bentley today wafts through commonly understood ultra-luxury-car circles as an established player, duking it out with high-end porsches, mercedes-benzes, and others for the richest americans' cash. but in 2003, bentley was in a very different (and worse) position in the new-car market. so how did it go from a niche player, a british curiosity floated along by platforms and engines borrowed from rolls-royce, to producing more than 10,000 cars a year?
the short answer is: the continental gt, which appeared—first as a coupe, then later as a convertible—in 2003, using a classic bentley name. this was the first modern bentley, meaning it was designed under the tutelage of the volkswagen group, which bentley joined in 1998. the gt used components that mostly came from volkswagen and audi, including its unusual twin-turbocharged w-12 engine. (unlike more common, albeit still rare, v-12 engines, which have two banks of six cylinders that meet to form a v shape, a w-12 sports four banks of three cylinders arranged to resemble a w.) unlike in the rolls-royce days, the conti's components were blended with the gt's retro-modern good looks inside and out such that they weren't immediately noticeable as having been borrowed.
almost immediately, the continental gt was a success. according to the company, a fight broke out among potential customers over who'd buy the first one. the convertible version joined the lineup for 2006, and bentley later refreshed the gt for 2014, adding a less expensive optional v-8 engine at the same time. to date, bentley has sold more than 70,000 continental gts globally.
before then, you'd never have believed that the automaker's best-selling model to that point was the turbo r (pictured above), a gigantic sedan equivalent to today's full-size mulsanne. (in fact, the turbo r started out as the mulsanne turbo, before bentley changed the name to better reflect its, um, turbocharger and the extra roadholding—r!—delivered by its sport suspension, at least relative to the base model's rolls-royce suspension.) bentley managed to move about 7500 turbo rs between 1985 and 1999, a mere fraction of the continental gt's total over a barely longer period of time.
in its time, the turbo r was viewed as a return, of sorts, to bentley's gentleman-race-car roots. it was fast, luxurious, and sporty(ish). keep in mind, it was still a rolls-royce wearing a bentley grille, fortified by a turbocharger to produce 325 horsepower and with a slightly firmer suspension. but bentleys had so lost the plot by that time that, when the turbo r even vaguely alluded to bentley's long-lost characteristics, its momentum set in motion the company's eventual return to its traditionally sporty, luxurious image and set the table for the continental gt.
today, bentley is introducing its latest continental in both 12- and eight-cylinder forms in the midst of celebrating its centenary, as the company has been around since 1919. a new flying spur, essentially a four-door conti, is coming soon.
the bentley lineup also includes the bentayga suv as well as the stupendously splendid mulsanne sedan. the factory in crewe, england, is on pace to produce more than 10,000 vehicles for the fifth year running—and not a single vehicle in the lineup shares parts with a rolls-royce. and to think, this resurgence began with a leftover rolls-royce that was turbocharged.