon, why mess with the fundamentals? It’s a strategy practised by Porsche and, to a certain extent, by Aston Martin. Specialist car-makers, with their compact product line-ups and loyal customers, are always mindful of straying too far from the values that made their name.
The new GT is not only familiar from the outside, but for the driver, with the same solid, leather-lined cabin and chunky controls. Although it's a sizeable machine and doesn't ever really seem to shrink around you once you're underway, the W12 engine makes progress swift and effortless. Bentley has tried hard to lighten the bulk, using new materials and paring back on the weightier elements, but this is still an old school bruiser. We spent many days and several hundred miles with the Mark I GT and don’t remember it being quite as thirsty as this (although soaring fuel prices can't have helped).
Despite all this, the GT still has a brutish charm, the automotive equivalent of a vast, wrist-dominating chronometer. Park the new GT next to a conventional saloon car and the giant wheels and sculpted bodywork make it look more like an escaped steam train than a piece of automotive sculpture. Whichever way you look at it, GT MkII is a little less discrete than before. For those who still believe in Bentleys that don't shout from the rooftops, the revised Flying Spur saloon will break cover later in year. Sharing components with the GT, the next generation Spur promises to iron out some of the design kinks of the original. Even more exciting is the promise of a V8-powered GT, a lighter, more economical machine that could mark the beginning of the end for the era of the 12-cylinder supercar. For now, the Continental GT still reigns supreme.