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Celebrating 100 years of Bentley

31st Dec 2018 7:00 am

Bentley will turn 100 in 2019 and so, to celebrate, we take a drive from the factory in Crewe down to some of the best driving roads in the UK.

Bentley’s low-slung Continental GT is a car made to cross continents in. Massively comfortable, built like a boardroom on the inside and capable of intergalactic speed, it is one of the few cars in the world that can do both luxury and performance in equal measure.

Our journey to celebrate the centenary of the brand starts off where Bentleys are manufactured today – at the plant in Crewe in central England. Originally built to manufacture high-tech Merlin fighter aircraft engines during World War II, the factory was set up in the hinterland to keep it away from German bombers. After the war, Crewe was turned into a plant that made luxury cars and became a sort of centre for excellence when it came to wood and leather work. And it is these very English ‘hand-made’ skill sets that were inherited by Bentley when the company split from earlier owner Rolls-Royce in 1998. This is also what makes Bentleys of today very different from most other luxury cars. Things are still hand-made on the inside and Bentley pays so much attention to the quality of raw materials, it just shows.

‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to’ – except, in this case, they still do.

Unlike the first Continental GT that was based on the VW Phaeton, the new one is based on the same MSB platform as the new Porsche Panamera. First impressions when I climb into the cabin are very strong; it almost feels like the interiors are made from solid bits of wood rather than several layers of veneer. Then there’s the smooth, almost butter-soft leather... it feels sumptuous. And because the massive touchscreen looks too modern compared the rest of the cabin, you can flip it around and get three chromed-over dials to pop up instead. I look around the cabin and, incredibly, that custom-made feel seems to have carried forward almost a century. This car still has that ‘coach-built’ feel of the early cars. 

The first leg of our journey consists of a drive down the local roads around Crewe. Similar in construction to our roads back home in India, the surface is full of ruts, shallow potholes, and long surface cracks. “We actually asked the local council not to resurface some of the roads around the plant in Crewe; nothing like testing our cars over the real thing,” explains one of the guides at the plant. This, straight up, is a serious test for the 2.3-tonne GT. To begin with, it rides on air suspension – something that isn’t the best at handling sharp-edged bumps at low speeds. And then this car rides on just massive factory-fitted TWENTY-ONE-inch wheels! The new GT, however, on its three-chamber air springs, dispatches the road with disdain. There’s an almost imperious air to the manner in which it smothers the road, and what actually helps beat the road into submission is the fact that the car weighs so much.

Low-slung profile, the 21-inch wheels and those pronounced haunches look super.

The Bentley also carries its weight well. This has always been the case with Bentleys. Traditionally overbuilt by founder and locomotive engineer WO Bentley, his cars from the early days were big, heavy and built to last. Designed to be as long-lasting as a locomotive (that regularly clock a million miles and more), Bentleys were also so comfortable with speed that the cars dominated long-distance races like the 24 hours of Le Mans; they won in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930. And this is despite the cars being the very antithesis of a lightweight racing cars. Ettore Bugatti, in fact, famously quipped that Bentley made “the fastest lorries in the world.”

Bentley also benefitted from being initially involved in the aero industry. Far from being crude and heavy, the engines were designed using the latest aero engine technology like aluminum pistons, twin ignition, and long stroke pistons. It was Bentley after all who designed, engineered and manufactured the best rotary piston engine (the BR1) for World War I fighter aircrafts like the Sopwith Camel. So, not only did WO Bentley benefit from his days as a locomotive engineer, but his experience at the other end of the spectrum was also priceless.

In fact, Bentley still carries on its trend of cutting-edge engines. The W type engine, incidentally only shared with Bugatti today, has 12 cylinders, two twin-scroll turbos and a maximum power output of 635hp. What also makes this locomotive for the road take off like the Saturn V rocket is the 900Nm of torque that comes stampeding in at 1,350rpm, just off tick over. This, primarily, is the reason why the new GT feels as weightless as an aluminum paperweight when you plant your right foot.

What stays with you is that seamless surge of power from the W12.

Luckily, our route to the Cotswolds has been chosen well. We have some spectacular B roads, lonely three-lane dual carriageways, and then off and on, there are even empty stretches where I can really let the beast loose. In fact, window down, blast of cool air blowing in, I can even imagine what three-time Le Mans-winning Bentley boy Woolf  Barnato must have felt chasing down the Blue Train, all the way from Cannes in the French Rivera.

Since there are so many connections to locomotives, I plan a slight diversion . . . to meet a locomotive at a nearby station. It’s still early in the day, but there are several train enthusiasts already present at Toddington. The Bentley causes a stir, as I park up against the railway line, but all attention soon shifts back to the immaculate Manor Class locomotive as it puffs and chuffs out of the yard like a medieval dragon, jets of steam erupting every few seconds. Wow! This is what 68 tonnes of locomotive looks like. And what a joy to see it so well-looked-after and actually pulling a train.

As we leave the station, we hope to catch a glimpse of the train as it charges over the Stanway Viaduct. But the Manor Class locomotive has a good head start and we soon realise we are too late. Still, since I’ve got the hammer down and the road before me is gently meandering through lush green farmland, I keep my foot in.

And then – just to make things a bit more exciting – I shift to ‘Sport’. The suspension gets a bit firmer now, the car’s body control tightens up, and then I soon realize, the four-wheel-drive system is now channeling most of the power to the rear wheels. Neat. Bye, bye bags of understeer.

Legroom in back is cramped, for short drives only.

As I press on, the blur outside the window gets more and more abstract. Forget a steam locomotive, the Bentley is now covering ground like a bullet train. And the explosive mid-range from the engine is so addictive, I use more and more throttle on the way out of corners. I have to keep the weight in mind, but as long as you introduce the car to the long corner in a tidy manner, wait for inevitable weight transfer to settle and then feed power to the rear wheels, the car exits the corner, most of the propulsive force coming through with the energy of a rocket.

The steering wheel is a bit large, and you can feel the weight of the car in corners, but as long as the surface is smooth and you keep your right foot in check, driving the Bentley along roads like these at express-train velocities is just an addictive experience.

Canal boats for that lazy cruise down the River Severn.

We stop at a 16th-century inn for the night, deep in the heart of the Cotswolds. Now called The Lygon Arms, this trip into the past is followed the next day by a drive back to the city of Chester. And it’s on the way back, over some tight and twisty roads, that the Bentley starts to show just how heavy the car is. The surface isn’t perfect, the corners tighten on themselves without warning, and this often causes the Continental GT to squirm and hop over bits, as the rear wheels struggle to put the power down. Yes, the car’s active anti-roll bars and 48V system do help, but there also seems to be a hint of flex from the chassis, and that ultimately means the GT doesn’t drive quite as well as, say the previous-generation Supersports. I guess it’s all about focus and here the focus is on comfort and ride quality.

Still, if you are looking for a tool to cross continents, and want to do it in the fastest, most luxurious manner possible, look no further than the Rs 3.88 crore Continental GT (options extra). Yeah, it’s expensive, but so was First Class on the Concorde. This clearly is one of the finest automotive experiences out there.

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