As Bentley's chartered jet taxied toward Farnborough's runway 24, I found myself distracted from the considerable charms of Louise, our young and pretty flight attendant, by the sight of a drab black aircraft hangar close to the airfield's control tower. That's worrying I know, but it was in "A-Shed" — as that hangar will always be known to me — that, as a spotty youth, I spent four years learning to dismantle and rebuild both piston and gas turbine engines, fold and file aluminium panels to an accuracy of two thousandths of an inch, to operate a lathe, and where I learned that as an aircraft engineer, there's only one way to do things, and that's properly.
Just 48 hours later, walking through Bentley's historic factory in Crewe, originally built to manufacture the glorious Merlin aero engine, I was reminded of that same principle as I watched hundreds of craftsmen and women paying meticulous attention to detail cutting, pressing, stitching and steaming wood veneers and leather hides to create the bespoke interiors of Bentley's high-speed boardrooms. If you've ever wondered why a premium-brand motor car costs more to buy than a light aircraft or family home, learning that there are 150 people in Bentley's wood trim department and more than 100 in the leather section might help explain some of the overheads.
Speaking of overheads, the hood of the new Continental GT Convertible is quite the masterclass in soft-top design, complete with glass rear window and even a built-in reading light. Raising or lowering the roof takes a lingering25 seconds, but if at the time you're the centre of attention at a glamorous Adriatic marina, it's 25 seconds pleasantly spent. The three-layered roof incorporates a particularly effective sound-deadening layer, and is suspended upon a seven-bow frame; when retracted, the entire assembly fits flush under the rear deck, with no unsightly fairing behind the rear passengers. There's also a neatly designed wind deflector supplied as standard; this can be clipped into place when there are no rear-seat passengers, which you'll find is going to be the norm in this car. It does a great job of calming turbulent air behind the front-seat occupants' heads, and there's also the option of having a flow of warm air piped through the seats, to waft over necks in need of comfort.
Did you know that many historians believe Marco Polo was born on the Croatian island of Korcula, not Venice? Quite what the intrepid explorer would have made of the GTC's 20cm navigation screen with on-board Google Maps will never be known, but I'm fairly sure it would have cut down his journey time to China.
Admittedly I didn't venture quite so far, but the GPS passed the ‘can I make use of the navigation system without consulting the manual?' test and not every manufacturer's system can claim the same. Strangely though, when I took a different route from the programmed one to our lunch stop (silly me, I was following the printed road-book not the electronic gizmo) it failed to recalculate a new course. The moral of the story? Modern technology is wonderful but doing things the old fashioned way is often more rewarding. Something the craftsmen and women of Bentley have known for quite a while….
Speaking of doing things the old-fashioned way, if you want to reverse the 4,806mm-long, 2,495kg Continental without remodelling the rear bumper — and I'm assuming that you do — you'll need to look over your shoulder or use the mirrors unless you've paid for the optional rear-view camera. Now I realise I could be accused of being mollycoddled, but rear-view cameras are a boon on larger cars and if I were buying a luxury car that had a six-litre twin turbocharged W12 engine, shut lines so tight you can barely fit your last Dh1,000 note between them and carpets so thick that they might well be concealing a tribe of pygmy warriors last seen in National Geographic, personally I'd hope those nice chaps at Bentley would fit a camera out of the kindness of their hearts. Or at least as standard.
What is standard with a Bentley GT Convertible, however, is rather a lot of oomph under the bonnet. That's oomph as in 567bhp and a low-profile Pirelli twisting 700Nm torque from 1,700 through to 5,500rpm. All of which equates to a top speed of 314kph, 0-100kph in 4.8 seconds for the rapscallions and 60 to 100kph in a sublime 2.5 seconds for the overtaking of dawdlers and gawpers. It consumes fuel too; lots of it. But not enough to worry about, so let's keep moving.
