Just a few weeks before ‘Lockdown 2.0’ was imposed in the UK, I was fortunate enough to be part of a select group of media invited along to a Bentley event called ‘Toy Box’. Aptly named by those sharp people in the comms department, here was a chance for me to literally indulge my inner child and ‘play’ with Bentley’s wonderful current line-up, including the Continental GT family, Flying Spur W12 and the new Bentayga.
I never take for granted how stupidly fortunate I am in my job when it comes to things like this, but the Bentley event, held at Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire, took things to a whole new level for me personally. I literally had to pinch myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and not just because I was cruising around in W12 luxury or V8 performance realness. Because it wasn’t just the super-fine Bentleys of today that were unwrapped, like some early October Christmas gift, and entrusted to me to fool around with for a few days.
The modern-day GT, Flying Spur and Bentayga were joined by some of their classic and vintage cousins of yesteryear, including the 1952 R-Type Continental, Bentley’s own car and one of only 208 built – it was, actually, the fastest four-door coupe in the world when launched; a 2003 Continental R Mulliner Final Series, one of only 11 built and the last two-door model built by Bentley before the Continental GT; and the first-gen Continental Supersports built in 2012.
Adding spectacular color, a message of love and inclusivity, and a huge dash of motorsport heritage to the Toy Box event were two one-off special creations. One was an LGBTQ+ rainbow-inspired Continental GT V8 Convertible created for Cheshire East’s first virtual Pride event back in July of 2020. The other was the astonishing Pikes Peak Continental GT – the very car that Rhys Millen drove to a new outright Production Class record of 10:18.488 at the famed International Hill Climb back in 2019. Driving these two hugely important Bentley showpieces will stay with me for a long, long time.
I’ve driven a lot of special and important cars from a lot of car companies, but the reaction to the Rainbow GT – and you really need to see this car in person to fully appreciate just how it seems to radiate joy, love and hope – was heart-warming beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in an automotive sense. The smiles and waves from the people of Olney as we cruised down their crowded high street on a Saturday afternoon was the most liberating and joyous piece of driving I’ve done in years.
And then, on the following morning, autumnally crisp but dry, getting strapped in and pressing ‘start’ on the Pikes Peak record-breaker, hearing it roar – and I literally mean roar – into life and then driving a piece of motorsport and motoring history as if popping out to get some milk, bread and eggs for a Sunday breakfast is what dreams are made of.
No, it’s all actually beyond my wildest dreams, so forgive me if I’m indulging a little too much here, but there is a point to be made.
There are many car makers that would give an awful lot to have the deep, rich automotive and motorsport history and heritage that Bentley has. This is a company that, in many respects, stands alone in the crowded automotive space, distinct in terms of its engineering capabilities, technological prowess, design craftsmanship and core brand values. And it’s a company that never stands still. It just won’t rest on the achievements of yesteryear.
Just three weeks after the Toy Box event and days into the new UK lockdown, Bentley once again made me sit up and take note, this time following some really important future goals outlined at its ‘Beyond 100 Strategy’ online event.
For me, the key takeaway message was that the Crewe car maker would transition from being the world’s largest producer of 12-cylinder petrol engines to having no ICE hearts within a decade. That’s right: by 2030 the entire model line-up will have switched to battery electric. And four years before that, there’ll be a move to offer PHEVs or BEVs exclusively across the range.
On the one hand, a piece of my Bentley heart aches, knowing (if I didn’t know it already) that we really are into the endgame now – the final countdown – for the W12 engine design.
But another part of me feels lifted and reassured: Bentley is preparing itself for the future – and the radical changes it will bring for luxury car makers – by getting its brilliant engineering and development teams in place now, working on the right core projects, programs and technologies.
And the Toy Box event of the next decade will prove to be just as fun – I’m fully sure about that.