Bentley W12 Last Drive: A Masterpiece to Remember

Bentley W12 Last Drive: A Masterpiece to Remember

Since 1938, the Bentley factory in Crewe has been producing engines. Many of them. Later this year, when the last 6.0-liter W12 rolls off the line, it will no longer be making its own. V8s, hybrids and whatever comes next for Bentley will occupy the space currently used to produce 12-cylinder engines. It will be a sad day, partly because a century-long run is easily within Bentley’s sights (Who doesn’t like to say they’ve been doing something for 100 years?!), but also because it marks the end of an engine that played a huge role a role in transforming Bentley from the marque your weird uncle enjoyed into something not only aspirational, but truly awesome.

As a sort of farewell I took one of the last Continental GT Speeds from Crewe to The Highlands, because if the world is going to lose something wonderful, it should be sent off appropriately.

When the Continental GT first came out, it was a huge turning point for Bentley. Once kept in the shadow of Rolls-Royce, the new VW Group ownership not only allowed but forced reinvention and growth – albeit with an appropriate nod to what made Bentley, well, Bentley.

That meant it had to offer the kind of luxury, ride and performance you can only dream of, but also bring the fight to the likes of Aston Martin, top-of-the-range Germans, Ferrari and everyone else fighting for the available income of the well-heeled – people who might not have relied on Bentley before. All in a time when people didn’t really buy 12 cylinder cars. Bentley Chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark explains: “When we launched the Continental GT, total car sales in our price segment were around 3,500 cars a year, all brands combined. And of the 3,500, only 800 were V12s.” A small market, a smaller pond with 12 pots… and Bentley wanted to do what? “Our plan,” Hallmark continues, “was to sell 10,000 cars in the 3,500 car segment and 10,000 12-cylinder cars in 800 of that segment. And it worked.”

It works and then some. Since the launch of the Continental GT, more than 100,000 W12 engines have been produced, tested and shipped worldwide. Some with record speeds on ice, over a mile and even on Pikes Peak. Combined they produce more than 6 million hp.

As much of a turning point for Bentley as it was, the first W12 found its place in a concept car, then the 360bhp Audi A8, followed by the VW Phaeton and Touareg, before Bentley threw in a little turbo (and a lot of engineering) and sent it on the market with 552 hp and 479 lb-ft.

As the sun sets on the W12, the current generation Continental GT Speed ​​remains one of the most remarkable cars you can buy. It’s big, comfortable and, thanks to 650 hp. and 664 lb-ft, effortlessly quick. Although it barely weighs more than 5,000 pounds, 20 years of evolution have imbued it with a punishing pace. Bentley says you’ll be able to hit 208 mph and go from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, and you’ll probably be tempted to do both. Tickling the fun pedal pleasantly rearranges your organs, makes your brain feel fizzy, and dramatically increases the risk of the local police giving you a mini-vacation followed by a bus ticket.

Once you shake off the stupidity of your system, you’ll realize the true magic of not just the W12, but the Continental GT itself: Whether you’re going 10 or 1,000 mph, there’s no way you’ll ever get numb. This is the cruise missile with an extra shot on the wings.

Even with more power than is really needed on board, the W12 never screams at you. It’s never been accused of being one of the loudest engines, mind you. As you progress, fiddling with its eight-speed gearbox to satisfy your whims and burn fuel, I could hear a storm a few towns away following me but never catching up. Was it raining in Scotland? No, the W12 was making its noise, reminding me that I was sitting on a truly ridiculous piece of engineering.

Speaking to Bentley Powertrain & Driveline Calibration Functional Manager Paul Taylor, it took over 20 years of evolution to get to this stage. Taylor has been working on the W12 in some way, shape, or form since 2001. He notes that because it’s basically two VR6 narrow V6s mated together with a common crank, it’s downright tiny – 24% shorter than an equivalent V12. Taylor noted that over its lifetime, W12 has evolved, of course, but several things have greatly improved the game. The ability of the first Continental GT Speed ​​to run on E85 biofuel (a technology that sadly fell out of fashion alarmingly quickly) gave the engine a greater breadth of capabilities, while the second-generation car’s eight-speed ZF transmission was something of a revelation.

Each iteration had more and more power and handling squeezed out of it. As Taylor notes, “it flatters drivers because of all the torque. Most people drive it fast, fewer can drive it really quick.”

Heading into the hills, I knew what Taylor meant by that. While never pretending to be a long-lost Schumacher, the Speed ​​made light work of Scotland’s best roads. Somehow, its suspension hides the car’s bulk, and with Sport mode on, the storm felt a little closer, although the car managed to dodge it. It glides from corner to corner without asking much of me. It’s his job to get me where I need to be as quickly as the laws of the land allow and with minimal fuss. This is an example of that.

Of course, speed isn’t the last evolution of the W12 – that’s about the lunatic limited edition Batur and its 730bhp. and 738 lb-ft. Numbers that might seem “just about right” today, but if you think about it in the context of 20 years ago, a car capable of hitting those numbers every day and not running is very special indeed. If emissions regulations hadn’t forced Bentley’s hand and ended the W12 story, could more have been made of it? I bet you do, but we’ll probably never know. And yet 730 hp. are more than enough.

The W12 wasn’t meant to be a one-off technical tour de force, some flimsy thing to sit in the corner of vaunted garages and only be taken out when the local vicar needs a ride home, then painstakingly struggled and fussed over. . No, whether it comes from Crewe in 2005 or 2023, it’s designed to work well.

When I reached my destination, I thought about what condition Bentley would be in if his fresh start wasn’t with this bike. Could it have achieved the same numbers – both sales and power – with the V8? Would Bentley’s signature smoothness have worked with another flagship engine? And perhaps most importantly, what will W12 be remembered for? I sincerely hope so. Not because of the noise, but because of the lightness and how without it we probably wouldn’t have the Bentley we have today.

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