It would be fair to say that the suspension on the GTC inspires plenty of confidence, because this is a car built for both comfort and speed. Croatia's modern dual carriageways are blissfully short of revenue radars, and as I cruised along at the 110kph limit, my overactive imagination led me to believe that the GTC would be reassuringly steady at more than twice that speed, the beautiful 21in wheels shod with specially developed Pirelli P Zero 275/35 tyres, comfortably soaking up what few imperfections there were in the road and the car more than living up to its title of Continental Grand Tourer. Mile-muncher, kilometre-cruncher, call it what you will, but the Continental GTC consumes border posts for breakfast.
Speaking of which, breakfast in Bruges and supper in La Spezia would present no problem for a well-heeled couple, but they'd probably want to leave the children at home with the hired help. Bentley's engineers told me there's now 35mm more legroom in the back of the car, but I have no idea where they've hidden them. With the driving position set for a 184cm (six-foot) driver, in the rear I found my knees resting firmly against the seat backs and my toes snugly trapped by the front seat mechanism. So not particularly comfortable for journeys of more than about an hour or 200 kilometres then.
Heading inland onto the twisty swoops and turns of Croatia's Istrian region, the 2012 Convertible's 48mm wider rear track, double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, along with a revised 40:60 torque bias toward the rear wheels (from the earlier model's 50:50) means poised and confident handling at speed, with nicely weighted feedback to the hand-stitched steering wheel.
The six-speed ZF gearbox now changes cogs in 200 microseconds, a 50 per cent improvement over the earlier model and a benefit of the development of the Continental Supersports, whilst the Electronic Stability Control has been tweaked to keep the driver more involved. You wouldn't quite hold your own against a lighter supercar in a race across the mountains, but it would be awfully close, and the supercar driver would be worn out after 90 minutes whilst you'd be still comfortable in the GTC four hours later, having traversed a couple of countries.
My only real gripe about driving the Bentley with gusto is the less-than-involving exhaust note. No doubt their engineers were told to keep the sound levels unobtrusive but come on, this is a car which contains unhealthy(for the cows anyway) quantities of leather and a not inconsiderable portion of Californian walnut grove. There's a limit to how subtle I want to be when driving a sporting Bentley; in my case somewhere between Italian game show host and British drill sergeant, but even for most normal folks, a touch more volume in the exhaust department would be much appreciated.
Definitely not lacking in volume is the on-board entertainment; an eight-speaker system may not at first appear to be all that impressive, but those eight flat-panel technology speakers were developed by Naim Audio, and adjust their output depending on the location of passengers, so believe me when I tell you they sound pretty darn good. In fact they're head-turningly good, and loud, in small towns with stone-walled homes close to the road. So I must offer my apologies to the residents of Opatija, Icici, Donji Kray and Zminj. iPod connectivity? Check. 30Gb hard drive with SD card port? Affirmative. CD and DVD player? Oh yes.
From a safety point of view there are five airbags, and two reinforced steel hoops which are propelled out of the bodywork to protect the occupants if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of rolling the GTC. But please try not to do that. After all, a lot of people went to a great deal of effort to make it both elegant and fast, and they're very proud of the all new ‘Super Formed' (read super-heated so it bends more easily) aluminium front wings, the 70kg weight saving over the old model, the way it looks so attractive with the roof both up and down and that gorgeous hand-trimmed interior.
As I tried to explain to the lovely Louise on the flight home, it takes years of training to develop the skills needed to build a car to such exacting standards, and years of success and experience to be able both to afford one, and to drive it in such a way as to do it justice. "I can appreciate that," she replied. "So tell me then, how old are you exactly?". And thus, the journey ended.
Model 2012 Continental GTC
Engine 6.0-litre W12
Transmission Six-speed auto, AWD
Max power 567bhp @ 6,000rpm
Max torque 700Nm @ 1,700rpm
Top speed 314kph
Price Starts Dh965,900
Plus Elegant, very fast, extremely comfortable
Minus Rear seats still cramped