Bentley marks 100th birthday with futuristic new concept car
John McIlroy is Deputy Editor of Auto Express and Carbuyer. The views expressed here are solely his own.
Car manufacturers generally avoid looking backward. Nostalgia can inspire but it can also give the impression that a brand's best days are behind it.
For its 100th birthday however, Bentley has unveiled a new concept car that references some of the firm's greatest models, while dropping hints about its future designs.
The EXP 100 GT is a two-door, four-seat behemoth measuring 19 feet (5.8 meters) in length. It's designed to show what a Bentley GT might look like in the year 2035, complete with a pure-electric powertrain and self-driving capabilities.
These are obvious features for a futuristic concept. But the EXP 100 GT also explores what luxury customers may want over the next decade. And, most significantly, all of these design elements, materials and finishes are actively being considered or developed back at Bentley's headquarters in England.
"There are some references to classic Bentleys," chief exterior designer John Paul "JP" Gregory said, showing CNN the vehicle ahead of Wednesday's reveal. "But ... we took the decision to create a car that shows what makes us who we are, but also one that reflects on what type of brand we want to be in the future."
The headlights and grille are prime examples. Bentleys tend to feature two large lights either side of the nose, but on the EXP 100 GT the flush grille is flanked by single headlamps.
"It's something that we're able to do with new light technologies, and the grille itself is also fully lit," Gregory said, adding that this configuration "references some Bentleys from before the Second World War."
The rear lights also reinterpret Bentley form, with the "double B" motif replaced by an intricate web of LEDs and sheet metal. More than anything, though, it's the length of the tail that defines the EXP 100 GT's exterior. Gazing at the car's side profile, there's no escaping the scale of it all -- the way the rear bodywork slopes down gracefully to meet a beautiful arc at its sharpest point, almost like the stern of an luxury yacht.
Touches of heritage
The interiors, meanwhile, are a Bentley tour de force. Here, the company has experimented with the wood finishes and leatherwork it's renowned for, while showcasing a more sustainable side.
The leather uses fewer chemical treatments than you'll find in other car interiors (the design also makes use of Italian vegan leather, made using leftover grape skins from the wine industry). The door linings -- which were embroidered by Gainsborough Silk Weaving, a producer with over a century of experience -- are made from cotton, meaning digital displays can project through the fabric. And extra stitchwork was completed by Hand and Lock, a London embroider that has been making military and royal uniforms since 1767.
Older still is the ancient bog oak used in some of the EXP 100 GT's door frames. Dredged from old river beds under farmland in Cambridgeshire, the material -- carbon-dated to 3000 B.C. -- has been sprinkled with copper and sanded to produce a stunning, tight-grained wood. It seems inevitable that Bentley's bespoke vehicle division, Mulliner, will soon be fielding calls from customers wanting this 5,000-year-old material -- now, not in 2035.
Bentley's head of interior design, Brett Boydell, said that many of the interior treatments reflect increasing demand for sustainable, ethical materials.
"There have been regular meetings involving all elements of the business -- including design, yes, but also sales and marketing, materials and manufacturing," he said. "They've all had input, so buyer trends on materials have been included since day one.
"We know that, for some, sustainability is part of luxury now," he added.
You'll have to look closely at car's exterior for evidence, but it's there in the form of recycled copper and paint made using rice husk ash, a harmful byproduct of the rice industry that would otherwise end up in landfill. Bentley also claims that 87 percent of the cars produced during its first 100 years are still in use, making its creations more sustainable than cheaper, "throwaway" vehicles.
A new luxury experience
The car is being used by Bentley's "UX" (user experience) team to explore new ideas of luxury. Like many modern vehicles, the EXP 100 GT has a personal digital assistant that responds to gestures and voice commands -- although in Bentley's case, the software's physical representation is a cut-crystal ornament in the dashboard.
The car then takes the concept further by offering to "save" memories of the user's favorite journeys, which could be recreated on screens or via sound recordings piped through the hidden speaker system. Even scents or temperatures could, theoretically, be saved and replayed as the car's occupants sit in a traffic jam.
This probably sits at the farthest end of the concept's envisaged timescale. What's much less of a leap of faith, however, is picturing a well-heeled couple enjoying food or entertainment from "cartridges" that slide out from under the hood, cocooned from the world by a mixture of technology and luxury. It's a fabulously extravagant idea -- but one that feels very much in tune with Bentley's approach to motoring.
As Gregory explained: "Our cars have never been just getting from A to B. They've been about savoring and celebrating the journey. We think this concept shows how that approach can not only exist but also evolve over the next 15 years."