Visiting a foreign country is always an experience, but doing it behind the wheel of a bespoke, high-performance automobile like the $200,000+ Bentley Continental GT leaves a deeper impression than usual. To say that the GT has presence is an understatement. The updated design captures the best of both worlds with its elegant lines and muscular haunches, a genetic carryover from old-school Bentleys that is wonderfully evocative rather than a poorly executed derivative. The interior is an equal feast for the senses. From the double pane glass, to the matte aluminum bits, to the rich wood and leather, it’s a feel that wouldn’t be out of place in a dream cigar parlor, one that just happens to be framed in six-inch thick carbon steel. The door closes with ministerial authority, and every motion from the precision clicking of the shifter to the actuation of the turn signal is an exercise in epicurean quality.
While it wasn’t our first time behind the wheel of the brand’s bread-and-butter car, the relationship would become far more intimate after taking a drive spanning two countries and one relatively well-known waterway en route to the world’s most prestigious racing event: Le Mans. But like any budding relationship, a little getting to know each other was in order before mashing the accelerator. We needed schooling in the art of British automotive craftsmanship at the exclusive location from whence all good things Bentley emerge: the factory in Crewe.Bentley’s leather department is the largest of any automaker in the world.
Founded: January 18, 1919
Employees: 3,726 (as of 2010)
Vehicles Sold in 2011: 7,003
Car Models: 5
Bentley in Bond Movies: Bentley Mark IV (Moonraker, fictional), Bentley Mark VI (Moonraker), Bentley Mark II Continental (Thunderball)
Most Expensive Bentley: $7.8 million. A single-seat 1929 Bentley Blower once owned by Sir Henry Birkin who set a record in 1931 when it reached 137 mph. Sold at Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Number of Hours to Construct A Single Steering Wheel: 15. The process is too complicated for a machine.
If a layman’s understanding of automotive manufacturing involves sparks, a healthy amount of grime, deafening noise and piles of metal, Bentley’s post-war facility defies all stereotypes. The production line is clean beyond reason and organized in a manner that makes the Dewey Decimal System seem like utter chaos. We were learning that building cars meticulously crafted in every detail demands an equally refined factory, and the brunt of our lesson hadn’t even begun.
Few know that Bentley’s behemoth automotive leather department is the largest in the world, but after an overview in the countless interior customization options available to buyers, it makes perfect sense. The leather shop staff carefully hand mark the best parts of the hides for the Bentley cabins, and computer scanners make precision cuts. From British tans to glorious reds, the sights and scents of the hides provide an irresistible air of luxury.
In similar meticulous fashion, workers stack and prepare exotic veneers from around the globe for cutting, assembling, finishing and drying in a humidity-controlled wood room. The process takes a painstaking 4.5 weeks from start to finish. Each employee seemed utterly focused on their respective task, and their dedication and long-term loyalty is inherently impressive. Witnessing what goes into a Bentley gives you just as much profound respect for the finished product as driving one.
From the double pane glass, to the matte aluminum bits, to the rich wood and leather, it’s a feel that wouldn’t be out of place in a dream cigar parlor, one that just happened to be framed in six-inch thick carbon steel.551 miles separate Crewe from Mulsanne. That’s a 9:38 trip (including a train ride) by car, or 105 hours on foot.
Heading out at an early 6:30 am drive of 500+ miles is typically tantamount to drudgery, but doing it in a Bentley is more tantalizing than a bacon and espresso breakfast with Keira Knightley (it’s close, though). We found the beautifully colored cars (consisting of W12s and the new, magnficient V8s) parked outside the regal Rookery Hall Hotel, which looked like it easily could have supplanted Wayne Manor. With press gear and luggage loaded into the boot (when in Rome, use the lingo), our journey to Le Mans began in modern British style.
As we hit the road, the Gatling gun headlights of the GTs and GTCs emerged, magnificent, in the rear view mirror. But the American left-hand-drive, right-side-of-the-road brain sent a moderately violent reminder to pay rapt attention — lest we risk working off the cost by replacing TP for years to come in the Bentley factory. Even in the middle of Crewe, as we drove gingerly down tree-lined and hedge-rowed roads, the sight of a caravan of Bentleys turned heads. You can look or you can drive. Choosing the latter is always best.
The Euro Tunnel can shuttle cars between Folkestone to Calais in 35 minutes. Tickets cost between $80-$233.
Soon, we were mashing the throttles once again, this time on the “right side” of the “rues”, weaving through lesser traffic like a hot British knife through French butter.
Once on the expressway, getting up to speed took nary a thought in both engine variants. The V8, though boasting 40% fuel economy savings over the W12, lacks nothing in the power department. The on-demand torque and accompanying growl from the figure eight tailpipes was intoxicating; the power and steering precision still permitted “threading the needle” when pockets appeared, an incredible feat for a car of this size and weight. There was also nothing quite like seeing unbridled British pride — via numerous thumbs up from bystanders — as we flew down the road, en route to drop off the cars on the Eurotunnel train for the half hour trip to France.
A “low key” dinner with Bentley.
Soon we were mashing the throttles once again, this time on the “right side” of the “rues”, weaving through lesser traffic like a hot British knife through French butter. We arrived at our destination, a beautiful local country chateau in Fille, France about 20 minutes from the racetrack, at the end of a full day of driving. We were all tired but grinning from the pleasure of the drive. The “low key” dinner that was laid out for us in fine French style consisted of fresh baguettes, exquisite meats and cheeses, Riette, bacon quiche and wine. We settled in for a restful night and anticipated the next day, when we would make our way to the town of Mulsanne (where the Le Mans Circuit de la Sarthe’s 8.5 mile long Mulsanne Straight derives its name) and be greeted by the town’s mayor.
The town of Mulsanne welcomes people and automobiles of all kinds the day before the Le Mans race begins. As we drove through the town in our caravan of Bentleys, it seemed that children and adults alike were squealing with joy. The camera phones came out and dreams of future ownership were born. We parked our rides in succession along a local street near the town square and walked the grounds where classic American cars — Mustangs, Corvettes, and other muscle cars — were on display, a rarity in France. The Mayor of Mulsanne kindly served us a fast French lunch himself, and the afternoon became a time to relax and enjoy the local sights, and a good preface to the fast and frenetic speedfest to come.
Derek Bell is a 5-time Le Mans winner and Brand Ambassador for Bentley.
Schmoozing with French bureaucrats was certainly an experience, but it paled in comparison to dinner that evening, which included guests none other than Mr. Derek Bell (5-time Le Mans winner and Brand Ambassador for Bentley) and Bentley Motors CEO Wolfgang Durheimer along with their lovely wives. We were regaled with magnificent stories of past Le Mans heroism: when drivers didn’t have telemetry to communicate with their pit crews, or when the rain would come down so hard that racers used mind and muscle memory to drive more than sight. It was a fine evening, filled with laughter and racing awe — but the main event still loomed. Tomorrow was Le Mans.
Coming Soon | Part 2: 24 Hours of Le Mans