2003. If it seems like a very long time ago then that's because it was, and what a time to be alive! Mobile phones were starting to sprout cameras, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were at the height of their Formula 1 dominance and a certain J. May made his first appearance on a BBC2 motoring show, although I don't remember what it was called or what happened to him after that.
Believe it or not it was also the year that Bentley launched the first iteration of their Continental GT Coupe. Unveiled to the world at that years Geneva show, it was the first product to be launched following the VW Group takeover at Crewe five years earlier. The reveal of the new Continental was big news as not only was it not a coachbuilt, hand-assembled car like its illustrious (and expensive) forebears. But the new modern production techniques employed allowed Bentley to price the car at around half the price of its predecessor, the £180k Continental R.
That said, don't be fooled into thinking the original Conti GT was a featherweight Lotus rival. It still tipped the scales at over 2.3 tonnes. Fortunately, the designers had noted that 2.3 tonnes is what weight experts would call "quite heavy". So they had got on the phone to their new colleagues in Wolfsburg to ask if they could help out with some adequate propulsion. "Ja, for sure" came the reply from VW and they duly shipped over their 6.0-litre W12 engine from the then-new Phaeton limo. However the Bentley boys thought that 414 BHP wasn't quite enough for their new contender. So with a little bit of expert tinkering, and the grafting on of two turbochargers the 2003 Continental GT waded into battle with 552 BHP. Contrast that to the 450 BHP of the Aston DB9 which was also launched that year and we can deduce that Bentley weren't messing around. The car was put on sale and the chaps at Bentley and their new German paymasters sat back, pleased at what they had achieved.
However, there were a couple of issues with that original car. Firstly, the Haldex-coupling 4x4 drivetrain had been lifted straight from the Phaeton where it had performed admirably underpinning the corporate uberlimo. But when used as the backbone of a sports GT the system precluded the level of driver involvement that you'd ideally like. Through corners the GT had impressive grip and the W12 engine delivered blistering performance even in original form. But the over-riding impression was that you were piloting a two-door VW Phaeton with extra nice trim rather than a bespoke sporting Bentley.
The second and third problems were ones that weren't really the cars fault. As fate would have it, the aforementioned Aston Martin DB9 had been launched at pretty much exactly the same time as the Conti, and whilst the Bentley looked nice, the DB9 was breathtaking and the new Aston rather stole some of the GT's thunder. Then there was the other problem..
As we touched on earlier, Bentley had started to use new modern mass-production techniques to build the Continental GT. This meant they could built many more cars than before and sell them for much less relative to their old models. This was a great business move for Bentley, profits went up and their market grew massively. The problem with this within that new market was the 'new money' with which Bentley would perhaps in days gone by have sought to distance themselves from.
Perhaps the most famous owner of the Conti - Wayne Rooney loved his and his image became synonymous with the car.
If Wayne Rooney wasn't the first Premiership footballer to get his hands on a Continental, he was certainly the most well-known owner of the car during its early years. Love him or hate him, Waynes image rubbed off on the Conti GT and soon it was the poster car for every would-be winger or WAG in the land. John Terry, Mario Balotelli, and Jamie Vardy have all enjoyed the sumptuous luxury and stupendous speed the Bentley provides and so it went that rightly or wrongly, the poor Conti and especially the GTC convertible version became seen as somewhat brash, a bit like one of those giant Audemars Piguet watches or a 74-inch television. Nice, but you just wouldn't.
Sometime later, it seems Bentley realised this and took steps to try and re-assert the notion of the Continental GT as a proper gentleman's sports car. In 2007 they cut 35kg from the weight of the car by re-designing some of the cooling and suspension components and also introduced the Continental GT Speed. With twelve new pistons and a revised ECU the Speed now had 600 BHP at its disposal making the new car the fastest and most powerful Bentley to date. Sir could also save himself another 25kg by selecting the optional carbon ceramic brakes. Another first on a Bentley. With a few exterior tweaks to make the GT look a bit more hardcore most road-testers at the time agreed that the Speed was a step in the right direction but given the choice they'd probably stick with the Aston DBS or Ferrari 599 GTB which were also new for 2007.
