The convertible version of the Continental GT looks set to be a winner, says Richard Lofthouse

Bentley yesterday announced that it will build a convertible version of its Continental GT, called the Continental GTC. The car will go on sale late in 2006, but prices have yet to be announced. The fixed-head version of the two-door coupé currently costs from around £110,000.

The timing of the announcement surprised the motoring world for two reasons: first, because Bentley decided not to make the announcement two weeks ago at the start of the Frankfurt Motor show; second, because it is still taking deposits on the Azure, the convertible version of the Arnage first shown in America nine months ago.

Yet in other respects the decision is a natural development for Bentley Motors. The GTC will complete the Bentley Continental range following the arrival of the Continental GT in 2003 and four-door Continental Flying Spur earlier this year.

Whereas the Azure will more than likely sell just a few hundred models in its lifetime, the GTC will sell in higher volumes and will doubtless be highly sought after in the all-important North American market.

In the past year Bentley's Crewe workforce has expanded from 1,800 to 3,800 to cope with strong demand for the Continental GT and Flying Spur, meaning that the 65-acre site is currently running at close to full capacity, constructing approximately 9,500 cars every year.

Although the exact launch date of the GTC remains unknown, first deliveries late next year will naturally strengthen sales just as demand for the existing cars begins to weaken, and the GTC will almost certainly be built in Crewe.

Bentley chairman Dr Franz-Josef Päfgen believes the brand has expanded to the limit he envisaged when he first took up his current position on March 1st, 2002, and he has stated that production volumes will not exceed 10,000 a year.

"The Continental GTC is the third step in our new product and segment strategy," says Päfgen. "It will again open up the Bentley brand to more customers who buy convertibles, as well as being a logical next car for our existing owners to own."

The new car retains the luxury, 2+2 format of the existing GT and most of its mechanicals including a 12-cylinder engine, advanced air suspension and ultra-stiff body structure. A spokesman for the company noted that the chassis was still being developed to ensure that torsional stiffness was maintained, adding that the GTC would be slightly taller and slightly longer than the GT.

Computer-generated images of the car show it with a fabric roof, a feature sure to spark discussion given the current vogue among car manufacturers to make retractable hard-tops instead. Asked about this, a spokesman noted that a fabric roof, no doubt to be hand-fitted, emphasises the craftsmanship Bentley is famous for while saving space when stowed.

Bentley's design director Dirk van Bräckel adds: "In keeping with the Bentley tradition, the new Continental GTC has a soft fabric roof and heated glass rear screen. When stowed below its hide-covered tonneau, efficient packaging ensures excellent space for both rear passengers and their luggage."

Like the Azure, which will go on sale in the spring, the GTC boasts a completely flat profile when the roof is down, not dissimilar from the Audi A4 Cabriolet announced in Frankfurt two weeks ago.

This coincidence may explain why Bentley waited two weeks to make its announcement. Audi is a sister brand to Bentley within the Volkswagen stable of companies that also includes Skoda, Seat and Lamborghini. Audi was also the company Päfgen worked at before arriving at Bentley three-and-a-half years ago.

Päfgen may also have been aware of Bentley's history in his scheduling of announcements. The Bentley R-Type Continental, widely regarded as the last "real" Bentley before a succession of Rolls-Royce look-alikes, and from which the Continental GT was inspired, made its first appearance in June 1952.

Over the following five years both drop-head and four-door Flying Spur versions appeared. On that basis, Päfgen will have beaten the history books by a whole year if the GTC is ready for Christmas 2006.

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