The Continental Story

In the 17th and 18th Century, it was traditional for young men and women of the British nobility to undertake a Grand Tour around Europe as an exciting voyage of discovery. 200 years later, this inspired the term ‘grand tourer’ to refer to a car that combines a truly exhilarating driving experience with the comfort to make even the longest distances effortless, ensuring every journey is truly memorable.

This combination of performance and luxury is the very definition of a Bentley, so it’s no surprise that our cars have dominated the world of grand touring for almost 100 years. From the original 3-Litre to today’s new Continental GT, these are the cars that have enabled modern Grand Tours for generations, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

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Designed by W.O. Bentley in 1919, the year Bentley Motors was founded, the 3-Litre went on sale in 1921. The use of the metric system in its name hinted at the ambition to create a car for the fast, open roads of the Continent. With innovative features for the time, including a crossflow cylinder head, twin spark plugs and twin carburettors, its phenomenal performance was confirmed by victories at Le Mans, with John Duff and Frank Clement taking first place in 1924 and Dr ‘Benjy’ Benjafield and Sammy Davis doing the same in 1927. Its touring credentials were praised by The Autocar magazine for combining “docility in traffic with exceptional speed potentiality on the open road”. Bentley’s grand touring tradition had started in style.

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Effortless Power

Bentley’s six-cylinder 6 ½-Litre model, launched in 1926, was intended for the heavier saloon bodies that some customers preferred. But it was the effortlessly powerful and refined 200 bhp Speed Six that took performance to a new level, enabling Woolf Barnato and Sir Tim Birkin to win Le Mans in 1929 and Barnato and Glen Kidston to take first place and Frank Clement and Dick Watney to take second place in 1930. W.O. Bentley introduced a mesh stone-guard to the front of his early cars to protect the radiators from flying stones. Its influence is still visible in the matrix grille design of Bentley grand tourers today.

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In 1930, Bentley created the 8-Litre, a car so powerful the company proclaimed it would be capable of 100 mph whatever type of body the owner chose. W.O. considered it to be his masterpiece – and others agreed. Reviewing it for The Tatler, Captain W. Gordon Aston said: “Never in my life have I known a vehicle in which such a prodigious performance was linked to such smooth, unobtrusive quietness.” This combination of speed and quietness helped make grand touring even more pleasurable. Sadly, it launched shortly after the Wall Street crash, which meant only 100 of these extraordinary cars were ever built.   Read more about the 8-Litre Bentley here.    

Bentley have created a Limited Edition Mulsanne which celebrates W.O.'s 8-Litre.   Click here to see more.

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The Derby Bentley

With Bentley in financial difficulties, it was bought by former rival Rolls Royce in 1931, and production moved to Derby. The Derby Bentley was the first Bentley built there, first as a 3 ½ Litre and later as a 4 ¼ Litre. The six-cylinder engine was smooth, refined and produced around 120 bhp, a very impressive output for the era. Quality remained superb under the new regime; the car was stylish, fast, refined, elegantly proportioned and easy to drive.

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In 1938, André Embiricos, a wealthy Greek racing driver living in Paris, commissioned a Bentley 4 ½ Litre with a sleek, aerodynamic body made from Duralumin, a lightweight aluminium alloy. The car had the ideal qualities of a grand tourer, delivering exceptional speed on the track (achieving 114 mph over an hour at Brooklands) while also being civilised enough to enjoy on the road. This one-off car inspired Bentley to bring its benefits to a wider audience in the years to come.

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The R-Type Continental

The Embiricos Bentley spurred Bentley on to experiment with more streamlined styles after the Second World War, leading to the glorious lines of the 1952 R-Type Continental. With a low, long and lithe body, fastback roofline and fins added to the rear wings to aid stability, it could achieve the previously unheard of feat of cruising at 100 mph with four occupants. Britain had no motorways back then, which meant that drivers seeking a true grand touring experience would head for the open roads of continental Europe – hence the introduction of the name, ‘Continental’. The Autocar declared the R-Type “a modern magic carpet which annihilates great distances and delivers the occupants well-nigh as fresh as when they started” – the ultimate compliment for a grand tourer. Its revolutionary design, including its distinctive powerline, continues to influence Bentley grand tourers to this day.

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Continental R

Unveiled at Geneva in 1991, the Continental R was the first Bentley of the Rolls Royce era not to share a body with a Rolls Royce model. With its own distinctive design, as well as a Bentley turbo engine under the bonnet, this two-door coupé redefined the grand tourer for the 1990s. Later, the Continental T shortened the wheelbase and increased the power to push the performance envelope still further.

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Continental GT

The Continental GT was a 21st Century reinvention both of grand touring and of Bentley itself. It was the first all-new car designed and engineered since Bentley joined the VW Group, and reaped the benefits of major investment in design, engineering and production. With a sleek, bullet-like profile, near-200mph performance, effortlessly powerful W12 engine and a stunning interior showcasing all of Bentley’s craftsmanship skills, the new grand tourer was a global success and created a whole new market sector.

Read more about the first Continental GT here.

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The new Continental GT

The third-generation Continental GT has once again redefined Bentley’s vision of the grand tourer. Its sharp, elegant form, all-new 6.0-litre W12 engine and 8-speed transmission deliver agile, exhilarating driving, while exquisite craftsmanship combined with innovative technology provides truly luxurious comfort. Arriving almost a century after the first 3 Litre, this is the last word in grand touring – for now. Bentley will continue to enable effortlessly exhilarating long-distance travel for many more decades to come.

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