So the Speed was judged to be a fairly successful variant, and in 2009 Bentley decided to take the idea much further and gave the world the Continental Supersports. Power was now up to 622 BHP from the W12 motor. The revised ZF gearbox reduced shift times by up to 50% and a massive 110kg weight reduction meant that the Supersports could rocket to 60 MPH in 3.7 seconds, hit 100 in 8.9 seconds and reach a ballistic 204 MPH flat out. New continuous damping control, along with ultra-light 20" forged alloy wheels and a re-calibrated ESP system transformed the big Bentley's handling. The steering was sharper and the weight loss finally gave the car more of the agility it had been crying out for since launch.
Even with the halo effect of the Supersports. Bentley knew the GT was getting on a bit by 2010. So for the Paris motor show that year they introduced a heavily revised Continental GT. The new car was definitely a case of evolution rather than revolution, but the Conti was still selling very well so why mess with the formula too much?
Standard power from the W12 was increased to 567 BHP. The exterior was treated to a subtle and successful set of changes to modernise the car and the interior was heavily revised with new trim combinations and the latest infotainment technology.
The new-gen Continental took up the mantle of its predecessor and continued as Bentley's best-seller. A new W12 Speed model was introduced in 2012 with 616 BHP on tap as well as a new-gen version of the GTC convertible.
Perhaps because familiarity breeds contempt, or perhaps because it looked so similar to the old model, the updated Conti GT didn't seem to attract the same sort of attention from football players and rap stars as the original. Maybe they had all just moved on to the next bigger and shinier thing. Either way, the new car suddenly seemed a lot more tasteful and restrained than the old model. As was evidenced in Series 22 of Top Gear when the lads took the new Conti GT along with a BMW M6 and a Nissan GT-R to the Australian outback. Clarkson put it best when he said "It was almost overnight..hate the Bentley Continental, hate the Bentley Continental...you know what? I love the Bentley Continental."
And it really was like that, the Bentley had gone through that weird phase-like thing that happens with all the best rock bands. At first there's a buzz around them because they're new and exciting. Then they actually become commercially successful and all the cool kids say they never liked them anyway. After that its a steady stream of the same formula until they eventually become part of the furniture and even the connoisseurs admit that they would miss them if they went away.
The biggest change to the second series GT came in 2013 when for the first time, Bentley equipped the Conti with a V8 engine. A 4.0-litre unit, again boosted by twin turbochargers, was developed with Audi. The 500 BHP Continental V8 and V8 GTC went on sale in 2013 swiftly joined by the V8 S variant with and additional 22 horses the following year. The V8 cars also gained ZF's 8-speed gearbox over the W12's 6-speed unit. The new engine and the 'S' spec was very well-received with many lauding it as the best Continental ever and wondering aloud why anyone would spend more for the 12-cylinder model. If we're still using the rock music analogy, the V8 S was 'Life on Mars', the enthusiasts favourite when we look back . But the Conti version of 'Heroes' was yet to come.
The last hurrah of the original Conti arrived last year with the return of the Supersports name. Utilising the W12 engine to its full potential the second edition of the Supersports took power up to 700 BHP. The Supersports also mated the faster and smoother 8-speed ZF transmission to the W12 motor for the first time. Fitted as standard with carbon brakes, revised suspension and an updated torque vectoring system lifted from the Continental GT3-R racing car, the 2017 MY Supersports was the ultimate evolution of the Conti GT. It was also the fastest, storming to 60 in 3.5 seconds, faster than the much younger Mercedes AMG GT S, before hitting 209 MPH. Discerning buyers could also choose the 'X specification' which amongst other goodies included a superb Akrapovich exhaust system which gave the Supersports the sort of Tom Jones and Brian Blessed being fired out of a cannon into the sun theatrical sound it had always wanted for.
Production of the Conti GT has just ended, with a new model waiting in the wings which promises to more than live up to the name. It should hit the streets early next year but it already has a lot to live up to. The original Continental GT is almost as much of a story of redemption than it is a car, and as it heads off into retirement after nearly fifteen years I think its time we gave it credit for what it is rather than what people might think of it.