We find out whether it’s second time lucky as we experience project drift with our plans to experience life with a cheap Bentley Continental Flying Spur
Words and images: Paul Wager Sponsored editorial in association with IntroCar
Buy cheap, buy twice goes the saying and nowhere is it more appropriate than our experience acquiring a Bentley Continental GT. Backed with a confidence which comes from gambling company money rather than personal cash, we set out on a mission to discover whether a Continental from the bottom of the market can be a worthwhile project – or an expensive disaster. And it’s fair to say we’ve learned a lot on the way.
After trawling the bargain end of the Continental market, you’ll find there’s always someone who brightly offers a comment along the lines of “You paid how much?” before commenting how they could have found you one so much cheaper than that. But, in reality, it’s not that straightforward.
At the sub-£20k mark, there’s actually not a lot of choice once you’ve weeded out the Category N cars and the badly modified examples with aftermarket go-faster bits glued to the bodywork, black-painted wheels and dubious vinyl wraps hiding who knows what.
Yes, you can find a Continental GT in an auction for as little as £8000 but unless you have a lot of spare time on your hands and your own workshop facilities – crucially, with a two-post lift – then you’re wise to avoid them. These cars can be hiding some horrifically expensive problems and they’re usually the reason why they’ve been entered into a trade sale.
Similarly, private buyers can also be concealing potentially costly problems, although clearly there will also be many well-loved examples out there being moved on for genuine reasons. In fact, one of the biggest bugbears with these cars is lack of use, which can cause far more issues than high mileages and so many cars offered privately will boast of their low mileage – which isn’t always the selling point it might seem.
It was for those reasons that we decided to break with tradition and acquire a car from a retail trader, both for the benefits of the consumer protection it offers and also for the very simple reason that most traders don’t want to see their cars coming back and so will have prepared them to at least a basic standard.
And so it was that after sifting out those write-offs and modified cars, we narrowed it down to just two candidates, one of which was a promising-looking GT at a trader in the South West. Showing just over 120,000 miles it was a 2005 car and came with the benefit of the Mulliner Driving Specification which adds the more modern-looking diamond quilted leather and aluminium trim.
After test driving the car, it seemed ideal for our purposes with the bonus of a few jobs which would make great DIY how-to features: removing the bumper to properly flat and polish the faded headlamps, fixing the inoperative rear spoiler and sorting the droopy headliner. The mileage wasn’t a great concern since it translates to a respectable 6600-per-year average over the car’s lifetime and it came with a bulging folder of history, including some recent invoices from Bentley main dealers covering a couple of the more expensive issues you get with these cars.
Accordingly a deposit was put down and arrangements were made for our finance people to transfer the balance. For various reasons we then weren’t able to take delivery for some time but eventually the GT arrived on the back of a trailer and off we went.
All was well for about two miles until, stuck in traffic, I noticed the temperature gauge running higher than usual. It’s the same gauge arrangement you’ll find in a contemporary Mk5 Golf, but whereas the Golf’s needle points straight upwards to 60°C in normal use, the W12 engine runs at a hotter 90°C, so the needle sits at about two o’clock.
Assuming nothing much was therefore wrong, I thought nothing of it until I took the car out again and half-way up a steep hill the water needle soared into the red zone. Knowing the cost of replacing the head gaskets on the W12 effectively writes a Continental off financially, I pulled over immediately and, having let it cool, checked the water level.
Allowing for the amount which had spat out angrily on removing the pressure cap, it did at least seem to be full of water so I nursed it home, discovering by accident that slipping it into neutral and revving it hard did seem to bring the temperature down.
At this point I enlisted my local garage for a diagnosis, since they already have a few Continental-owning customers. After pressure-testing the cooling system overnight, the good news was that the head gaskets appeared to be fine, their diagnosis being a thermostat, water pump – or both.
At this point, I honestly began to question the wisdom of buying an early GT: on pre-2007 cars the thermostat is an electronically-controlled unit and retails for over £720 exchange, while an aftermarket water pump is a more affordable £130 but needs the entire front end of the vehicle removing in order to access it. The workshop manual instructs you to simply pop off the bumper skin and then ‘swing out’ the water and air conditioning radiators but after 20 years it’s a fair bet that ‘swing out’ translates to ‘sweep up all the rusty pipes and broken clips’ so it’s potentially a big labour bill.
Throw into the mix the gloopy gearbox oil stain the car left on my otherwise spotless driveway thanks to cooler pipes which looked as if they’d been damaged on the slightly-too-small delivery trailer and I was already regretting our brief adventure into Continental GT ownership. Especially once I’d hooked up the VW Group diagnostic software on my laptop and discovered that our new acquisition was displaying a colossal 110 fault codes from its various electronic control modules.
One of these was particularly alarming since it related to an intermittent boost control problem on cylinder bank two. On pre-2006 cars, the boost control modules sit above the gearbox, meaning that replacement involves the mammoth job of dropping the engine and gearbox, whereas later cars moved them to the front of the engine.
Needless to say, much head-scratching followed and, to cut a long story short, the extra cost of buying from a trader proved justified when the vendor offered to have the car back and fix it. Fair enough, we thought, and it was duly collected. At which point we waited… and waited… and waited. Two months later, our friendly vendor threw in the towel, admitting defeat after having replaced the thermostat and water pump but still not having sorted it.
At this point we were back at square one, still needing to source a Continental but at least now rather better informed on these complex cars. It tells you a lot that many of the examples I’d originally considered were still for sale, but when several specialists suggested widening the search to include the GT’s four-door brother, the Continental Flying Spur, things looked up.
The four-door cars attracted a different kind of buyer it seems, especially as they aged and have generally lived a much more gentle life, making them an ideal first dip into the waters of Continental ownership.
One in particular caught my eye, which was the 2008 car you see here. It’s covered a chunky 143,000 miles but is in simply lovely condition having spent a large part of its life in service as a VIP chauffeur car. The service book is fully stamped up, the Mulliner interior is pristine and it comes with the glorious feature of massage seats… front and rear.
It’s not perfect, of course – few of these cars don’t have at least one minor issue and in fact even the 2004 car in Bentley’s own heritage collection had a warning light glowing when I tried it recently. The electric bootlid isn’t working properly, which means a careful manual assist is needed to get it to close and latch, while the EML light comes on after a hot start owing to the common – but generally easily fixed – problem of a leak in the secondary air injection system, usually caused by a split connecting pipe.
On the other hand, compared to the 110 faults logged on the GT, the laptop threw up just three on the Spur and it drives superbly. The combination of wafting luxury and relentless shove when required is very much a USP of these cars, and even the 5m long Flying Spur is seriously fast.
As I write this we’ve not had the car more than a few weeks, so work has been limited to idle tinkering: I’ve covered up the ugly bare screw heads in the number plates with plastic caps and used a neat sticker to conceal the chipped legend on the engine start button. A replacement case is on order for the dog-eared spare key fob and hopefully a temporary (for which, read gaffer tape) fix can be performed to sort that air injection error.
Hopefully this won’t be a case of fiddling around the edges though, since the car is currently booked in for an assessment with a respected Bentley specialist who can give it a good going-over and with the benefit of their professional experience tell us whether it really is a case of second time lucky.