Can the new Bentley Continental GT really eat a continent for breakfast? Andrew Frankel gives it a go on an epic 24-hour drive
It’s an odd question, but one I’ve pondered since the Bentley Continental R appeared in 1991. Just how continental is a Continental? Really? What would happen if you took a Continental and didn’t just go for a cruise on the Continent but set it a test so tough that it would either prove itself absolutely against the sternest measure we could devise, or be exposed as a Continental in name alone?
That was the thought that brought me to a Luxembourg hotel where I met former Bentley engineer and now PR man Mike Sayer, and Matt Marriott and Lee Taylor, two of the company’s finest car drivers and fettlers. The plan was short in description long in execution. Which was to get up very early the following morning and drive a new Continental GT to as many countries on the continent of Europe as we could reach in 24 hours. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It did to us, too, at least until it all started to go rather wrong.
But that’s all to come. The good news was that we weren’t all going to cuddle up in the GT. Instead, Matt and Lee would follow Mike and I in a V8 Bentayga. They’d driven both cars from Crewe, stopping on the way to buy the worst walkie-talkies I’ve ever used. So we had even more reason to stick close together.
I knew we’d never get to Greece. But I didn’t think we’d miss our target by over 1000 miles
But we had done our planning. We’d start at 5.00am local time (I tried not to think about it being 4.00am in my head) and plot a crafty course running south-east across Europe. We had no idea where we’d reach but had booked refundable flights back from Thessaloniki, not as a realistic objective as such, but more of an aiming point. That’s Thessaloniki, Greece.
If I’m honest now, I knew in my heart that I’d never catch that plane, that we’d never get to Thessaloniki. But I didn’t think we’d miss our target by over 1000 miles. Yes, that’s one thousand miles. But we did. Here’s how.
We met bleary of eye in reception at 4.45am. I’d not slept well because I never do when I absolutely have to, but the boys seemed commendably cheerful. Our first trick was to leave Luxembourg before starting. Our hotel was chosen not for its gastronomy, but its proximity to the Belgian border. So as soon as we were in Belgium, we turned around and pointed the cars back towards Luxembourg.
Then we abandoned our start time: we were ready to go at 4.57am, so that’s when we went. When you have a challenge like this, it rarely pays to hang around thinking about it. Ten seconds later, we were back in Luxembourg and two countries already completed. How many more would we manage? Not many if my first significant act as driver was any guide: within seven minutes of the start, we were travelling at great speed along a Luxembourg dual carriageway, spirits dampened only by the knowledge that we were travelling in entirely the wrong direction.
Happily, the error didn’t cost much time and at 5.11am we entered France. But I already felt exhausted. This attempt came towards the end of perhaps the busiest working month of my life, involving a grand total of two nights in my own bed. I’ve always prided myself as a long-distance driver and have in the past driven from Africa to England non-stop, save ferry crossings, but I feared our weakest link was the one now squinting into the blackness and behind the wheel of the Continental GT.
But Mike was good company and kept me focused. I’ve often wondered previously if these drives are best done alone or in company. Drive solo and you can indulge in all those natural but inherently antisocial behaviours we’d never exhibit in public and you can keep awake by listening to what my children refer to as Dad Rock at whatever ear-bleeding volume the Bentley’s exceptional Naim sound system can manage. If the choice is solitude or a moaning, unprofessional pain in the backside, I’ll take Dad Rock every day.
In one majestic wallop from its W12 motor, the Continental GT was doing 150mph
There’s a safety aspect, too, and I don’t just mean some of the countries we were due to visit. More germane is that it’s actually quite difficult to keep focused on a drive like this, and you need to know everyone is up to the challenge. There are four people driving two cars non-stop and a second’s inattention by any one of them in a 24-hour period could bring the whole exercise to a shattering, unscheduled conclusion. As we hit Strasbourg just in time for the morning rush hour, if anyone was going to let the side down, I felt it most likely to be me.
