Exclusive Look Behind The Design Of The New Luxury Bentley Continental GT – Forbes
Bentley Motors has revealed details of the new Continental GT ahead of the car’s formal debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The original Continental shook the traditional luxury world when it was first introduced in 2003. This was not your typical Bentley; instead it was a provocative grand tourer with voluptuous surfaces and a confident look. It was a huge success for the brand, bringing in new faces and a younger audience.
This third-generation Continental sets out to explore this narrative further and in the digital age. This means refining the design as well as tapping into cutting-edge technology. I’m meeting Bentley’s director of design Stefan Sielaff in London to find out his approach to the design of this latest product.
“I had to ask myself if we should make something completely different or do an evolution of the existing design codes,” he offers as we settle down for a mid-morning tea in the members’ room at the Royal Academy of Arts – an institution as imbedded in British heritage as Bentley. “I felt it would be a shame to behave too harshly with a brand like this. It is not about us designers doing something wild, making a one-off statement to provoke a firework. It is about our customers and the product must stay fresh for at least the next seven years.”
The evolution in design sees the profile of the new car longer and lower as the front wheels have been positioned further forward, thus allowing the bonnet to be extended and the nose to be lowered. The key signature lines of the original Continental remain in place but are more refined here. The rear sees a slightly more radical departure, with the taillights now shaped into ellipses, reflecting the silhouette of the exhaust tail pipes below. The car sits confidently on 21-inch wheels, which come as standard and in two styles. There is also a 22-inch lightweight, forged wheel to be specified, alongside a hand-finished option, which allows for a twisted polished finish.
Sielaff explains his overall design brief as “a piece of reduction, not over-decorating the car but to make a clean, clear and unique statement”. It needed to have a pure relationship with design, a restrained sensibility. His team worked with Bentley’s classic ingredients – the heritage lines, the famous power line travelling from the headlights to the muscular rear haunch – combining these with a contemporary, modern shape language. “We reduced it to two very distinctive sharp lines, working to create sexy surfaces in a very concave-convex drama, so that the drama is more in the surface than the lines,” he explains. Sielaff admits his ideas are going against the general tide which tends to favor lots of sharp edgy lines “like origami,” he smiles. “This is not our philosophy. From a heritage point of view, we create quiet and very distinctive surfaces.”
Sielaff feels the focus ought to be on the sustainability of product design, rather than fleeting fashion. “The word ‘timelessness’ may not be on trend right now, but it is satisfying to deliver a product that after twenty years the owner can open the garage gate and love what they see.”
One of the Continental’s highlights is the cut-crystal lamp design at the front and rear that uses the latest LED Matrix technology. Evolved from the EXP 10 Speed 6 concept car, the headlights in particular make strong visual statements in the presence of the quieter sculpture – just like a piece of bold jewelry on a simple frock.
Sielaff smiles: “The lights are like eyes and a signature of our design.” The production lights turned out so much more precise than the original prototype in Speed 6, thanks to the perseverance of the supplier who created some complex tools to achieve incredible precision. “When the lights are on, you see a little bit of bluish mist inside.” The design will be adopted for the next products. “This has been the missing link between our products,” he says.
Seating four adults comfortably and with a decent luggage space, inside feels refined, light and spacious; the graphics are harmonious, surfaces are simple for a relaxed sensory experience. This refinement in interior design is largely thanks to Sielaff’s initiative to reorganized the design department at the Bentley Crewe headquarters in the UK. The interior architectural team and color and trim department are now integrated for a more inclusive approach to design.
This is essential to a car such as the Continental that offers endless scopes for customers to add their own personal touch inside. “Material choices are integral to the interior,” Sielaff explains. “Now the interior designers have to listen to and work with the color and trim team early in the creative process.” This means the architecture will be able to accommodate different fabrics so that the final product doesn’t look like patchwork as with many modern cars. “The customer won’t know all these details but will feel a sense the harmony inside.”
Personalization options include fifteen colors for hides and carpets as well as three different interior colors that can be configured for the cabin; perhaps one color can be used in the pipping to subtly highlight the others, offers the designer. Customers can opt for the classic Bentley knurling treatment on the metal surface or a more elaborate diamond treatment. A new “diamond in diamond” leather quilt design is now offered too that looks like a floating quilted surface in a sea of soft leather.
“Some customers favor the richer interior and some like a more Bauhaus treatment. That is the beauty of personalization,” admits Sielaff. “We direct but do not dictate even though most customers are happy to be directed, which is partly why they come to us.”
This car has an advanced, fully-digital, driver-focused instrument panel. It also boasts an industry-first “rotating display” featuring an impressive 12.3-inch touchscreen housed in a three-sided unit, which revolves the veneer to reveal the touchscreen as well as three elegant analogue dials.
Sielaff is visibly proud of the rotating display technology, noting with a chuckle that the blueprint was the revolving number plates on James Bond’s cars. “Bond for me is the incarnation of Britishness – that twinkle in the eye, a little bit of humor. Our rotating display is a simple concept with a psychological message in that when you show the customer they will fall immediately in love with it. It contains a lot of technological knowledge too. There are three pages – the decoration surface, then when you turn on the ignition the screen gets in position and when you push again the three clocks appear. The customer is not expecting the third and this is the surprise.”
It also contains another message, one linked intimately with the modern message of luxury. At the end of a busy day you can create a peaceful and serene environment by turning all the screens off, literally switching off all visual noise inside the Continental. “We’ve moved beyond needing to see technology all the time. This is ultimate luxury.”
The fully-digital display is also a new concept for Bentley. If the Continental’s purpose was to bring in a younger Bentley buyer in 2003, the 2017 edition needs to continue the dialogue, not only through evocative design, but also advanced technology. “We live with digital devices. We don’t have to imitate this but the car needs to quietly and peacefully deliver state-of-art regarding digital. This is something that hasn’t been our strength.”
I ask what he feels is the visual and graphic language of digital for Bentley. “This is a very interesting question. There are discussions in the graphic interface world on how, or if, we should imitate a three-dimensional existing reality,” he offers. As this is Bentley’s first fully-digital interface, it was crucial to get it right, to please new customers, but not alienate traditional brand aficionados. “I always say love at first sight is with the exterior; the marriage is with the interior. The customer must love the interface. We decided for this car to create a three-dimensional graphic. The two-dimensional treatment can look a little flat and cheap, so if we were to move away from this perhaps we could create something unique to us. Most importantly, whatever we do has to fit into the brand and be appropriate for our customers.”
Recently Sielaff was made responsible for heading up the Mulliner bespoke department at Crewe where they make special-edition cars. Bentley feels, going forward, it is crucial for the main design department to work closely with the Mulliner’s craft experts. “We need to be highlighting our coachbuilding expertise,” he says. He plans to create a range of small production series cars, but also if a customer desires their own completely unique car, then Bentley will deliver. “I’ve already been in conversation with two gentlemen at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It takes Mulliner to its origin. It is exciting.”