The Bentley Continental T is finally coming of age

On its 25th anniversary, we look back at Bentley’s boxy icon — and argue that there’s never been a better time to buy one…

It’s happened. After years of zipping around in the automotive wilderness, the Bentley Continental T has turned 25. And you know what that means; finally, it has pulled through those difficult years that come after ‘new release’ and before ‘classic car’. It has shrugged off its shoulder-shrugging, middle-of-the-road mundanity and made it — underappreciated yet unscathed — to the prime of its luxurious life. 

All cars go through these tricky years. From hypercars to hot hatches, most new models make an impression — but then their striking, ground-breaking designs lose lustre. They fall from favour and fade from our minds; giving way to even newer, fresher models. But then, when you think it’s all over, they come hooning back into our hearts: a new life, a do-over, a second chance to win fans and look good doing it. 

Re-enter the Bentley Continental T (for its well-overdue encore). This sumptuous, sporty grand tourer first rolled off the production line in 1996, with only 322 ever made. It rocked the mid-nineties, but its story begins much earlier — in 1981.

It was then that David Plastow, managing director of Rolls Royce Motor Cars, saw that the Bentley marque had potential. Rather than simply re-badging Rolls-Royces, he wanted to create a new, original Bentley — and presented the “Project 90” concept at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show. This would go on to become the Bentley Continental R.

The R (we’re still a couple of letters from the T, you see) was the first Bentley built without a Rolls-Royce body since 1965. It was the first to use Bentley’s celebrated GM 4L80-E transmission, and the fastest and most powerful Bentley ever created. It was also the most expensive production vehicle in the world upon its 1991 launch, with an eye-watering asking price of £220,000.

By 1994, the Continental S was revealed, a limited-edition run of 37 performance models with liquid-cooled chargecoolers. And, two years later, the Continental T arrived — and really stepped things up a gear.

The Bentley Continental T was a shorter wheelbase version of the Continental R — four full inches shorter. And, while that many not sound like much (the vast Continental R was 17.5 feet long), the changes were palpable. Suddenly, Bentley’s flagship had more responsive handling, and its legendary 6.75-litre V8 engine — availed of two Cosworth Engineering headers and a big Garret turbocharger — brought power and torque unlike anything Bentley (or the world) had ever seen. When it was introduced, the Bentley Continental T was the torquiest car ever made.

But, for all the mechanical miracles this 2+2 coupé worked, it’s still the design that wins out for us. That slightly shorter figure, with extended wheel arches and athletic styling. It redressed the balance between sporting and luxury, putting more weight on the former while only slightly sacrificing the latter (the rear footwells took the brunt of the car’s shortening). 

The ‘face’ of the car remained the same. Carried across from the Continental R, those four-round headlights, mesh grille and the corner-mounted indicator lights were already enjoying ‘icon’ status. It was a signature look so universally acclaimed that Bentley also carried it across to the convertible Bentley Azure — and you know what we think about that…

Even inside, the Bentley Continental T is now finally coming of age. During the last decade, if you’d caught a glimpse of that patterned aluminium dashboard, you’d have baulked. And those hints of walnut detailing? What were they thinking?! But today, doesn’t it look — dare we say it — cool? 

That sea of chrome-bezelled gauges, all ten of them peppered across the dash, would have looked passé in a 2010s world of touchscreens and head-up displays. But, now analogue is edging back into retro style, who wouldn’t love to spend a Sunday tracking their water temperature and manifold air pressure in lumbar-supported comfort? There’s even a filing cabinet-style lock on the glovebox. How swish is that?

So maybe it’s time to take another look at this forgotten icon. Once the top of the luxury heap, most of us have forgotten the Continental T in favour of the sleeker, smoother 2003 Continental GT. And, while that noughties motor is undoubtedly a stellar option, does it have the heritage or new-classic appeal of the Continental T? Not yet it doesn’t.

The bad news is, despite no longer being the most expensive car in the world, a second-hand Continental T will still set you back around £100,000. But the good news is, after toughing it our for twenty five years and making it to this well-earned quarter-century celebration, the Bentley Continental T looks better than ever. 

Looking for more automotive anniversaries? Here’s why, as the Saab 900 Cabriolet turns 35, we still love it…

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