Well, actually the Queen is driven around London in her claret-colored Royal Bentley limousine. And I drove a Bentley for the first and probably last time in my life last week on a bit of a total lark.
Wednesday afternoon I got a call saying Bentley Motors was “launching” a new model in Telluride, and one of the invited members of the automotive press had to cancel at the last minute, and did I want to spend a day driving one of these new Continental Supersports convertibles around the 236-mile San Juan Skyway loop, lunch included?
And that’s how I found myself at 9 o’clock sharp on Thursday morning in front of the Capella Hotel in Mountain Village pressing a discreet button on the center console and having a throaty, 630-horsepower lioness roar to life beneath me.
This is not your Queen’s Bentley. Hers are armor-plated and cost $14 million each. (She has two.) Mine (do you see how I’m using the first person possessive here?) is a barely-disguised race car, top speed 202 mph, pale yellow (Bentley calls it “citric”; I think it’s more like the custardy crème brullée we had at lunch in Durango) and will cost $280,400 – “about the same,” deadpanned my navigator and co-pilot Mike Hawes, Bentley’s Head of Global PR, “as a decent family house.”
Hawes admits he can’t afford to own a Bentley. Nobody in the company can, he told me, except probably the Chairman. The Chairman was there, too. (“We always want to have at least one board member at each launch,” Hawes said.) I met him, Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, a doctor of mechanical engineering, formerly chairman and CEO of Audi. Dr. Paefgen is a skier and sounded very enthused about returning to Telluride in the snowy months.
This launch business is quite the production. They flew eight Supersports convertibles from the factory in Crewe to Los Angeles; plus a Coupé and a couple of Audi SUVs (Bentley and Audi are both owned by Volkswagen); plus what amounts to a full garage shop, including lift, spare parts, tyres (that’s how they spell it), and a crew of mechanics and support personnel to keep the machines in tip-top running condition; trucked the whole kit-and-caboodle to southwest Colorado and began welcoming the carefully-selected “waves” of journalists from around the car-savvy world.
My Thursday “wave” consisted of journalists from Britain and the continent, mostly Germans, though there was one fellow who writes in Luxembourgisch. The French and Italians and Americans were coming on later waves. The most entertaining writer in the group was Ken Gibson, who pens a motoring page for The Sun tabloid. Gibson spent the sunny, top-down day refining the opening line of his review. He tried it out on us at every stop: “If Butch Cassidy were alive today and driving the Million Dollar Highway, he’d look for another bank to rob so he could buy himself a Supersports.”
Brilliant! Gibson, like the others, writes exclusively about cars. He had just returned, in fact, from South Africa, where he test-drove various Hyundais, the South Korean carmaker being a primary sponsor of the World Cup. He also got to attend a match, one of England’s desultory draws in group play, and very much enjoyed grousing to us about his country’s underachieving footballers.
The Bentley people knew full well that I had no automotive pedigree, but they were extremely nice anyway, and accepting of my conservative, old-guy driving. Especially up on Red Mountain Pass. Over the years, I’ve learned to drive Red at or below the posted speed limits. It’s a matter of survival, and an expression, at times, of a kind of stress-free continuum, the way I like, when everything’s working, to ski.
But here we were rocketing around those 15-mph, cliffside hairpins at four times the recommended speed. (“You could do it at 90, and it wouldn’t feel much different,” Hawes volunteered.) And the Supersports didn’t roll, lean, skid or do anything else but stick to the pavement like Tar Baby and laugh her burbling, 12-cylinder laugh: Take that, Puny Forces of Inertia! (The exhaust sound is precisely tuned, according to Martin Broomer, Head of Product PR. “Technically, it’s the overrun; we call it the burble. It’s onomatopoeic, actually.” Ah, the Brits.)
Later, in a satiny magazine devoted to Bentley, I saw that the car company has a product relationship with zai skis, a super-expensive (2009 price: 6,800 Euros), handmade Swiss ski. (This must be the Chairman’s doing, I thought.) The copy effused about the zai and the Supersports: “both [are] rare, beautifully crafted and turn the simple act of cornering into an art form.”
Nobody needs a car like this. If driving were only about aesthetics. . . But it isn’t, it is so wrapped up in the necessary, the day-to-day, the despised even. (At one point Gibson recounted for us, in the most colorful language, an all-too-familiar tale of gridlock on the A-6 between his home and Heathrow airport.)
But if it were, and money were no object. . . Well, one can dream.
Peter Shelton’s blog is peterhshelton.wordpress.com