A heavy dose of fun
The new Bentley Brooklands offers a superb ride for its weight – just expect to join a long waiting list for one. By Andrew Frankel
One of the things that Bentley has been able to do in the past 10 years since Volkswagen bought the company from Vickers is to accrue an enviable collection of historic cars. It has EXP2, the earliest surviving of all Bentleys, the original blown 4½-litre factory demonstrator, WO’s own 8-litre, an R-type Continental and, most treasured of all, Birkin’s favourite Blower, UU5872, the car in which he engaged Caracciola in their epic battle at La Sarthe in 1930 and probably the most original of all surviving Le Mans Bentleys.
The only significant gap now is a decent Speed Six. Some might say it would be a good idea to return to rightful Rolls-Royce ownership the original Silver Ghost which Bentley still retains and with the proceeds buy the best Speed Six in the world – and, I have no doubt, put a tidy sum in the bank. But I digress.
I’d expected to see one or more of the collection at the launch of this new Bentley Brooklands, because, unlike some car manufacturers, Bentley isn’t shy about using its old cars for the right reasons. But while there were two vintage era cars parked in front of the hotel, neither was owned by the factory.
The first I should have guessed: Birkin’s ‘other’ Blower, sister car to Bentley’s own and one that, equipped with unique single-seat bodywork, raised the outright lap record at Brooklands to over 137mph. The other, I must say, surprised me. It was the car that owns the identity, if few of the original parts, of Old Number One, the Speed Six that became the first car ever to win Le Mans twice, in 1929 and 1930. This is also the car that became Barnato’s personal transport and won the Brooklands Six Hours in ’29 and the 500 Miles in ’31. But it has one other claim to fame and that, tragically, is as the only team Bentley to kill its driver, as this car did when it went over the top at Brooklands with Clive Dunfee at its wheel in 1932. It’s been rebodied and restored over the years, and now wears its rather ugly but correct Brooklands uniform. But it’s always struck me as a rather sad car, not just for what happened to Dunfee but for the legal wranglings that took place in 1990 to determine whether the car even had the right to call itself Old Number One, so altered is it from the original specification.
It’s odd, too that Bentley should call this new car Brooklands at all, not least because the entire Weybridge site is now owned by Mercedes-Benz, the mortal enemy of Bentley then as now.
I’ve never quite bought into the idea that Bentleys should be named, a strategy that only became blanket policy in 1980 when it was decided that some differentiation between Bentley and Rolls-Royce product might be no bad thing. Cars like Bentleys shouldn’t need fancy and increasingly contrived names to conjure up an image of daring and adventure – even WO’s couple of ‘Speed’ models were more descriptive than evocative, for he knew then what I strongly suspect now: such cars should speak for themselves.
And there’s none that would be better at doing it than this. Of all the cars to have worn the wings since the war, and with the possible exception of the R-type Continental, this is the one that comes closest to Bentley’s original concept. When Bentley was designing his first car, he didn’t do so with visions of winning Le Mans, for not only did the race not then exist, but to WO competition was only a marketing strategy. He instead set his sights on a car of effortless performance and quality – one which was not merely objectively fast, but which delivered its performance in the right way.
Spool forward nearly 90 years and you’ll find the same design brief informing those who created this Brooklands. At face value it may seem simply an Azure with a roof, but its remit and execution are entirely distinct. For while both use the venerable 6.75-litre twin turbo V8 that is now in its 50th year, it has been tuned and tweaked for the umpteenth time in its life and now delivers a mighty 530bhp, which is just a little shy of 20 per cent more than offered in Azure specification. So you can perhaps imagine the majesty of this vast car hurling itself to 60mph in 5sec flat, or just how much energy is required for that proud but bluff front to rent the air apart at 184mph.
For while the Azure was designed for wafting between Lake Como and St Moritz, the Brooklands is for those leaving the City on a Friday night with the firm intention of breakfasting on the boat with Monte Carlo as a backdrop.
