In The Magazine

Gently Bentley

Friday, May 22, 2015
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Bentley has been making some of the world’s fastest, most luxurious and most beautiful motor cars for the better part of a century, and when driving one you are making a very distinct statement to the outside world: “I have made it, I have exquisite taste, but I don’t need to shout about it (too loudly).”

The story begins in 1919, when Walter Owen Bentley, always known as W.O., founded the car company bearing his name with his brother. A trained engineer, he had already designed aero engines for the Royal Flying Corps, and it was a combination of his skill and of the times that propelled Bentley into the spotlight.

For this was the Roaring Twenties, the era of Jay Gatsby, the Charleston and flapper dresses. It was also the era when motor racing really gained popularity, and W.O. set out to build his brand and reputation not through advertising but through success on the track. In 1924 a Bentley won the second running of the now very famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, which gained him the attention of a group of very wealthy and dashing young men who wished to race his cars.

The 20 or so of these young men who raced for W.O. became known as the “Bentley Boys” and included the heir to the Kimberley diamond fortune, Woolf “Babe” Barnato; ex–naval officer and adventurer Glen Kidston; international playboy and banker Baron André d’Erlanger; and Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin. Their high-living antics provided the sort of glamour that people craved, which even Hollywood would have struggled to match at the time. W.O. summed them up when he said, “When they were not yachting in the Mediterranean, skiing in Switzerland or just playing in Cannes or Le Touquet or Paris, the parties were often held in Grosvenor Square, the southeast side of which was known to every London bobby and taxi driver as “Bentley Corner.”

Behind this Edwardian image of hedonism and derring-do, W.O.’s motto was “To build a good car, a fast car, the best in class.” This proved to be true: the “Boys” won Le Mans every year from 1927 to 1930. Within eleven years Bentley and his team had created one of the most glamorous brands the world had ever seen. Unfortunately, the Great Depression had its way, and the company was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1931 (admittedly not a bad parent to have), only unmerging in 2002.

However, the die had been cast. In the world of fiction James Bond drives Bentleys (in the Ian Fleming novels, but not in the films), while in the real world figures as diverse as Robert Downey Jr., David Beckham and Queen Elizabeth II are fans. Acting royalty, soccer royalty, plain old royalty: that tells you all you need to know.

The Mulsanne sits waiting for me outside the Port of Missing Men, my cousin’s home in Southampton. First impressions: this thing is vast, at more than 18 feet long and 7 feet wide, vast in an Atlantic ocean liner kind of way. However, all that size is partially hidden by the stunning lines, perfect dark blue livery and chrome details. It just doesn’t get much more sophisticated than this.

It has been years since I have been to the Montauk Point Light, so I think a trip there to show my fiancée one of the most iconic structures on the whole of Long Island in this most iconic of British motor cars will fit the bill nicely. Climb aboard (you sit very high in a Mulsanne), sink into the acres of cream leather, marvel at the beauty of the wooden dash and press the starter button. A lovely V8 burble comes from the 6.75-liter unit, barely audible at idle, but I get the distinct impression that will change when unleashing some of its 505 horses.

I am entirely correct as I head over to Bridgehampton on the back roads. I don’t know how it could possibly happen, but this car has seemingly shrunk around me, and I can really chuck it in to the corners. The handling and poise is astonishing and the engine is an aural delight, the faint whistling of the turbochargers providing the treble over the bass of that big V8. Too soon we are on the 27 heading through East Hampton, but the car comes into its own for the second time: the comfort of the ride on the highway makes you feel as if you are fl oating across the pitted road surface, the sound deadening and allowing you to hear the proverbial pin drop
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