Was there ever a more oxymoronic nominative concept than the ‘Bentley Continental’?
Sure, it’s a GT. At some point over the previous century, the idea that a touring vehicle could and should be ‘grand’ became accepted orthodoxy. And, if you wanted to tour away from British shores, short of emigrating to the New World, you were obliged to do so on what we came to call the Continent. Travelling long distance in style has always been a corner-stone of the upper classes. Exploration, adventure, erudition – these were concepts at the very heart of the 18th Century Grand Tour that transported the brightest sons of England’s sturdy bloodlines and, by exposure to the Classical and the Renaissance, turned them into cultured Gentlemen.
Yet here I am, in 2012, a Brit in the most British of marques, pedal to the metal through a Europe that we really don’t trust anymore. Outside, gawping French people stare back at us, projecting their own brand of animosity. ‘Look at them, in their rancidly class-conscious super tank! Are they aristocrats, dancing on the tears of their peasants? Or worse, NON! Football hooligans! In a stolen car! Here for ‘le binge drinking’!?’
Up yours, Delors. We’re both. Well, we’re neither, but since France don’t make supercars (that’s what killing your monarchy does for you, you traitorous republican scum) we may as well enjoy the the air of superiority and intimidation the car offers. Perfectly cocooned in a luxuriant suite of leather-upholstered fair play and even-tempered decency.
The Bentley Continental GTC W12 is an imposing machine, with a beauty and style rarely found in cars made on our side of the channel. Though owned by German Volkswagen, the British craftsmanship is apparent throughout. That always surreal 4am drive through London, passing the imminent walk-of-shamers, is made serene as I glide towards the Channel Tunnel, gearing up to mark my announcement on French soil with 567bhp of pure British muscle.
It really is enough to make you secretly curse these days of lily-livered collaboration and fraternity. This car makes you wish you were sending missives to King Henry at Agincourt or racing to hold the line at Waterloo. Each clarion bark from those twelve cylinders/canons blows more jingoistic zeal up my spine, even if it is being caressed by the delicious special warm air vent around my neck. This means even if I am man enough to brave the stench of cheese with the hand-stitched top down, I can go through all 7 forward gears and never feel a chill. Northern France is blissfully empty and since it’s next stop Antibes, I see no reason to take the scenic route. Anyway – the areas of beauty I’m interested in are all centred around Crewe and the lovely people who built the cockpit that myself and my lithe love now recline in.
A higher class of highly polished veneer, soft leather surfaces and solid metal you’d be hard pushed to find outside of the Chateaus we keep passing at speed. Because this is a Bentley, the speaker grilles, seat belts, seat belt clips and even rear view mirror are all matched to the creamy interior. My only complaint is that because I’m conscientious, I don’t get to eat my stupidly-superior-no-seriously-how-do-they-even-do-that-we-should-emigrate Moto services ham baguette with the cruise control on, lest I dribble on the hide.
There’s been a lot of stitching and buffing to make my cockpit a place I’ll never want to leave. The moments I have to – for non-executive relief, etc – I resent the real world, with its standing up, moving through just leg power and cold natural breezes.
How does it handle? I don’t know. I pointed it south at Calais and went ‘avant’.
When we stop for fuel, there is a distinct sense of occasion on the forecourts.
It doesn’t hurt that our particular carriage is painted in Champagne – or a fizzing, lustrous silvery gold that should probably be so named. The French like the car but they don’t want to admit it. So they repress their desire to drop to their knees and surrender/give me back Calais, choosing to pout a bit and scan the car before going back to ignoring us. But I know… It is surprising how long you can go on an empty tank trying to recall French lessons, specifically “have you got any petrol”. This is working on the theory, of course, that every local Frenchman wouldn’t rush to the assistance of two Brits in a Bentley Continental GTC broken down in deepest Provence.
Finally, the lure of country roads and men on bicycles with onions around their necks is too powerful. Even here, the Beast is nimble and light. The twin Vs ahead of me and the four driving wheels under me are as adept at windy-bendy as wide-cruisy.
The gear shift on the column just paddles through like a knife through unsalted butter, but is equally happy sitting in cruise, which is just as well, as the amount of lane switching and breaking without warning I’m subjected to means I need my limbs free.
Finally, the air warms up and we smell that glorious smell – pure Côte d’Azur.
Reaching the Promenade Amiral de Grasse, skimming the marina and whisking my better half for a quick crustaceacanal detour, before an afternoon at the Musee Picasso, I conclude two things: having driven 750 miles, I feel as fresh as had I flown into Nice, possibly more so. Secondly, the GT offered me what the original Grand Tourists got. Time to reflect and time to digest all that had been learnt along the way. I, like them, am a better person for the experience. Now, time to get sunburnt and rowdy…