Tweed, beautiful women and a strong whiff of octane… The Bentley Boys were infamous characters back in the 1920s, dominating the racetrack at Le Mans for four consecutive years. They drove their supercharged Bentley ‘Blowers’ at mind-boggling speeds and were reputed to have held either a woman or a trophy in their arms at all times.
Sadly, there are no Bentleys competing at Le Mans this month (15 June). The entry list is dominated by manufacturers such as Porsche and Audi. Instead, the latest race cars have been designed like stealth missiles, shaped for aerodynamic slipperiness and built to run at 200mph, lap after lap.
But if beautiful Bentley is missing from the Sarthe racetrack in France, the brand has never been more popular on British roads.
The quintessentially English marque, established by WO Bentley in 1919, has gone from strength to strength in recent years.
And the most desirable model in the showroom is the drop-top, the Continental GTC. Powerful, refined and very fast, the 4.0-litre V8 I tested has 500 enthusiastic horses under the bonnet. There’s a W12 6.0-litre model too but I can assure you, the V8 will be more than enough for most people.
It will carry you effortlessly to 60mph in 4.7 seconds, travelling on air suspension that floats like a magic carpet ride.
Bentley tells me it is capable of 188mph but you will need your own racetrack for that. There are quicker cars, but not many that weigh 2.5 tons and perform so brutally fast.
The Continental is visually ravishing from every angle, cosseting passengers from the moment they open one of the beautifully weighted doors. Up front, the seat belts glide forward to stop you stretching too far back, while a detachable sunglasses case is made of the same expensive material as the dashboard. Don’t leave it on the bar.
The Bentley reeks of old English charm and an attention to detail often missing in lesser cars. It’s like driving around in your father’s favourite leather armchair.
However, there’s nothing old-fashioned about the price. The GTC V8 is £143,915, and the 6.0 model a weighty £154,645. If you can afford that on your pension plan, V8 consumption of 25mpg won’t be a problem either.
It’s unlikely Walter Owen would have approved of such niceties as a sunglasses case back in 1919. However, it’s the little touches which have helped to ensure the GTC remains a desirable motor car.
An example is the glorious paintwork. It requires a hand-painted primer, brushed on by an apprentice with four years’ experience at Bentley’s Crewe factory.
Then there are the seats. Yes, they are heated, but for longer trips in the summer they are air conditioned too. There’s a disconcerting massage feature and because this is a convertible, air vents below the headrests also pump heat on to the back of the neck.
Not that you would know this is a convertible, because wind and road noise are eliminated by a multi-layer roof. It glides up and down and quietly folds away in seconds. The aerodynamics are such that even with the top off, a well-coiffured passenger would barely notice the difference.
The current Continental may have been around since 2011 but it still manages to pout a cutting edge design that is every inch as good as it looks. With this latest V8 engine capable of 27mpg, it’s also more usable than it’s ever been.
Can’t quite stretch to a luxury tourer like the Bentley? Maserati also claims a glorious racing heritage, stretching back to the pre-war years of Giulo Severi and the 6CM model. In more recent decades, the Italian carmaker has been stuck in the doldrums. Now, at last it has finally turned the corner, in the shape of the new Ghibli.
Ghibli is the most affordable Maserati to date, and sure to be the most popular too – thanks to the use of diesel power for the first time. That’s right, you can now buy a derv Maserati that returns decent mpg and still packs a mighty punch. As a result, the Italians expect to sell 50,000 cars by next year, a massive leap in sales.
And this 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel leads the way. Starting at £48,830, it’s sure to tempt executive buyers who can’t resist an exclusive badge on the bonnet.
Ghibli makes economic sense too. Despite the burbling exhaust pipes and a fearsome roar on start-up, the diesel can officially return 48mpg, while clocking 60mph from standstill in 6.3 seconds.
The saloon sits on an exceptionally good chassis that allows the Ghibli to handle like a much smaller car. A lightweight mix of aluminium and steel keeps weight in check, while the build quality suggests that unlike some previous models, Ghibli won’t be a frequent visitor to your local Maserati dealership.
If that doesn’t make you go all dolce vita, the interior is a masterclass in cool. Sumptuous seats feel as if they have been handcrafted in leather, there’s a Maserati clock adorning the dashboard, as well as a Bowers & Wilkins hi-fi system that sounds even better than the engine.
True, the foot pedals are small and offset like many Italian cars, and rear passenger space is nothing like a BMW 5 Series. However, the Ghibli is a car you can get passionate about. Even the diesel will seduce you – and when was the last time you said that about a German car?