Remember this time last year when we were all saying we couldn’t wait to see the back of 2020 and “bring on 2021”? That didn’t work out quite as planned did it? Still, there are those who will look back on 2021 and see quite a successful year. Many of them will be companies involved in video streaming or home office equipment, granted, but another is Bentley Motors.
It not only had its most profitable half-year ever, it’s also had to run the factory in northern England at maximum capacity for most of the time and is even expanding the plant.
In the year so far it ended a 20-year partnership with watchmaker Breitling and entered a new one with The Macallan distillery. It announced a bunch of plug-in hybrid models and made the first of its 12 Blower Bentley continuation models from 1929, as well as the Mulliner Bacalar.
Then there’s the new Continental GT Speed, which we’ve just driven in Sicily. This was a momentous occasion, not just because it’s a new GT Speed, but because we went somewhere, overseas, for the first time in more than a year. It required mountains of paperwork, nasal swabs and wearing a mask for so long that it felt like I was inhaling the air from an Egyptian mummy’s tomb, but we went somewhere.
Somewhere being a disused US Air Force base that Bentley kindly rented for a few days so we could treat it like a private racing playground. In a R5-million Bentley. Yes, the Speed starts at R4,945,000 for the coupé and if you want the drop-top you’ll have to fork out R5,445,000. And that won’t come with a former US airbase and the chance to drift around a long-abandoned swimming pool.
What you will get, though, is a lovingly hand-assembled Bentley in which every component, every piece of wood and leather, every perfectly milled metal dial tells a story. That’s what you pay for at this end of the market, a car where the wood veneers have been sliced to the thickness of a silk scarf, the leather hand-stitched by someone that has been doing the same craft for decades.
The GT Speed is all that, plus what’s beneath that vast bonnet, an earth-shaking W12 that produces 485kW and 900Nm and launches the 2,436kg vehicle from stationary to 100km/h in just 3.7 seconds. We certainly enjoyed being launched until a Bentley Dynamic Ride fault appeared on the dash and the suspension felt like we were driving over a bed of potholes. Turning the vehicles off and on again worked — as it so often does.
Technical issues aside, the coupé was superb through the Sicilian mountains. It’s big and heavy, but it feels so much lighter and more agile than the previous generation, helped partly by rear-wheel drive and an electronic rear differential lock, the first ever used in a Bentley.
Then there’s the luxury, the feel of being in a yacht on wheels, powered by a slightly muted W12 that responds to your every request. Luxury is most apparent in the convertible, which has a tailored fabric roof that opens or closes in just 19 seconds. What’s incredible, though, is how quiet things are in the cabin when that roof is down. Leave the windows up and you barely need to raise your voice. The wind whispers above your head rather than trying to blow-dry your hair; it’s all very calm and civilised. Granted, it was Sicily in early Autumn and not Cape Town during a southeaster, but it was very impressive. If you are considering a luxury convertible, not even a Rolls-Royce Dawn can match the Bentley for interior tranquillity with the roof down.
The Dawn can’t match the Speed for performance and thrills either, and while the Bentley is no sports car, it is a very accomplished sporting grand tourer. It can charge through the mountains one minute and pull up outside the Saxon the next, without flustering its occupants in the slightest.
It’s not perfect, but we’re tempted to get a little gushy because there’s every possibility that it might be the last GT Speed with a W12. Bentley’s move towards electrification is likely to see the engine phased out over the next few years. Environmentally that’s good, but as we came to a stop after another lap of the airbase and climbed out to be greeted by the ticking of the cooling engine and the wonderful aroma of a hard-driven W12, it’s sad to think that those senses will be lost.
While there’s no stopping time, the good news is that soon we will say goodbye to 2021. And if Bentley plans anything as good as it did last year then roll on 2022.