But at 7.02am, we crossed the Rhine, entered Germany and, soon after, hit an empty autobahn. In one majestic wallop from its W12 motor, the Conti was doing 150mph, the bigger surprise being that the Bentayga had not fallen that far behind. Quick car, that SUV. And that shot of speed was to me like intravenous espresso.
We were in Switzerland 90 minutes later, and on the outskirts of Zurich by 9.00am, dead on time.
So I guess it was Liechtenstein where it started to go wrong. We didn’t have much time in the tiny principality, but its roads were small and choked. At 10.40am and now in Austria, our average fell below the critical 100km/h (62mph) we would need to maintain if we were to make it to Greece.
We stopped for the first time at 11.40am and swapped drivers. I won’t dwell on the journey through Austria, over the Brenner pass and across northern Italy, other than to say that if our plan looked sketchy before, now it seemed impossible. Roads we knew should be clear were so full of crawling trucks that even with 626bhp under Mike’s foot, overtaking was futile.
It was at 2.15pm that I finally made the admission: “We’re not going to make it.” To give some idea of the tatters in which our plan now lay, the Bentley’s nav estimated we’d be four hours late to the Greek border. Which meant we’d not even make Macedonia in 24 hours, which meant the attempt would end in the middle of Albania, with many hours of driving still ahead of us to reach anywhere from where we might get home.
Bored and dejected, I started to leaf through a paper European road map I’d brought as a last-minute afterthought. Which is the only reason an alternative presented itself. I looked at it, did some man maths and then looked again. The solution was unexpected yet staring me in the face. I didn’t trust it and nor did Mike. But the difference is that I can barely hold a map the right way up, whereas Mike is a veritable Livingstone when it comes to navigation. I needed to get back in that driver’s seat.
We were about to enter our 10th country. So far, the Bentley had been staggeringly good
I was behind the wheel at 3.45pm, but it took Mike half an hour of plotting waypoints before we could be sure. But the facts were these: Macedonia and Greece were gone, so could be forgotten; but if we also sacrificed Albania and Montenegro, and turned north after Bosnia and Herzegovina, we could reach Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, too. We’d lose two countries to gain three, and all but eliminate our security concerns. Given our original route and the cars we were in, safety had been an issue. Yes, our Plan B was less intrepid, but to four tired blokes over 600 miles into a journey but not yet halfway, there wasn’t
a choice to make.
We reached small but gorgeous Slovenia at 4.30pm, a team with weights lifted from our minds. As we hit halfway and for the first time in 12 hours, I was no longer tired. I was raring to go.
We left Slovenia just after 6.00pm, then lost time to a broken toll machine on the Croatian border, while we considered that we were already about to enter our 10th country of the day. So far, the Bentley had been staggeringly good, its ride and refinement world class, its power so abundant that there was always more to come. Dislikes? The cluttered centre console. That’s about it.
We turned south at 8.00pm, put Mike behind the wheel and prepared for huge queues into Bosnia. I’d done this before and, even in normal cars, it is a time-consuming, slightly nervy business. But our little convoy was waved through with nothing more than a stamp in the passport. We paused long enough to see buildings still plastered in bullet holes and remembered how recently war had visited this place. Even a generation later, it felt unlike anywhere else through which we would pass, a country trying to move on and up, but still saddled by the weight of too recent history.
We were delayed on the way out, but only because the guards had a thing for Bentleys. We could leave only on condition we did our best Lewis Hamilton impression on departure, resulting in a rather rapid re-entry into Croatia. We had reached our furthest point. We were homeward bound.
Over the next few hours, Mike drove quickly and I failed to sleep. We hit the Hungarian border at 10.00pm and found a country of perfect motorways and zero traffic. Forty minutes later, we stopped for long enough to fuel the cars, grab some sandwiches and note that 1000 miles had passed under our wheels. A further 40 minutes later, at 11.20pm, I was back at the wheel, to remain there to the end.
We crossed into Slovakia. The border was completely unmanned, so I barely lifted
Exactly 20 hours in, we crossed into Slovakia. The border was completely unmanned, so I barely lifted. It was a shame we’d be seeing these countries in the dark (the impossibility of photographing the attempt in real time meant almost all the exterior images you see here were taken on the way home), but sadly there was no other way.
