When Bentley unveiled its EXP 100 GT concept at its headquarters in Crewe, England—on the day of its 100th anniversary—the manufacturer delivered the first concrete hints that this ultra-premium marque was seriously contemplating its role in future mobility.
Yes, the long, low car looks every bit the sleek and aerodynamic sport coupe you’d expect from Bentley, but it’s got autonomy baked into the design, via a reconfigurable interior, it’s fully electric, and it debuts a lighting system meant to communicate its intentions to those around it. In effect, it’s joining the conversation in a meaningful way, a gesture that many might be forgiven for assuming would be “beneath” the brand.
We sat down Bentley’s head of exterior design, John Paul Gregory, to find out how the new vehicle reflects a divergence from Bentley’s usual path. Gregory has been with Bentley for 11 years, and has led the development of the outward appearances, most recently, of the new Continental GT and GT Convertible and the forthcoming Flying Spur.
Q: First, talk to me about being a Bentley designer. How does one internalize the aesthetic of such a brand?
A: I think the reason I was given the job in the first place is really because I proved that I understood the spirit and the character of Bentley, rather than just executing a line here and a line there. Designing for Bentley is much more than that. There are certain formulas we can follow, but that doesn’t always work. It’s not binary. It’s more working on intuition and trusting your own experiences and your instincts a little bit. So you keep experimenting, keep moving form and volume around—and sometimes you have to rip it up and start again. At Bentley, our design process is longer than a mass-manufactured car, so we have that slightly longer design process in which to add in that extra level of refinement. That’s something that is a really important part of our endeavor.
Q: What was your goal with the EXP 100 GT concept?
A: This is a design statement of Bentley in the future. We got together with all our stakeholders internally and had long conversations with the board, saying guys, we’re 100—how are we going to celebrate? What are we going to do? Of course, on top of it being our birthday, we have this unprecedented shift and transition in the automotive industry. So we decided to use this as an opportunity to have a celebration and honor our wonderful brand, and at the same time set out what type of brand we want to become in the future. We wanted to show what type of cars do we want to make.
Q: How does electrification impact design?
A: Electric cars don’t have to be soulless boxes. They can still have automotive appeal and they can still refer to your heritage. Yes, there’s a completely new set of technical constraints, but you’re still playing with recognizable DNA. With this concept—it’s a very big car, and it’s got that Bentley statement as a big, bold coupe. But electrification gives us the opportunity to talk about future drivetrains, and with a large footprint we can spread the batteries out. This allows for quite a unique and configurable interior space. You can choose two, three or four seats, and that flexibility impacts the exterior proportions.
When you start talking about the silhouette of this car, it’s quite different from normal. The proportions are affected by the electric drive, which was the birth of this configurable space. What that means is that the front windscreen is much further forward than it normally would be. In the past, you would have these enormous bonnets because there are enormous engines inside, and the windshield is very far back. It’s what we call the dash-to-axle ratio, or the “prestige mass”—the distance between the door and the center of the front wheels. It’s normally very large on a Bentley, but in this car it’s actually quite small.
We’ve also wrapped around the A-pillars a little bit further, so we’ve got a lot of curvature in the front screen. What that does is give you get a completely different aspect, depending on where you look at the car.
Q: Do you feel constrained by the need to have this cool new tech look like a Bentley?
A: A lot of these electric startups don’t have a heritage to draw from. They have really nice-looking cars, but all of the design follows current trends so they all end up looking similar. Many designers would say that’s a blank canvas, and there’s nothing restricting us. But actually, having a heritage to draw from is in my eyes a positive. It’s the challenge of placing that instantly recognizable heritage onto this new technology.
Of course, the big topic around that with this car is the grill. Do we completely abstract the Bentley face? I said no, let’s take this wonderful 100 years of heritage and celebrate it and still use it, but in a different way. Here we’re playing a lot with the topic of light, which will become a way of communicating with others as this autonomous world develops. As that technology develops, light will help make sure the outside world knows what the car is doing. That’s a wonderful communication tool, while at the same time it provides a sense of occasion. As the owner walks up to the car, the car wakes up. It can almost sense the driver’s mood and maybe help them get into a better one. So it’s got this kind of luxury theater on top. The whole front end is super-exciting for me as a designer.
Q: There’s a lot going on with this car. How do you reign yourself in?
A: We’re playing with different topics, and because it’s a show car we’re able to push that bandwidth and see how far can we stretch it out, but make sure it’s still a Bentley. It goes back to what I was saying before about spirit and character. Bentley’s about dominance and presence, and those lights are reminiscent of so many other wonderful cars—the Blower, the Continental Type R. But it’s obviously an abstract version of that.
Q: As with many show cars, it feels like there’s something else beyond just Bentley’s heritage influencing it, even in this case elements of fantasy or science fiction. Is that deliberate?
A: You’re absolutely right—concept cars do often have that feeling. With Bentley, concepts are usually precursors for something that we want to create very soon. This, however, is purely visionary, and it means we could take the shackles off a bit, especially because we don’t have the production feasibility behind them. I think it’s important that the cars have that feeling—that we’re able to dream a bit.
Q: Final question: When you get together with other designers in the industry, what’s on your minds?
A: We’re all having conversations about this big shift in the automotive industry, and how it’s being interpreted differently. There are a lot of successful interpretations of what’s happening, and we’re beginning to talk about the challenges together. But everyone’s in the same boat. We know that this is happening, and it’s really important as a brand that you put your stamp on things. In our case, we’re still going to make inspirational cars, not these autonomous boxes. I think people in the design community respect that, because the only reason you get into this game is because you’re passionate about cars and passionate about car design. I think that that this car still represents that.