Its secret is the way it exploits its weight to control its primary ride, and the key to its character lies in its absolute refusal to vary its ride height over even preposterous undulations. This might sound like an engineering nuance, but in fact it’s perhaps the most memorable aspect of the entire car, and when there’s 774lb ft of torque competing for that title, that is truly saying something. Most humans have quite a low tolerance threshold to roll or yaw, but we’re even more sensitive to heave and pitch, and in all normal driving the Brooklands is all but immune to both forces: it just bludgeons a path straight through the middle. Its springs, dampers and roll bars are, on average, 50-60 per cent firmer than those found on an Azure, and, with re-valved steering, confer a level of control on the Brooklands you would simply not believe from such a large, heavy and fundamentally old design.
You can turn the stability systems off and drive in a most injudicious fashion, and where an Azure would be horrified but grudgingly tolerant of such behaviour, the Brooklands joins in. Indeed, so long as the road is dry and the corner quick enough to stop the inside wheel spinning at the exit, you can powerslide all 2.6 tonnes of it without using an inch more road than is rightfully yours. Only Bentley’s tedious refusal to fit such cars with limited slip differentials curtails the fun. It says its customers don’t drive like that but I wonder whether, in the case of the Brooklands’ more adventurous owners, that will be more effect than cause.
This quibble aside, there is nothing to stand in the way of you having more fun than you could imagine in a car weighing about the same as two family hatchbacks. I could tell it was encouraging me to drive it like no other Bentley made today because I found myself instinctively reaching for non-existent gearshift paddles on the steering column – I don’t even do that in Continental GTs which come with paddles as standard.
The technique required to drive it well is remarkably similar to that needed in an old 911, which may seem surprising given that it is conceptually and architecturally about as far from the Porsche as you can get within the genre of sporting two-door coupés. But just like the 911, entry speed is everything: overdo it and it will understeer heavily, forcing you to back off the gas, losing speed and composure. You need to be conservative as you approach a corner and then, once the nose is turned and on line, you can get on the power early, balance the car beautifully and cannon up the straight ahead. For all its weight, you’ll never stress the brakes, at least if they are the optional £19,000 carbon-ceramic items fitted to the test car – which are not only the largest of any sort in the world, they’re also designed to last the car’s lifetime.
Alternatively, you can hand the key to your staff, issue instructions that they drive on a ‘do not disturb’ basis and nod off in the back. In this regard the Brooklands is like no other coupé in the world. I can set the driving position for my 6ft 4in frame, climb in behind myself and stretch out in perfect comfort. It is the only coupé I have ever encountered in which the prospect of 300 miles in the back seat would fill me not with horror, but unalloyed joy.
Bentley will only ever make 550 Brooklands, a number they’re already secretly cursing at Crewe as 500 orders have been received before a single customer has so much as driven around the block in one. Still, each takes so long to build it will be nearly three years before the last one is delivered and by then I’d be surprised if its Arnage architecture is not obsolete and on the point of replacement.
As for the mighty V8, I would bet it will endure. Reports of its demise have been fairly continual for around 30 years now but if you drive the Brooklands, you’ll know it’s never been in better health. It is fully compliant with all existing emissions standards and Bentley knows how to make it compliant with all future ones too. But even if I am wrong and the Brooklands proves to be the last new car ever to be powered by this most characterful and charming of engines, all I can say is that there could be no better or more appropriate way to leave the stage than this.
Engine: V8 6761cc petrol
Power/Torque: 530bhp at 4000rpm, 774lb ft at 3250rpm
Gearbox: 6-speed automatic
Tyres: 225/40 ZR 20
Fuel/CO2: 14.5mpg, 465g/km
Acceleration: 0-62mph: 5.3sec, 50-70mph: 2.4sec
Suspension: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes: 348mm (f) 345mm (r) ventilated discs
Top Speed: 184mph