Xmas Special: Bentley and the Red Train

Road test: Bentley Continental GT V8

The driver sits close to the wheel, his face stern, concentrating; after all, he has 830 miles to cover. He seems unaware of the thundering steam locomotive, just a few yards behind, its tracks running parallel with the road. He has just passed a surprised boy on a hay cart who is now looking back at the speeding Bentley.

The event happened in March 1930, with Woolf “Babe” Barnato, the most famous of the Bentley Boys, at the wheel of his 6½ litre Bentley Speed Six, racing the Blue Train across France for a nominal £100 bet. Bernato had bought the Bentley company in 1925, keeping him in Bentleys for the glamorous races of the day and was now aiming not only to beat the train from Cannes to Calais, but to reach London ahead of the train’s arrival at Calais. The scene with car and train together as described above, never happened though – it was painted by Terence Cuneo in January 1970 by combining images of two great machines into one glorious picture.

Cuneo’s painting also depicts a slightly different car to the one Bernato drove: a Sportsman Coupé by Gurney Nutting, which he owned later that year; in fact it was a Mulliner-bodied saloon in which he raced the train. Nor does Dale Bourne, his co-driver, sit alongside him in the picture, as he did for the gruelling 22½ hour marathon. Of course there is another very small artistic detail in Cuneo’s painting – his signature little mouse, in this case running extremely fast in front of the car’s large wheels.

Bentley in rainWith the keys to the latest Bentley Continental GT V8 in my hand and the Cuneo’s picture staring at me from the wall, there is only one thing to do: stage the image as it would look today. All that is required is a similar setting with road beside the railway tracks, an interesting backdrop and a full tank of petrol. This latter requirement was a greater challenge for Bernato; he had to arrange ahead for fuel to be available along the way for his thirsty steed.

Discarding miles in the Continental GTAfter a little research, we have the perfect location. The West Coast main line runs close to a number of small roads just off the M6 and the Lake District offers some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere. A quick ‘phone call and we have the Pendolino timings, too. Early morning drive, a couple of hours with a camera-or-two and a pub lunch before heading home: planned to perfection.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the pre-war Bentleys: they carry visual energy even when stationary. Today’s Continental GT embodies much that is evocative about those early models. The elegant profile and dramatic swage lines provide an athletic build and the powerful haunches echo those of the 1960s Continental. Our press car is even more striking with its magenta paint. Bentley’s Continental GT has been gently face-lifted this year (along with some hidden technical evolution) and to give a nod toward economy and reduced emissions it is now available with a new V8 engine. Externally, there are a few tweaks to highlight the new powertrain. At the front, the mesh in the radiator grill is black which is very striking; at the rear, the twin tail pipes are both flattened ‘8’ shapes. More subtle are the new badges with the Bentley ‘B’ sitting on a red background.

Bentley Continental GT V8 badgePacks a satisfying punch

The first hour through heavy commuter traffic is probably the most civilised way to drink copious quantities of fuel but free of the proletariat, it made light work of the motorway network. The V8 is extremely civilised. Being gentle with the alloy sports pedal, under-bonnet noises are kept to a murmur and miles are discarded effortlessly; most of the background sound comes from the sizable tyres. When the need – or desire – arises, the sonorous V8 packs a satisfying punch balancing composure and an exhilarating, prolonged shove forwards until the road runs out. It’s a whisker slower than the W12 but feels slightly more agile, revving freely up to the red line. The all-wheel-drive adds to this composure, especially in the wet.

The road climbs closer to the cloud layer

The Bentley’s broad nose is pointed North, along Britain’s oldest motorway section past Preston; Lancaster’s Lego-like university building shoots by and the landscape becomes more dramatic. Unfortunately, so does the weather. The temperature drops, drizzle turns to heavy rain and the road climbs closer to the cloud layer. 50 mph gusts lash the rain across the car and while two-and-a-half tonnes brushes the typical Cumbrian weather aside with ease, the possibility of recreating the Bentley and Blue Train image looks extremely doubtful. However, while the weather might hinder us in capturing the desired images, it is actually more appropriate than Cuneo would have us believe. In his painting, the day could best be described as overcast but back when Barnato piloted the Speed Six up from Cannes, it rained. In fact, Bernato stated afterwards: “I drove the whole distance, with the exception of the last two hours to Paris, my eyes needing a rest on account of the fog, rain and windscreen wiper.”

Bentley through tunnel

Barnato averaged 43.43 mph over the journey, just managing to catch an early crossing allowing him and Bourne to reach Bourne’s club in St.James’s, London just in time; to replicate the race today with the Class 390 Pendolino from London to Glasgow we’d have to average over 90mph for the 404 miles. Traffic and clean licence aside, this could be achieved with ease in this astonishingly capable car. Benefitting from twin turbochargers, 660 Nm of torque is available from a mere 1,700 rpm and given enough road, we’d not stop until 188 mph. Bernato’s Speed Six would ordinarily manage just three figures but “couldn’t do more than 80mph without the springs bottoming” due to the extra fuel they were carrying on board.

We’ve made it this far in absolute luxury…

At last we’re off the motorway; the suspension is returned to ‘comfort’ – one of many luxuries not available in 1930 – as we cross cattle grids, and we find our shooting location a stone’s throw from Shap, just as good as it had seemed on the maps, but in squalling rain. We’ve made it this far in absolute luxury; all we have to do is take a couple of pictures. After 15 minutes, we are drenched. The camera tripod is blown-over into a ditch and all the test pictures are blurred with water on the lenses. We dry the equipment and head out again and for another attempt and we are in luck: the Virgin-branded Pendolino leans into the corner then hurtles past, exceeding 100 mph. We have our picture. During the next hour we become even wetter, capturing other trains (and missing some while cowering in the car out of the rain) but the first shot is the one.

Bentley twin '8' pipesJust as Terence Cuneo painted an evocative image which captured the spirit of the race 40 years after it happened, today we have shown how it might look in 2012. It is now time to settle in to the heated seats (seatbelt presented to us automatically) and head away from the bleak mountains in a cosseted world quite alien from that of Bernato.

Just as his Speed Six was at the pinnacle of grand touring capability in 1930, so the Continental GT V8 is today. It is not just the exceptional abilities of the Bentley which delight – something one need not pick from any options list is that wonderful, almost indefinable attribute: a sense of occasion. A quick glance at the Breitling clock in the centre of the facia: time for lunch.

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