It’s exactly 70 years since the ‘Continental’ name made its first appearance on a Bentley. Few car names have ever been quite as appropriate or evocative. The original R-Type Continental of 1952 ushered in a new era of luxury motoring. At the time, it was the world’s fastest four-seater, designed for swift dashes to the Riviera.

It was also the most expensive car on the UK market, costing £6,928 (or, as Bentley points out, nearly four times the average British house price of the era). 

Bentley Continental GT Speed

By that metric, the most recent car to bear the Continental name is something of a bargain, for it comes in at significantly less than the current UK average house price of £274,000. This isn’t all about price, however. Bentleys have always been luxury machines, but the stated reason for that premium is the desire to bring out the very best of current design and technology, pushing boundaries where appropriate, but never compromising on the qualities of comfort, speed, and general all-round performance.

That’s why the name Continental has endured. It instantly conjures up the vision of a drive to distant shores, taking in whole countries at a time, not merely counties, and broadening horizons along the way. 

Bentley Continental GT Speed alongside the original R-Type Continental
Old vs new: Bentley Continental GT Speed alongside the original R-Type Continental

Today’s Continental GT might not be quite as stately as the original R-Type, but the lineage is still plain to see. Bentleys are big cars, whether they’re for the track (famously – if apocryphally – dismissed by Ettore Bugatti in the 1920s as essentially just ‘fast trucks’), the road, or simply for heads of state to parade around in.

Presented here in ‘Speed’ specification, today’s Continental GT more than lives up to the reputation of its forebears. 

The original 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental
The original 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental

This is a big, handsome car, on a scale that would be brutish in the wrong hands, yet Bentley’s design team hit it out of the park with the current generation of GT, originally launched in 2018.

With a longer wheelbase than the original Continental GT, and a more rakish, streamlined body, sitting on massive 22in wheels, the GT has the neat proportions of sports cars two-thirds its size, while not losing any of the imposing grandeur that defines the name. 

Bentley Continental GT Speed

No modern Bentleys are slow, but the GT Speed ramps up both the power output of its V8 engine and the calibre of the steering feel and suspension capacity. The big machine can be hustled to 62mph in around 3.5 seconds, and on to a scarcely credible top speed of 208mph.

The latter figure might appear theoretical, but it’s most definitely attainable, even if it’s effectively impossible on all but the most isolated stretches of autobahn. 

Bentley Continental GT Speed

Ultimately, however, such speeds won’t even be attainable for very much longer, as electrification puts paid to the practicality of long-distance, high-speed cruising.

In fact, physics dictates that EVs work most efficiently at slower speeds, and powering elaborate A/C units, massage seats and other gadgets all eats into the range. Bentley’s big challenge is to square this circle of conflicting needs: energy in, power out, speed, and range. 

Bentley Continental GT Speed interior
The Bentley Continental GT Speed interior features the unique ’rotating display,’ shown here in analogue mode

As a result, the Continental GT Speed represents the apex of Bentley’s combustion era, drawing a direct line to its 70-year-old forebear and perhaps ending with a hard full stop.

The first Bentley EV isn’t due until 2025, and while it’s unlikely to be a slouch – like almost all electric cars – the emphasis will be firmly placed on enjoying the journey, not carving up the corners. 

Bentley Continental GT Speed interior

To prepare for this subtle shift in emphasis, the company recently launched the Azure series of cars, models that swap ultimate performance for a new focus on wellness, the restorative powers of luxury, and technology’s ability to soak up some of the stresses of driving.

The first Azure model is the stretched Bentayga, and it’ll be followed by tech-filled versions of all Bentley’s current models, Continental GT included. Other brand extensions, like the Bentley Residences Miami, are also on the horizon as the focus on outright, outrageous performance becomes less and less relevant. 

The 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental
The 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental 

For the 208 lucky owners of the original R-Type Continental, such concerns were still unimaginably far off. They were fortunate enough to specify and buy the very best.

Bentley’s contemporary customers are still able to do exactly that, even as the definition of ‘best’ continues to shift with the times. §