One of the great challenges facing Volkswagen is how it develops the Bentley brand when its long association with Rolls Royce ends - RR passes to BMW at the end of this year. New product and entering new segments is most definitely on the agenda. But care needs to be taken to avoid diluting the exclusive brand with higher volume. The Bentley GT coupe design ethos certainly appears to embody traditional Bentley values. In a few months time, we'll see for ourselves.

When challenged to create the first all new Bentley in fifty years, the brief laid down to design director Dirk van Braeckel was as simple to express, as it was difficult to fulfil. The car would be a GT coupé, entirely contemporary in design yet unmistakeably a Bentley. It would need to be timelessly elegant and overtly sporting, yet carry four people and accommodate their luggage. The resulting car would set the tone not simply for Bentley in the 21st century, but for a new generation of cars upon which the company's future would largely depend.

Inimitably Bentley

Work started on the GT coupé in August 1999 and was ready to be submitted for board approval by December. "I'm still staggered it took less than four months," says van Braeckel. "Whenever you design a car there always seems to be a story to tell and this one was about getting the right team of very talented designers, all of whom understood what we were trying to create and how we were going to do it."

Dirk admits his design philosophy for the car was based on heritage and inspired by certain key cars in Bentley's bloodline: "But as I tell everyone, I refuse to do retro cars - there is just no need and taking a 1952 R-type Continental and projecting it forward half a century would have been entirely wrong."

Instead, he looked at the past to provide the key styling elements that would make a Bentley look like a Bentley, no matter when it was designed: "I tried to understand where the roots came from and if you look back at the early days of Bentley, it was all about the engine. They had the appearance of being powered by big engines that enabled them to be driven at high speeds, low revs and minimal effort. And that is as true today as it was then."

So the key to how the GT coupé should look today, lay in providing it with that kind of presence, a stance on the road that is described as 'inimitably Bentley'.

Though the packaging requirements both in the cabin and under the bonnet remain secret for now, it is fair to say they presented an extraordinarily tough challenge not simply for Bentley's engineers and packaging experts, but also the design team. This is why van Braeckel was also responsible for concept engineering, so that the often-contrasting objectives of package and style could be blended to mutual advantage.

To capture the correct Bentley proportions, it was critical that the GT coupé had a short front overhang and a dominant bonnet, expressed by the unusually large distance between the front axle line and A-pillar. Given the package of requirements, the dangers of making the car too long and therefore both inelegant and impractical, were clear to see. However, it was equally important that its cabin had a sleek and compact appearance.

Not the Audi philosophy

Overlaying this was a design form language that was evolved for the car. While van Braeckel was working at Audi, he employed methodical industrial design to great effect, carrying the same sectional theme of functionality from one end of the car to the other.

The approach required for the GT coupé was almost the polar opposite. "It needed to be alive, with a form that appears and disappears like muscle on a gymnast's arm, sculptural yet lean," says van Braeckel.

Equipped with the practical, historical and emotional hard points of the car's design, van Braeckel and his fast growing team set about the job of styling. The aim throughout was that the car's appearance should strike consistent themes when viewed from any angle, even when from directly above. "I never wanted one part to look like it didn't belong to the rest of the car, even if it was quite beautiful in its own right," he says.

The shape itself is quite complex, with different surfaces displaying different tensions but throughout, iron discipline has been exercised to keep fussiness out of the design. Brightwork is used only where an accent is needed.

No 'B' - the pillar-less cabin

Central to the design of the car is its pillar-less cabin. Creating a car with a 'B' pillar would have been easy and expected but the visual effect of an unbroken aperture from the front to the back of the cabin proved irresistible. "Had we not done it," says van Braeckel, "no-one would ever have commented or criticised us. But once we saw how the car would look without a central pillar, we knew there was no other way to go - even if it has given my colleagues in engineering a few further challenges!"

Another key feature that needed to be incorporated into the design is a rear wing that will provide downforce and keep the car stable at the velocities its power and aerodynamics will provide. The challenge here was to design a spoiler that was both effective and - in the Bentley tradition - discreet.

The design team was also well aware that the headlights and taillights of any car are perceived to be its jewellery and getting these aspects right was essential. The team decided on an oval theme, which recurs throughout Bentley's design history and then applied it in a way that was considered contemporary. Most noticeable is the decision to use a four-headlamp appearance at the front, with the inner lamps being the larger pair. Not only does this create a striking face for the car, it also acknowledges a time during the 1920s and 1930s when large and elegant headlamps, mounted close together either side of the bonnet were the hallmarks of luxury car design. The company says that there is also a practical benefit as the headlamp position and size helps to provide 'exceptional illumination'.

The principal reason, however, for designing the headlights this way is to draw attention to the area between the lamps, namely the Bentley radiator shell. Using the same laser cut matrix technology for the grille found on the Arnage T, it adds presence and immediate recognition to the car's appearance.

The interior of the car has yet to be revealed, but Bentley says that, like the exterior, it will be 'modern and instantly identifiable as that of a Bentley'.

Like all Bentleys, the GT coupé will be available in a large number of standard specification permutations. Thanks to Bentley's 'Personal Commissioning and Design' departments, this will be extended further to - according to Bentley - 'an almost endless number'.

Designers are multiplying

And the GT coupé marks just the start of the design revolution at Crewe. Before Dirk van Braeckel arrived in Crewe in April 1999, the design team comprised just three people. At the latest count, the team now numbers 48 and is still rising, working in a design studio created on site to style the Bentleys of the future.

Though most of the new recruits have come from design schools and manufacturers in Britain, some have come from as far afield as the US and Brazil, Van Braeckel sums up what this means for him and his team: "It is some indication of the pace of change at Crewe and the entirely new approach we have to the business of designing Bentleys that you can increase the number of design staff six fold and still be busier than ever coping with the workload."

Three quarters will be new customers

Bentley admits that even the best product needs a voice if it is to be heard particularly if, as expected with the GT coupé, 75 per cent of those who buy one will not be existing customers.

Adrian Hallmark is Bentley's member of the board for marketing. He explains: "Even with our current product,

"there are around seven million people in our target group who have the financial means to be able to afford one of our cars"
there are around seven million people in our target group who have the financial means to be able to afford one of our cars. However, a large number of them will admire our products, but stop short of buying one because they hit a mental hurdle when confronted with the prospect of paying £150,000 or more for a car, despite the fact they think the car is worth the money. Our current customers tend to be among the most wealthy in the world and there is a big step between them and another group of still extremely affluent individuals who are uncomfortable with buying cars at our existing price points."

'More affordable'

He adds: "While the GT coupé will not be cheap, it will be more affordable than is traditional for Crewe built cars. It will present a level of affordability that's well within the range of those who would naturally shy away from one of our larger cars."

GT coupé buyers will tend to be younger than current customers and will typically be in their forties rather than in their fifties. Men will still buy many more than women, but their majority will decrease from the overwhelming 96-99 per cent of current customers, to a slightly more balanced 85-90 per cent of GT coupé buyers. They will be high achieving, hard working and more typically owners of their own business rather than directors of public companies.

It will be no surprise that Bentley is not going to indulge in extensive advertising campaigns to reach such people: this has never been the Bentley style and seen as a less targeted tactic that is quite inappropriate both to Bentley's brand values and the exclusive nature of the product. Though the GT coupé will be made in greater numbers than any other Bentley to date, by all normal standards it will still be an exceptionally rare sight on the road.

Bentley says that the GT coupé is 'just months away from being shown to the public for the first time'.