“That’s never your car! No way!”
“Au contraire, parking enforcement officer” I retorted as I used the Bentley’s keyless entry system to fling the driver’s side door open, fire up the 4.0 litre twin-turbo V8 with the push of a button and blast off towards the King’s Road before the ruffian had a chance to finish writing his penalty notice.
With hindsight, I can understand the poor chap’s scepticism. I was, after all, dressed in a lurid red and green Japanese dragon onesie at the time — perhaps not a Bentley driver’s typical attire. For those of you thinking that I’ve developed a rather odd fetish, I should wind the clock back a further five minutes or so. I was happily attending Master Fool’s Knights and Princesses-themed fifth birthday party, in my dragon costume, when I was unexpectedly dispatched on a crusade by the Queen of the realm: to locate and bring back “more cupcakes, quick!”
As I drove away, roof down, my scaly green tail flapping about in the wind, I reflected on what a Bentley driver’s typical attire is these days. A three-piece Huntsman suit? Or perhaps a tracksuit accessorised with a couple of gold chains and a Rolex Sky-Dweller? Because, look, lets tackle the elephant in the room straight off the bat: the Bentley brand has taken something of a beating of late. This most sacred of institutions, once revered as the more sporting stablemate of Rolls-Royce — and so steeped in Britishness and racing prowess that it was the car that Ian Fleming chose as James Bond’s personal set of wheels — has, since its purchase by the Volkswagen Group in 1998, been increasingly regarded by petrol heads as just a little too bling, a little too ‘in your face.’ Nowadays, you’re more likely to see a Bentley being driven by a Russian oligarch’s son, a freshly minted rapper or Premier League football player than the world’s most sophisticated super-spy. And for those of us with £140,000 to blow on a fast coupé — when there are perhaps more subtle alternatives from the likes of Aston Martin or Porsche snapping at its heals — that may be a tough pill to swallow. Has Bentley become the preserve of the tasteless?
It must be said that my press car’s rather, er, adventurous colour scheme of aqua green paint job (“it’s an unusual colour but…it photographs well” the Bentley’s marketing man told me sheepishly), cream leather and mahogany cabin highlights did nothing to dispel those ‘more money than taste’ connotations. While I was eventually able to locate some cupcakes, make it home from the party and change into something designed by one of Ralph Lauren’s minions, the poor Continental was lumbered with being dressed like a pantomime villain for the rest of her life. It’s testament though to her very significant abilities that I soon forgot about how she was clothed and started being well and truly seduced by her body and character.
The first thing to mention — because it’s the thing that slaps you right in the face within your first few minutes with the car — is the simply glorious sound of that V8. It rumbles with intent at idle and grows to a beastly growl under hard acceleration. It’s basically the same unit that Audi fits in the Audi S8 (a car very close to my heart), albeit retuned for a different power delivery, with slightly less peak power but more torque. And it’s…nothing less than intoxicating.
Maybe it’s because I’d recently spent a week with a Rolls-Royce Ghost but I wasn’t expecting the Bentley to thrill me at all. Competent, swift and luxurious? Of course. But exciting? No. How wrong I was. From the moment you hear that V8 spring to life and its ferocious 500 horses start dragging the Conti’s 2,500 kilograms to 60 mph from standstill in less than five seconds (4.7 seconds if you want to get nerdy about it), you realise that time spent with a Continental is anything but sedate. That effortless pull is what Bentley spokespeople like to refer to as their ‘wave of torque’. They’re not kidding. Don’t let the bulk and luxurious nature of the car’s trimmings fool you, this thing thrills and delights the engaged driver.
You’re certainly always aware that this is a heavy car — the front rises under hard acceleration then dips more than I would have liked under heavy breaking (the guys and girls at Bentley are engineers not magicians after all; you can’t just throw the laws of physics out of the window) — but it’s also never less than agile, rewarding, exhilarating even and — yes — a little bit scary from time to time. The Conti is a wonderful traveling companion. In ultimate terms, she’s not the most accomplished sportswoman (leave that to the Ferraris and Porsches) but she is brash, confident and enormously entertaining, Crucially, she makes you feel the same. It’s hard not to fall in love. And, like all honest men, I have to confess that if I fell in love, it wasn’t just with her character. Her looks played a big part too.
The photos speak for themselves I think. The handsome but menacing front-end with its large and close-set twin headlights; the exquisite details in the cabin like the stitched logos in the headrests (less so the rather uncouth Breitling dash clock); the ‘figure eight’ exhaust pipes that are unique to the V8 model; and those wide, pert rear haunches. This car’s looks — at first deceptively simple — just grow and grow on you. Like all good design, it’s simple but its qualities run deep. A towering achievement.
Complaints? I had a few and, let me tell you, they came straight from the top. That’s to say, they related to the roof. At high-speeds (oh, you bet we did!), I noticed far more wind noise and rattles than I would have expected from a car costing well into six figures. My Honda S2000 and Boxster S both managed to be near silent with the roof up. I was expecting at least the same from the Bentley. Not so. Other than that? Well, I wish the alloy wheels didn’t scratch quite so easily (hmm, that’s a long and rather embarrassing story in itself), the cup holders certainly felt like they came from a lesser car and, er, that’s really about it. The Continental is damn-near close to irreproachable as a fast, luxurious GT.
So, yes, Bentley has picked up some negative brand associations on its journey from loss-making British underdog to profitable German-owned luxury brand behemoth. But that’s inevitable. I’d much rather have a healthy company (they’ve sold more than 50,000 W12 Continentals since launch) turning out products of this monumental ability than a struggling operation lurching from crisis to crisis. And, yes, you’ll find Bentleys being bought by people with less taste than you. But the same is true of 911s, Submariners and iPhones. Just because they’ve become the de facto choice for many people shouldn’t detract from their overwhelming ability. I’ve never believed in paying too much attention to what the nerds (most of whom, remember, couldn’t afford one and are content to pontificate from behind the safety of a pint glass and an overdraft) deem worthy or otherwise. Go for the best, regardless of the image. And the Bentley — despite its ‘big corporate’ VW parentage and some of the product placement and marketing campaigns that has led to — is certainly up there with the very best.
In short, this particular colour scheme isn’t for me, nor is the drop-top configuration — but the Continental’s fundamentals are very sound indeed. Put a proper roof on it, paint it grey or British racing green, dress the cabin in black or tan leather and swap the wood insets for the machined aluminium option and you have yourself a hugely desirable car. I’d go further actually — the Continental’s blend of hand-crafted British charm, deep technical ability, brute force, simple yet iconic looks and peerless lineage earn it a place on my personal list of top ten ‘must owns’.
Our incredulous traffic warden was half right then. No, it wasn’t really my car on that particular day. But, one day, I certainly hope it might be.
The Continental GTC V8, together with the rest of the Bentley range, is available from: H.R. Owen, Jack Barclay Bentley, 18 Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London, Tel +44 333 240 1587
More information is available from the Bentley Motors website.
Originally published at www.theprodigalguide.com on June 24, 2013.