We caught up with Bentley’s director of design Stefan Sielaff as he traveled from London to the brand’s headquarters in Crewe. It was a good chance to chat, since Sielaff was relaxed and free from meeting pressure while on the train and able to expand on what he and his team had done in creating the new Continental GT.
We talked first about the discrepancy in the perceived and real size of the car when seen in photos. “It’s true that the car seems smaller than it is,” he said. “When you see the real thing you realize it is quite a lot bigger than it seemed in photos.” But looking small, he thinks, is quite different from being small. He believes Bentley customers expect a substantial car, and that’s what the designers have given them in this coupe. He agreed that its 22-inch wheels (an inch bigger than before) help fool the eye in photographs as to its true proportions.
Talking about the undercut surface lines I’d admired, Sielaff explained that the design team calls them “power lines,” and uses “haunches” as a term for the upper part of the rear fenders the team deems important to Bentley’s identity. He says the technology and metal-forming techniques used for the Continential’s all-aluminum body are totally impractical for mass production but exactly right for the volumes Bentley expects to make. As well as being costly, the “superforming” process is quite complex and time-consuming. Alloy sheets are heated, more in places where there are to be tight radii than on wide expanses, and then pushed into a female die by rubber blocks. “There is only one place where it can be done—in Ireland,” Sielaff noted, and then the formed sections are nested and “transported to Germany for assembly into bodies-in-white at the Leipzig facility shared with Porsche.”
Which is appropriate, as the new car is based on the Volkswagen Group’s MSB platform also used for the Panamera. The now 15-year-old steel-skinned Continentals were derived from the ill-fated VW Phaeton platform and its associated suspension elements, the 12-cylinder engine and other hardware elements shared with Audi’s A8. The overall length of the new car is just a few millimeters different than before, but its wheelbase is now 4.72 inches longer, and it’s wider as well.
A great deal of the work on the new Continental was focused on the interior. When I commented on how I appreciated the restrained use of wood in the car seen here, Sielaff stressed that there are near-infinite options, including complete wooden door panels as shown in his initial design briefing in London last year. “Our customers, we believe, want their cars to be as individual as possible,” he said. “So we have numerous choices for them, not only in colors but in materials. We have wood, piano black, metallic surfaces, and as you saw, stone.” We recall being amazed by the tight bends made by granite surfacing on metal substrates. It would not be a stretch to say that Bentley craftsmanship for interiors is unmatched anywhere in the world.
Along with a now well-established lineup of vehicles, today’s Bentley evokes a strong but conservative visual image, though its new customers, Sielaff stresses, are quite different from the truly conservative Britons who at one time were the principle buyers of Bentleys. Now that it has probably made more cars in the last decade and a half than the original Bentley and subsequent Rolls-Royce subsidiary did before the Germans bought the brand and the Crewe works, expansive variations in presentation are to be expected. Apparently current customers are quite delighted with the changes.
And why not? As noted previously, Bentley’s are big, powerful, and fast—a winning combination for the brand from the beginning.