And now Mike raised a finger. “I’ve got an idea.”
Simply put, we’d made such good time since Bosnia that if we took a slightly different route, we could enter the Czech Republic at a different point, a point where Slovakia also borders Poland. That’s Poland. The risk was that if we didn’t get there in time, we’d lose the Czech Republic, too, but having already taken one safer option today, it felt right to give it a go. Mike reprogrammed the navigation one last time. I got my clog down.
We made our last stop, God knows where in Slovakia, at 2.45am with 100 miles left to run and just over two hours to get there. That’s not even 50mph. Easy, huh? Well, no, as it turns out. First we left the motorway and then, from nowhere, the fog descended.
Even the Continental had no answer to that. The temperature fell below zero, and now tiredness returned. Actually, call that crawl-in-a-hole exhaustion. I’d have liked Mike to drive but didn’t think it fair to ask. We plodded on, groping through the darkness and mire, wondering where the hell the Czech Republic had gone.
After seemingly forever, it turned up. Mercifully, there was no border check but nor was there time to stop. We wheeled the cars around and entered Slovakia one minute after leaving it.
It was 11 miles to Poland, but even after nearly 24 hours, it was not clear we’d make it. Then the fog took pity and lifted slightly. At 4.53am, 23 hours and 56 minutes after leaving Belgium, the Bentleys powered into Poland. In that time, we’d spent just 29 minutes with the engines off and covered 1377 miles at an average of 58mph. In four minutes less than 24 hours and despite the fog in eastern Europe and traffic in the south, we’d reached 15 countries.
As for the question that inspired this journey, the Bentley’s answer was clear. For its pace, ride, refinement, ability to keep you relaxed, the sense of safety, clarity of information it conveyed and the feeling of well-being from spending time in a car this well engineered, it proved itself worthy of its vaunted title, time and again.
I’ll save the last words for, of all things, the seats. I sat in that Bentley for an entire day and emerged without the smallest ache, and there can be no better measure of a car called Continental. To me, that is incredible. But as incredible as starting a journey in Belgium and ending it in Poland less than 24 hours later having visited Luxembourg, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on the way? Not even close. A
PHOTOGRAPHY JED LEICESTER
WHERE DIDN’T WE GO?
Could we have reached more countries? Probably. Were we to try again, we’d take a slightly longer but quicker motorway route across Austria and Italy, putting time in our pocket we could have spent reaching Romania. And had Bentley’s insurance allowed it, we might have been able to add Serbia to the list.
I’m not sure why Serbia is off limits. I’ve driven there on a previous record attempt and not had the slightest sniff of a problem. Then again, Switzerland was on the list of places we couldn’t go, too – although I’m happy to say we only realised that once we were well clear of the country. Kosovo was there for the taking but that really would have been a risk, partly from a security point of view, but mainly because we’d been told you could lose hours just getting in and even more getting back out again.
So I think 17 countries might be possible. Or do you know of a smarter route that results in even more? We’d love to hear of it if you do.
OUR SUPPORT CAR
I’ve done enough of these stunts to know that it’s all about the back-up crew. You absolutely can’t do without one, because even if they’re never actually needed, as in this case, just the knowledge that they are there, shadowing your every move, is vital. But I’ve also done one where a support crew struggled to stay awake and instantly the enormous asset they represent becomes an even bigger liability.
With Matt and Lee, we never had that problem. They had our backs from Belgium to Poland, never lost sight of us and were always there with the banter at the stops. And although I never travelled in it, their Bentayga seemed pretty fit for purpose, too, at least once the boys had ripped out its rear seats and made a purpose-built platform to securely carry all their tools, tyres and Monster energy drinks. It seemed odd to use a near-£140,000 Bentley as a tender car, but once you saw it in all its finery and witnessed how it performed during the attempt, you’d have to concede that there probably were few that were finer.