The Bentley W12 Deserves To Be Remembered

The Bentley W12 Deserves To Be Remembered photo
The Bentley W12 Deserves To Be Remembered photo

Since 1938, Bentley’s Crewe factory has produced engines. Lots of them. Later this year, when the last 6.0-liter W12 rolls off the line, it won’t be building its own anymore. V8s, hybrids, and whatever’s next for Bentley will take up the space currently used for 12-cylinder production. It’ll be a sad day, partly because a century-long run is easily in Bentley’s sights (Who doesn’t love to say they’ve been doing something for 100 years?!), but also because it marks the end of an engine that played a huge part in taking Bentley from the brand your weird uncle enjoyed to something not only aspirational but actually cool.

As a farewell of sorts, I took one of the last Continental GT Speeds from Crewe to The Highlands because if the world’s going to lose something wonderful, it needs to be given a proper send-off.

When the Continental GT came out back in the early aughts, it was a huge turning point for Bentley. Once kept in Rolls-Royce’s shadow, fresh VW Group ownership not only allowed but forced reinvention and growth—albeit with a suitable nod to what made Bentley, well, Bentley.


That meant it had to offer the sort of luxury, ride, and performance you can only dream of but also bring the fight to the likes of Aston Martin, top-flight Germans, Ferrari, and everyone else vying for the disposable income of well-heeled punters—people who may not have given Bentley the time of day before. All at a time when people weren’t really buying 12-cylinder cars. Bentley Chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark explains, “When we launched the Continental GT, the total car sales in our price segment was around 3,500 cars a year, all brands combined. And of the 3,500, only 800 were V12s.” Small market, smaller 12-pot pond… and Bentley wanted to do what? “Our plan,” continues Hallmark, “was to sell 10,000 cars in a 3,500-car segment, and 10,000 12-cylinder cars in 800 of that segment. And it worked.”

It worked and then some. Since the Continental GT’s launch, over 100,000 W12 engines have been built, tested, and flung all over the world. Some at record-breaking speeds on ice, over a mile, and even at Pikes Peak. Combined, they produce more than 6 million hp.

As much as it was a turning point for Bentley, the first W12 found its way into a concept car, then an Audi A8 with 360 hp, followed by the VW Phaeton and Touareg before Bentley threw some turbos (and a ton of engineering) at it and sent it to 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 outstanding cars you can buy. It’s big, comfortable, and, thanks to 650 hp and 664 lb-ft, effortlessly fast. Though it’s hardly a featherweight at over 5000 pounds, 20 years of evolution has imbued it with 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 pleasingly rearranges your organs, makes your brain feel all fizzy, and drastically increases the risk of the local constabulary giving you a small holiday, followed by a bus pass.

Once you get the silliness out of your system, you’ll realize the true magic not only of the W12 but the Continental GT itself: Whether you’re doing 10 or 1,000 mph, there’s no way you’ll ever get a numb bum. It’s a cruise missile with an extra shot of cruise.

Even with more power than is really necessary on board, the W12 never screams at you. It’s never been accused of being one of the more sonorous motors out there, mind. As you progress, playing with its eight-speed gearbox to satisfy whims and burn fuel, I could hear a storm a few towns away following me, but never catching up. Was Scotland making rain? No, the W12 was making its noise, reminding me that I was sitting on a truly ludicrous piece of engineering.

Speaking with Bentley Powertrain & Driveline Calibration Functional Manager Paul Taylor, getting to this stage took over 20 years of evolution. Taylor's been working on the W12 in some way, shape, or form since 2001. He notes that as it’s basically two VR6 narrow V6s mated together with a common crank, it’s utterly tiny—24% shorter than an equivalent V12. Taylor noted that over its life, the W12 evolved, sure, but a couple of things upped the game significantly. The first Continental GT Speed’s ability to use E85 biofuels (a technology that fell out of fashion alarmingly quickly, sadly), gave the motor greater breadth of ability, while the second generation car’s eight-speed ZF transmission was something of a revelation.

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

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 finest roads. Somehow, its suspension hides the car’s bulk, and with Sport mode engaged, the storm felt a little nearer, though the car had a damn good go at escaping it. It glides from corner to corner, at no point demanding much from me. Its job is to get me where I need to be as briskly as the laws of the land allow and with minimal fuss. It’s exemplary at doing so.

Of course, the Speed isn’t the W12’s final evolution—that goes to the lunatic limited-run Batur and its 730 hp and 738 lb-ft. Numbers that may seem "about right" today, but if you think about it in the context of 20 years ago, a car able to crank out those numbers on the daily and not go bang is really quite special. Had emissions regulations not forced Bentley’s hand and ended the W12’s story, could more be had from it? I’ll wager yes, but we’ll likely never know. And anyway, 730 hp is more than enough.

The W12 wasn’t supposed to be a technical tour de force just the once, some fragile thing to sit in the corner of vaunted garages and only brought out when the local vicar needed a ride home and then painstakingly fettled and fussed over. No, whether it came from Crewe in 2005 or 2023, it was designed to work well.

As I reached my destination, I pondered what state Bentley would be in had its new start not come with this motor. Could it have pulled off the same numbers—both sales and power—with a V8? Would Bentley’s characteristic smoothness have worked with another engine leading the way? And, perhaps most importantly, how will the W12 be remembered? I hope fondly. Not for its noise, but for its ease, and how without it, we probably wouldn’t have the Bentley we have today.

Got a tip? Send us a note: