High drive with Bentley

Contributor Ian McLaren needed no second invitation to whip an exclusive GT car around some of the finest driving roads in the world. The prospect of having his wife, Kate, in the passenger seat meant he needed to get a little creative about the experience.

I forget which brand of vehicle the television commercial was for, but the idea of a husband purposely forgetting items on the shopping list as an excuse for a return trip and more time behind the wheel of his car resonates. It was with a similar sense of mischief that I crept out of our hotel suite before sunrise, my wife blissfully unaware, cocooned within a luxuriously high thread count.

Powerful LED headlights were still required as I made my way to the summit of the Franschhoek Pass in what would be the first opportunity in two days to toggle the new Continental GT Speed coupé into its sport driving mode. Leaving our home 24 hours earlier, I had promised my wife a romantic night away from the hustle of our nevertheless-fulfilled everyday lives and transported in the comfort of one of the most accomplished cars on the market. That it boasts 900Nm of neck-straining torque via a 6.0-litre W12 (two V6 motors mated together in a W configuration) engine and is capable of a 0–100km/h sprint in less than four seconds played second fiddle to a plush, handcrafted cabin and air-sprung suspension.

The luxury British brand that would generate initial headlines from a run of four consecutive victories at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race – 1927 to 1930 – is so confident in its ability to meet its modern customers’ needs in terms of comfort and poise that it features a ‘trust us’ Bentley driving mode in all its current vehicles. Confirmed via a subtle B logo, this application ensures all the car’s various systems and running gear continuously adjust to the prevailing driving conditions. As an example, the arrangement of 12 cylinders will deactivate half its firing power when not required, for
improved efficiency.

Negotiating the slow-moving traffic between Somerset West and Stellenbosch on the first morning of our journey it was clear the full bouquet of capabilities available in this pinnacle Continental GT derivative were not yet required. Instead, we enjoyed respective seat massage routines and negotiated which of our favourite songs to blast through the premium surround-sound system. From both inside and out, this is motoring at a premium level.

As the traffic slowly dispersed towards awakening office parks and prepared boardrooms, our scheduled first stop was the splendour of the freshly completed Meraki Café. Manoeuvring the Bentley through Stellenbosch to the top of Church Street, I was grateful for this model’s new rear-wheel steering technology. Measuring 4.85m long and more than 2m wide, at low to medium speeds the third-generation Continental GT’s rear wheels steer in the opposite direction to the front two to make the car feel that much more agile.

Sipping locally sourced coffee from the balcony of Meraki while admiring the sculpted profile of a modern Bentley, I mused how fitting it was that the name of this café is derived from the Greek work for doing something with soul, creativity and love.

A trick I’ve learnt while driving a performance car with Kate in the passenger seat is to be as smooth as possible on both the throttle and brakes. This way, she’s less likely to be alerted to my intentions. Of course, our reservation for lunch happened to be waiting at the summit of the sweeping Helshoogte Pass…

The best quality a well-executed modern Grand Tourer (GT) package can offer is the ability to ‘shrink’ itself around its occupants while pressing on. Despite weighing more than two tons, the latest Continental GT Speed is engineered to deliver gravity-defying poise and precision. I braked a little later and carried marginally more speed into each flowing corner of one of the oldest passes in South Africa, and it was only a slightly exuberant blast out of the final bend before the driveway to Delaire Graff that drew a disapproving glance from the passenger seat. Success.

The all-round comfort of the new car was broadly appreciated but it was the sense of occasion, character and charm of the beautifully cared-for 1928 Bentley 4 ½-litre we experienced during a visit to the Franschhoek Motor Museum that struck a chord. The gracious lady offered a glimpse into the brand’s prestigious 103-year heritage.

Sir Richard Branson credits the initial success of Virgin Records to a ‘transaction’ involving a Bentley. He offered his car to Mike Oldfield to calm the songwriter’s nerves ahead of the first live performance of ‘Tubular Bells’. Branson’s Mont Rochelle Estate in Franschhoek offers beautiful views, friendly staff and a special focus on relaxation. It also happens to lie less than a kilometre away from the start of the mountain pass that was originally a path forged by elephants seeking water now captured in the Theewaterskloof Dam.

Parked at the highest point of the pass as the rising sun slowly heated the valley below, the very warm masterpiece of modern motoring looked as commanding yet vulnerable. With growing pressure on emissions and more sustainable ways of getting from A to B, as glorious as a 6.0-litre W12 motor is, its existence in this altogether greener future is surely threatened. This was confirmed earlier this year when Bentley announced it will introduce one new all-electric model per year between 2025 and 2030.

Whether blusterous or battery powered, Bentley will undoubtedly find continued favour via its extensive customisation programme that tailors a car to an owner’s wants, and in the way its products are meticulously crafted.

My motoring moment for the day fulfilled, it was time to join Kate at the breakfast buffet before we headed back to reality – and the drawing board, as I feel I may be quite well suited to Bentley ownership…  

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