Bentley Continental GT
0-62mph 3.7 seconds
Top speed 207mph
It’s a sharp spring day and we’re inching through the traffic in one of the less spiritually uplifting towns of Kent’s Medway. The car I’m driving is the pulchritudinous (thank you online thesaurus) Bentley Continental GT – known to all who reverentially whisper its name as the Conti. Its vast engine is chortling happily. It weighs more than 2 tonnes, yet it is so light on its feet that it can surge from 0-62mph in under 4 seconds, before topping out at a scarcely believable, and utterly pointless, 207mph. We slow at a junction and a shirtless man puts down his pint and walks purposefully into the middle of the road. He points at the Conti and fixes me with a menacing stare. “Oh no,” mumbles my wife nervously, “what’s he going to do?” There’s a long pause. People stare. Then the man bellows as if all England will hear: “This. Is. A. Bloooooody. Car!” He grins wildly, gives me a big thumbs-up and waves us on our way… The Conti does this sort of thing to people – and I totally get how that guy feels.
It’s going to be big year for Bentley. On 10 July, the legendary brand will celebrate its centenary. When Walter Owen Bentley created his first prototype in a London mews back in 1919, he could never have guessed that 100 years later the exquisitely crafted cars bearing his name would be objects of unfettered desire the world over. When he first set up shop his plan was to: “Build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” And that, pretty much, is what Bentley still does. Today, every model is built in Crewe by a team of more than 4,000 skilled men and women.
Bentley owners feel a sense of reverence for their highly engineered works of art. People approach the cars with a sense of timeless awe. A great example of this can be found in the limited-edition model that is being built to mark the centenary. Only 100 will be made – one for each year of the century – and each will feature a series of interior and exterior tributes to one of the most famous cars in Bentley’s history – the No 9 Blower. The original was famed for breaking records and wowing spectators in the 1920s and 1930s. Ian Fleming was so taken with the Blower he made it the original Bond car in his first book, Casino Royale. Each of the 100 new cars will contain a piece of the racing seat from Sir Tim Birkin’s iconic 1930 No 9 Le Mans race A mast*car sealed in a glass case on the dashboard. It looks like a religious relic from an ancient church.
The Conti is crucial for the ongoing success of Bentley. Almost 70,000 have been sold since it first launched in 2003, making it one of the most successful luxury performance cars of all time. This newest model is lighter and more efficient than the one that went before – not that an MPG of 23.2mpg and CO2 emissions of 278g/km are anything to write home about. It has a mesmerisingly smooth eight-speed gearbox and the 626bhp 12-cylinder engine is one of the engineering wonders of the automotive world.
Despite its stand-and-deliver looks, the real gasps are saved for the interior. It is exquisite. Every stitch, button and swathe of leather exudes tactile indulgence. Everything is drizzled with chrome – from the air vents to the indicator stalks. Technology is sophisticated and all encompassing, but in keeping with this level of opulence it is understated – the infotainment screen rotates and tucks itself away when not in use. There are four seats (the rear two are tricky to get into, but quite roomy once you are seated) and the boot is far bigger than you’d expect.
There’s no point in pretending many of us will ever own a car like this. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look, wonder and dream… Sitting up front, the limitless potential of the W12 engine hovering beneath your toe, is a truly wonderful place to be. As the man said: “This. Is. A. Bloooooody. Car!”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010