June 16, 2008
Toronto, Ontario – In a lot of ways, testing cars is like a grown-up, slightly more involved version of playing dress-up. Oh sure, we all do our best to tell you whether a car is fast or slow, well-made or shoddily-assembled, fun or a snooze to drive. But, because our cars here are as much a part of our "outfits" as our shirts or pants, much of the fun that comes from driving all these cars comes from trying on so many different sets of clothes – and watching the reactions of people when you go by them.
Some cars, of course, don’t get much of a reaction at all. A dark-grey four-door sedan, whether it costs $20,000 or $200,000, doesn’t generally garner a lot of glances, unless the understatement of its body is offset by huge, blingy wheels or a throbbing exhaust note. Sports cars, particularly those without roofs, turn heads because, be they Miatas or Maseratis, they look like more fun than most people are having (most sports cars, too, have round or round-ish headlights, giving them appealing human faces). These days, big, ground-pounding monsters with high seats, once looked upon with admiration or at least respect by those in smaller cars, probably draw the most stares. But they’re not good stares: you can see the daggers in people’s eyes as you roll by in your Escalade.
You can imagine, then, the reaction you might get driving around in a Bentley Brooklands, a $375,000, 3,000-kg, 530-hp, 770-lb-ft four-seater rolling on 20-inch Pirelli tires in a body even longer than the monstrous Azure convertible on which it’s based. Or maybe not.
People, upon seeing this British-registered thunder wagon rolling through Toronto streets, mostly seemed kind of confused: you could tell that some wanted to heap it with disdain, for being such a waste of space (for making a Ford Crown Victoria, for instance, seem like a compact car). But they wouldn’t. You could tell they wanted to love it and its chopped-down roof, its ceramic brakes, its rumbling twin-turbocharged V8 exhaust like they would a sports car. But something about it size, its enormous presence, prevented them. In Forest Hill, people of class and distinction walked up to the street, slack-jawed: the Brooklands, being the ultimate and most exclusive Bentley (only 550 will be made, with only 20 left for sale), should be the last word in taste and class, but – bedecked in monochromatic cream-coloured paint, with enormous multi-piece alloy wheels and (heavens!) vents in the sides – it’s a little crass, at least for a Bentley.
Well, at least they all had one thing in common: they were all speechless.
Behind the wheel of last week’s BMW M3, I was another Asian guy in a BMW. In the Bentley – same rumpled golf shirt, same leather jacket, same hairdo that could use a little trim – I was an international man of mystery. People just didn’t know what to think: you could see the gears turning in their head just by looking at their eyes. James Bond, you know, drove a Bentley in the original Ian Fleming books; a Bentley that he’d souped up with a more powerful engine, tighter suspension and cleaner body like this Brooklands.
For this kind of coin, you should expect no less than Bond status – not just from onlookers, but from yourself as well. Sitting inside, staring out the cut-down side glass at the world outside (the roof has no central pillars, in an old-world style), the mind reels with the time, the resources, the sheer effort that must have gone into making this thing. 17 cows had to give their lives to upholster the seats, the door panels, the roof and even sections of the trunk with their hides; hundreds of hours would have been spent hand-stitching each of those panels together, to get just the right texture. The depth of the black on the gauge faces must have taken layers upon layers of paint, applied over the course of days, lovingly and time-consumingly baked to perfection.
The solid metal knobs, the chromed pull-stops for the air vents, the millwork around the shifter, the Breitling dashboard clock – it’s all just insane. In rational terms, it’s an insane waste of time, resources, money, when something so much simpler (and, to be perfectly honest), so much more ergonomically correct, would have done. The logical side of me wants to hate this car and its antiquated floor-hinged metal pedals, its two separate power mirror controls (one for each mirror, on two sides of the console), its slow-moving powered navigation screen, its huge non-telescoping steering wheel. This is not a car, like most high-end ones these days, that will readily adapt to you. With its seating position, the way the pedals work, the restricted view out the sides and back, it forces YOU to adapt to IT.
Of course, for people who love cars (and, at some level, I’m convinced that all of us, even those of us who would prefer everyone take the bus, all do), the very force of the Brooklands’ personality is also its prime attraction. It is a car that knows what it is, that is eminently comfortable with the fact that it’s a three-ton, two-door, four-seat hot rod. It’s a car that requires enormous self-confidence on the part of its driver, or at least requires that driver to plant his or her tongue firmly in cheek. It’s magnificent, over-the-top with its quilted leather and flying-B badges laser-etched in the door, in a way that no other modern car (not even a half-million-dollar Rolls-Royce, with its minimalist dashboard and clean gauge layout) can match. The scattershot gauges, the weighty turn signal lever, the two umbrellas in the back, are wonderfully old-school. Just like the hot-rod roofline, the enormous exhaust pipe and the stench of burning rubber, if you plant your foot firmly against the floor-hinged metal accelerator pedal.
Bentley builds other cars, of course. Cars that are just are better than this. A Continental GT is as fast, with the added security of all-wheel-drive. A Flying Spur has more room and a 200-plus-mph top speed. A GTC’s twin-turbo engine has more power (if not more torque). Despite their girth, all are lighter and more nimble than the Brooklands, with more modern technology. They’re better cars in all ways. But they’re not nearly so cool. You know why? Driving them, you feel like you’re driving a really great car, really well made with really great performance. Driving the Brooklands, you’re driving a time machine, a portal into another era, where rich people crossed countries behind the wheels of their fast cars, where fuel was cheaper and more plentiful than it is now, where the world’s best fictitious secret agent could still remain secretive behind the wheel of a hot-rod Bentley.
People say they don’t build cars like they used to. Well, somebody still does.
Pricing: 2008 Bentley Brooklands
Manufacturer’s web site