Those fortunate enough to drive a Bentley back in the 1920s were probably from a well-to-do family, had a lady-friend called Fleur, played tennis while wearing a boater hat and drank tea with the vicar. And for the rest of the time, they howled around the lanes of England, usually half fried on gin, always with a few likely lads in tow, terrorising all and sundry in a Bentley.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s January 2011 issue
The real Bentley Boys (as opposed to Bentley Bovvers) dodged the Gilbeys and raced their motor on weekends to help make the Bentley legend what it became via a string of competition successes. Blokes with names like Bertie Kensington Moir (and I’m not making that up).
None of which explains how I came to be charging around oil-rich Oman in the middle east at the helm of the modern equivalent of a Blower Bentley, the brand-spanking Continental GT. But as I blast across the rocky, grassless Omani landscape, it occurs to me that there is a distinctly Laurence of Arabia element to all this. Boys Own. Tally-ho, and all that.
Okay, I hadn’t been into the gin for elevenses, but there’s a fair chance that had I been born a century ago, into a family other than the tribe of under-achievers from which I sprang, there’s every chance I’d have wound up aspiring to a Bentley. Probably a Speed Six. Look out Fleur. And all your sisters.
There is, of course, a big question mark over my credentials as a modern Bentley Boy. Aside from that dubious genetic well-head I mentioned, there’s also the fact that times have changed. And, in good old Egalitarian Orstraylia, we don’t have the class divisions that made the Bentley lads so identifiably dashing compared with the rest of the peasants.
Then again, while Oman is one of the more liberal Arab countries, it’s still ruled by a Sultan who is revered and worshipped in equal parts. The other question that needs looking into is whether this latest Bentley is, indeed, the stuff of legend. If the whole Bentley Boy thing happened in 2010, for instance, would the Continental GT cut it? Or would a chap wind up being a CLK Cove or even a Panamera Ponce?
Well, one thing has definitely changed. Back in the 20s, a Bentley was just about the fastest, raciest car you could get our paws on. Hell, they won Le Mans in more or less the specification of the road-going version.
Nine decades on, though, the Conti GT bears about as much resemblance to a Le Mans racer as I do to Judge freaking Reinhold (thank you, Marge Simpson). Of course, Le Mans itself has changed as much as cars have, but even so, if you want to go fast and sporty, then there are alternatives to the GT. Lots of them.
On the other hand, the other absolutely defining elements of a '20s Bentley – rarity and an imperious quality, not to mention crushing straight-line speed – appears to be still alive within the new GT.
Classic MOTOR: Experiencing the Supercar Club in a Continental GT
At 2.3 tonnes, maybe the GT is taking the ‘crushing’ thing too far, but it is 65kg lighter than the old model which was launched globally way back in 2002 (it arrived here in 2004). That’s down to a raft of small changes but includes the move to an aluminium bootlid and front guards which are heated to about 500-degrees and then formed by compressed air.
And despite the new car looking uncannily like the old, there’s not a single shared body panel, and only a couple of carryover underbody bits.
There’s more familiarity under the lid, though, and that fabulous twin-turbocharged W12 is alive and well. Weller than it’s ever been, with 423kW at 6000rpm and 700Nm of upper-crust grunt that peaks at just 1700rpm.
The ZF six-speed auto is a nice match (as it is with most things) and the GT continues with all-wheel-drive, but this time around splits things 40:60 front-rear rather than the previous model’s 50:50 arrangement.
The broad idea is to give the car a more entertaining set of handling characteristics, but as we flashed along the craggy, rocky valleys, it soon became clear that there is a finite limit to what the GT will put up with.
Stuff it in too hard and it'll start to wash wide; benignly at first, but you really wouldn't want to try to arm wrestle it lest you wind up somewhere deep in what passes for the Omani mulga. Of course, complaining because it won't turn in to a hairpin at close to its claimed 318km/h top whack is kind of missing the point.
Because what we have here is one of the best ways of covering big distances in a short space of time that doesn't involve tray-tables, safety cards and crap food. (Mind you, it does involve handing over 405-grand, which would buy a fair few discount air tickets.)
In fact, you almost forget you are in the middle east thanks to a superb climate control system (with controls and a touch-screen that look vaguely familiar to a MkVI VW Golf), and sound-proofing that would give an underground tomb a run for its mummy.
Finally, after 200km and about half a tank of 35-cents-a-litre unleaded, we arrive at Nizwa, the ancient capital of Oman (the crown of capital city now rests on the modern, high-rise melon of Muscat).
Being about lunchtime on a market day, the place is crawling with people and highly-visible police. But step into the old walled city and the fort, and you’re suddenly back in 1650. Or thereabouts, which is when the current fort was built, although people with little spades and khaki clothes reckon the original footings go back to about the twelfth century.
But even the circa 1650 stuff is brilliant with narrow winding staircases (good for defending the upper levels from marauding hordes), pitfalls (deep pits where a step should be in a darkened stairway), and murder holes (gaps in the ceiling above doorways through which could be poured boiling oil to put those same marauders off their game. Permanently).
It was clearly a crazy time when staying alive meant watching your back and a grizzly death was often just around the corner. Fascinating.
Just like Le Mans in the 1920s, you might say.
2011 Bentley Continental GT
BODY: 2-door, 4-seat coupe
ENGINE: 5998cc W12, DOHC, 48v, twin-turbochargers
BORE/STROKE: 84.0 x 90.2mm
POWER: 423kW @ 6000rpm
TORQUE: 700Nm @ 1700rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: double A-arms, air springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, air springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: 405mm ventilated discs, six-piston calipers (f); 335mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 20 x 9.5-inch (f/r)
TYRES: Pirelli P-Zero; 275/40 ZR20 (f/r)
PROS: Genuine GT performance that blends pure luxury with pace
CONS: Still 2300kg of heft and it doesn't look that different
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars