The Bentley had been winking at me all afternoon, a brilliant lozenge of luxury making all the cars around it look decidedly underwhelming. The hour came, finally, and I found myself sauntering towards the Continental GT clutching the beautifully machined key. I was Charlie in the horsepower factory; here was my golden ticket.
Suspend your very British cynicism for one moment, and forget the previous incarnation of this car, which was sometimes accused of not having quite enough sporting poise. An hour in the new Bentley Continental GT will redefine what you can expect from a motor vehicle. It’s not the mere luxury, nor the performance which takes you by surprise. It’s the fact that there are no loose ends to this car, nothing to merely tolerate.
The point of engineering any vehicle is to flush out the inherent imperfections in a system, as far as you can, within budget. In Bentley’s case there comes a point (usually, say, £170,000 in…) where every element of the car has been polished. The point of all the luxury in a Bentley, and the obsessive attention to detail, is that everything simply works, and works brilliantly. Every textured surface and every weighted control in the Continental GT speak the language of finesse. The external design is an exercise in imperious, imposing restraint. Bentley flatter their customers; they seem to take vast care to engineer cars to the standard you’d choose if you were building the ultimate car for yourself.
In complexity, simplicity. You enjoy the ride, with no compromises. The car on test had Bentley’s 6.0 litre flagship W12 engine, delivering 626 bhp and monstrous torque so smoothly that I was alarmed by how rapidly I approached unreasonable speeds. Such a large, stately vehicle should not move this fast, not steer this well. Choose your simile – whether it’s like standing under a buttercream waterfall or donning a helmet of foie gras, the sense of power and accruing momentum is uniquely, and sometimes overwhelmingly, rich. I found myself with the radio off, sailing this super-GT down empty roads into a setting sun. As I leaned back in the infinitely adjustable, bullhide leather seat, the air suspension working softly under me, and the corrective steering gently shepherding me through the bends, I could have been in an automotive spa. I ran my finger approvingly along a bezel. The car was now in Bentley mode, and I was in Bentley mode. We made the perfect pairing. A better sort of car. A better sort of driver…
Back to reality. The Continental GT isn’t some kind of magical object. It simply inhabits a class of super-GTs built for an automotive elite where absolute performance and absolute luxury are a given, and standards are incredibly high. Some might think that the obvious Bentley centenary badging on the 2019 cars a bit odd, but I quite like it. One hundred years back, W.O. Bentley and his engineers would have fixed a Bentley symbol to their motor cars with pride: this is who we are. And you feel the same attitude in this car.
Granted, the company has been through interesting times in its past. It was owned by Rolls-Royce for much of the 1900s, then Vickers, then Volkswagen from 1998 to the present. Indeed all Bentleys from 1931 to 2004 used Rolls-Royce chassis and engines, and the MSB platform on which the new Continental GT sits was developed by Bentley with input from Porsche; perhaps not something which sits most naturally with centenary celebrations. What is true, however, is that every modern Bentley is hand-built in Crewe from the ground up, by people who really seem to give a damn about the cars they produce. In today’s world, that doesn’t come cheap.
Turning the Bentley back onto the drive, I felt an odd melancholy. Not because I had to give the car back, and not because the mystery of that first drive had finally been solved. I was simply moved by a machine embodying the spirit of a century of committed drivers, racers, and engineers. The Bentley Boys flashed through my mind; Brooklands; footage of Blowers careening round Goodwood. Racing green bodies; numbers spray-painted onto grilles; Le Mans. It’s all in here, I thought, all under that elegant bonnet topped with a single, sharp crease.
I handed back the keys with a sigh. I’ll probably never afford one of these cars, and maybe I won’t drive one again any time soon. But one drive was enough to convince me that I will always want a Bentley Continental GT.
And so should you.