Bentley Continental R
There are many cars that I like for many different reasons. Some are great for the way they look (Spyker C8 Spyder). Some are great for the way they sound (Aston Martin Vanquish S). Some are great for the way they drive (Porsche 911 Turbo).
However, if there is a car out there that I love for more than one reason, it has to be the new Bentley.
The Continental series of cars might not be the best at anything. I mean, they are not the fastest, prettiest, best handling or the nicest sounding cars on the planet, but they do every single one of those things so well. As a result, I have been in love with them since I first drove the Continental GT and the four-door Flying Spur.
Talking to Bentley
But some argued that I was perhaps blinded by the “bling”, and that these modern Bentleys are no more than glamorised VWs. So, to learn more about the cars, I went to Crewe to get a better understanding of where the marque came from, is now, and is headed in the future.
This being also the Crewe facility's 60th anniversary year made this visit a bit more special. It also felt special to be collected from the local railway station in a Bentley Continental Flying Spur.
Driving through Crewe, I couldn’t help think, I had perhaps travelled back in time to old Britain. No major office towers, just old brick houses and shops line the narrow streets.
But arrive at the Bentley factory and you find a very impressive, modern looking facility staring back.
I was toured round the factory by Rod Tilley. Rod's worked at Bentley for 30 years, spending most of his years in the paint shop. His knowledge and passion promoted him to be the official tour guide, a job that he has been doing for the last few years.
Despite this being his retirement year, he shows no signs of slowing down. He certainly has a passion for this place -- so much so that he wants to stay here beyond his retirement to help give a better understanding of the marque to people who, like me, come to visit the factory for the first time.
So we start the tour with a history lesson and a picture of the first Bentley, the No.1 from 1920. Sadly, that first car doesn’t exist any more.
However, very special and rare models from the 1930s and 1950s do still exist, some worth millions in any major currency. Some of those at Crewe have been loaned to the factory by collectors who have a true passion for the marque.
One of the earliest compassionates of the brand was Capt. Woolf Barnato, who raced and loved these cars so much that, during the troubled 30s, he bought one new car a week to help keep the company afloat.
It's attitude that many in the ranks of the rich and privileged have displayed over the years. And in honour of Bentley's relationship with the Royals, a special royal green Continental GT sits in the waiting area, and the company also recently presented the Queen with a specialised limo -- don’t tell her that the car looks more like a big London taxi.
Moving on and into the factory buildings on site. From the outside, the factory blocks are in a huge contrast to the main entrance. The factory buildings from the outside are the same as they were 60 years ago and gives you a sense what Britain was like after the second world war.
Inside however, the factory has been totally overhauled. It’s clean, controlled and modern; everything moves around in proper order in a controlled environment.
On the far right, you see bodies of the Continental GT and the Flying Spur coming in on the rails. The bodies and doors come assembled and painted from Germany -- I thought the bodies were made in Britain -- but once they get in the assembly area, the doors are taken off, and the line workers start putting the mechanicals in place.
It's an impressive sight to see the big V12 twin-turbo units -- made right here in this factory, not in Germany -- along with the transmission, the all-wheel drivelines, the suspension units and the brakes be married to the car almost as a whole. More impressive, mating the powertrain to the body takes just 14 minutes.
Further down the line, the interiors are installed. All cars built by the factory are sold units and, with so many varied options requested by its customers, special care is given to this department to keep the cars bespoke.
More traditional Bentley models, the Arnage and the new Azure, are fabricated in another building. Here you see workers hand beating panels for these cars. Everything for these models are made in here. As a result, whereas the new Continentals take about 200 hours to make one, the Arnage and Azure takes up about 450 hours per car.
Also housed in this building is the wood works station, where rolls of oak, walnut and other types of wood are delivered. Due to the attention paid to get a perfect mirror image in the wood panels, without any scars, about two-thirds of these wood rolls are binned; it's a huge waste.
The pieces that are put to better use get that special polishing treatment that results in the lustrous look Bentley interiors are known for. Nowadays, modern technology helps in this section too with laser cutting the smaller wood pieces. They also use lasers to engrave the Bentley symbol in the wood panels, and they can engrave just about anything you want them to -- at a price.
For those who crave for even more extra special treatment for their cars to make them more personal, we move into the next building, which houses the specialised workshop of Mulliner. This is where you can go nuts with how and what you want in your car. Due to the confidential treatment to the cars in this area, photography is not allowed.
As was the case for one special model too, which was not yet seen by the general public when I visited. The car I am talking about here is the Continental GTC, the new drop-top version of the coupé.
After my many pleads and smiles, I was taken into the very far back workshop in the corner, where upon my entry I laid eyes on the stunning new convertible. Trust me, the GTC looks a lot nicer in the flesh than pictures suggest.
Now I really can’t wait to take it for a drive, but on this occasion, all I got was a gentle drive along the country roads in a 1951 Bentley R-Type Continental, which is a beautiful looking coupé, but by modern standards, doesn’t have the grunt of today’s cars.
Driving the Bentley
So, in order to get my fill, once back in my home town, I borrowed a Continental GT from Bentley Toronto, to now refresh my memory on how good this car really is.
When this car first came out, I was very impressed with it on my first drive, but that was a bit short and a long time ago. After some amount of time with it, this car seriously impresses.
For a big, heavy coupé, it goes like a rocketship. The acceleration will plant a smile on anyone’s face -- as will the brakes, the biggest fitted to any production car -- as they need to be to haul in that weight.
I also like the way it handles. It might not be as agile as a Ferrari in the bends, but thanks to its all-wheel drive system, it goes through the twisties much better than you might imagine. Fuel economy on the other hand is much worse than you might imagine. I have driven some pretty fuel-inefficient cars but this is in a whole new league. I know if you can afford to buy one, you can afford to fill it up, but perhaps in the future, for the sake of our planet, Bentley will look into hybrid technology, so they can be green and fast.
Apart from the fuel bills, you can really enjoy this car, including its best feature, the comfort. Like all traditional Bentleys, it really is one of the best GTs you can buy today.
So this is the Bentley of today: a modern, technological, luxury missile -- but what about the future?
In the near future, the new Continental GTC and its bigger, more expensive and more beautiful brother the Azure will be going on sale. To get a real sense of what we will see in the years to come, I spoke to James Shaw, Bentley's head of concept engineering.
Spend two minutes with Shaw and you’ll know that he loves cars and car designs, and he won’t push a design forward if he himself doesn’t think the car looks beautiful.
He plans to move the marque forward while retaining its heritage. Currently he's working on the current Arnage's replacement. I tried to tempt him into drawing me a sketch of it on a napkin, but that didn’t happen.
Shaw did say that the next Arnage will be the ultimate luxury vehicle, which will offer technology to rival cars such as the Maybach and the Rolls Royce Phantom. For him, the Arnage will still be a car of choice for those who like to drive, rather than to be driven in. Expect that new car to be launched in 2008.
So what did I learn? Before I went, I knew that the factory lies in the town of Crewe. What I discovered is that the town of Crewe actually lies within Bentley as so many generations of workers are employed here.
And even if you haven’t been tempted to buy a Bentley before, after a visit to the company's birthplace, you might just change your mind.
Pictures by Nauman Farooq