The combination of a seven-figure show car with zero weather protection and the British summer means that, of course, it’s raining. Not gently, either – Goodwood’s track surface is rapidly passing from damp to properly wet. It is sodden enough to have me remembering Kenny Brack’s astonishing drive in Adrian Newey’s very oversteery GT40 at the 2013 Revival in similar conditions. And he had a roof.
Not that I’ll be getting close to Kenny’s level of commitment today, despite the promise of 650hp and Bentley’s claim the Bacalar should be the fastest open-topped road car it has ever produced. While impressive, there’s a big asterisk next to it – it only applies to the 12 finished customer-spec cars that Mulliner will be building for those both rich and lucky enough to get their names on the list for this £1.5m super-special. The car I’m going to be in is the one that was built for the cancelled Geneva motor show in March, built to look nice rather than undergo extreme dynamic assessment.
It’s a point made when I climb into the beautiful cockpit, most of which is already glistening with moisture. My first instinct is to close the windows, but the switches don’t do anything. Similarly the milled aluminium rotary controller for the climate control turns without altering the number displayed on its digital readout. The hands of the clock and trio of bronze-beveled dials in the centre of the dashboard are frozen in place, too. The digital instrument pack is live, but it’s playing a looped video that has the speedo peaking at 170mph. At least the wipers work.
While it’s not representative of the finished car, the Bacalar is also a fascinating thing, effectively marking Bentley’s return to in-house coachbuilding after several decades. Underneath it shares its core mechanical package and sub-structure with the existing Continental GT Convertible. External bodywork has been radically altered with a combination of aluminium and carbonfibre panels, styling now incorporating individual headlights rather than the twin units that Bentley has used since the mid-90s.
Getting geeky, the door handles and windscreen are carried over from the Conti. In the case of the former that’s because they contain the aerials and mechanism for the keyless entry system, and with the latter it’s because of the need for the safety of the windscreen top rail, which is designed to work in conjunction with the roll-over protection hoops that are still housed under the rear bodywork. Cabin architecture is mostly the same to the GTC, it’s harder to change switchgear and internal panels than external bodywork, but with every surface covered with something rarer and considerably more expensive than it would be in a Conti.
Professional cynicism laid temporarily aside, it also looks absolutely stunning. The show Bacalar’s Yellow Flame paint works particularly well in the gloomy conditions – the metallic finish uses rich husk ask for its sparkle. The intricately designed 22 inch rims look more like weapons than wheels. It’s a piece of automotive art and, with the added ability to finish it in any colour they like, the customer spec cars will look identical.
They will also drive better. Show cars are rarely designed to move under their own power at much more than video speed, and although the first Bacalar sits on a production GTC chassis and has a proper W12 engine, the Bentley attendants on hand are obviously concerned about the risks of putting excessive loadings through various prototype components. The fact the seatbelts don’t work also limits my enthusiasm for a no-holds barred lap of one of Britain’s fastest circuits. (We know some of the pictures have been taken heading the wrong way, and many in dry conditions I didn’t get to experience.)
Yet while the production car’s figures are suitably virile – Bentley estimating a 3.5 second 0-60mph time and a 200mph top speed – I reckon that most owners are likely to treat it in much the same way I do at Goodwood. The car is obviously well suited to a cruising pace, riding the muscular mid-range torque of the big engine and enjoying its wuffling soundtrack while the twin-clutch gearbox demonstrating its ability to deliver what feels like torque converter smoothness as well as lightning rapidity. Faster progress is going to get breezy without a roof, and if you do travel quickly how are you going to see all of the jealous glances?
The long windscreen is also pretty effective at keeping rain off for as long as the car is moving, although it still feels wrong to be subjecting something so nice to a partial soaking. I’m concerned for both the quilted leather seats (each with more than 148,000 individual stiches) and the wool cloth dashboard facings. But Maria Mulder, Bentley’s chief colour and trim designer, is on hand to assure me it’s far tougher than it looks; apparently all materials have to meet Volkwagen Group standards for both durability and (in open-topped cars) short-term water resistance. You will be able to specify a Bacalar with less weatherproof finishes, but you’ll also have to sign a form to say you accept the risk of them being damaged by the elements.
Coachbuilding for cars began where it had finished for horse-drawn carriages: putting different bodywork onto a separate, low-tech chassis. The arrival of monocoque construction made that much harder, but with the Bacalar Bentley has proved it is possible to transform the look of one of its modern cars while keeping both the core structure and most of the all-important tech. Mulliner boss Tim Hannig admits that the decision to only build 12 of the Bacalar was deliberately conservative and that the company could doubtless have sold many more. There was even consideration given to making it a one-off, but only briefly. “We spent around £5m on engineering before we’d made a single part. We would have had to sell the finished car for at least £7.5m.”
Hannig is also happy to confirm that there will be other coachbuilt Bentleys that offer similar – or even greater – levels of transformation, although he insists that numbers will never get as high as they have for some of the ‘limited’ supercar runs. “When you increase volumes people’s excitement goes away,” he says, “I don’t think we’ll ever get to 150, let’s say.”
“But we absolutely are not planning to do one and then stop. This is a very serious start into a forgotten niche of the market.”
SPECIFICATION | BENTLEY BACALAR
Engine: 5,998cc, twin-turbocharged W12
Transmission: 8-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 650@5000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 663@1350rpm
0-60mph: 3.5 second (est)
Top speed: 200mph+
Weight: 2,300kg (est)
Price: £1.5m 'ex-works', £1.8m UK
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