Last week, I drove a 2012 Bentley Continental GT convertible around Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. Or maybe the car drove me. I’ve never encountered a vehicle that accelerated so smoothly, braked so effortlessly, or smelled so good. Using its famed “wave of torque,” the Bentley GTC took tight hillside turns with incredible ease, as though it were running on a track, never veering out of its lane. Also, there was a back massager built into the driver’s chair. Other automotive writers tend to ignore this function, preferring instead to write about how the car handles. But I had my massage going the whole time. And I was driving in Croatia. It was as though I’d taken a Quantum Leap into someone else’s life.
Welcome to the strange world of high-end automotive junkets. Bentley paid my way to Europe. They flew me first-class to England and hired a charter to take me to Croatia. I stayed at a hotel, in the country outside of Manchester, where Sting and Trudy got married. The wine and appetizers never stopped. It was a fun, luxurious, and corrupt adventure. “We’re beyond spoiled,” said one of my fellow junketeers. “We’re Kobe humans. They stuff us full of food and wine all day, and then we wake up at 6 AM and start it all over again.”
There were 15 other writers on the trip with me, all of them men except for one freelancer for the Toronto Star. These were the hotshots of the circuit, the heavy-hitters. With the exception of me, doing this for the first and probably the last time, this wasn’t a trip for newbies. Many of these automotive writers spend their lives traveling from junket to junket, racking up frequent-flier miles and not paying for anything. They can be pretty jaded. As one of the writers told me, "it's kind of like going on an endless luxury vacation with people you hate."
Fairly recently, Bentley had flown the entire junket corps to a press event in the Kingdom of Oman to test-drive the non-convertible version of the GT. So these writers already knew this car. But as one of my fellow junketeers said, “When else were we ever going to get a chance to drive a Bentley in Croatia? It’s something we haven’t done before.”
My reasoning exactly.
On the first day of the trip, we went on a tour of the Bentley factory in Crewe, England. I got to witness an “engine marriage,” wherein a molded chassis is lowered onto a car engine, heard a talk about various kinds of interior wood veneer, and stood by while the assembled press corps breathlessly took photos of a woman hand-stitching a leather steering wheel, a process that one writer proclaimed as “way too cool.” The place sparkled like freshly polished silver and buzzed like a hive, as happy-looking workers went about their business with efficiency and pride. This is what car factories are like now, my fellow junketeers told me. The Ferrari factory in Italy has so many plants inside it resembles a greenhouse.
Our tour guide was a besuited fellow named Nigel, trim as a pole and bald as a billiard ball. He’d worked on the factory floor for twenty years and had been rewarded with a job in the marketing department. He was pretty forthcoming with Bentley facts both pleasant and unpleasant. The recession has cut into Bentley’s business a bit, he said. In 2007, they sold 10,000 machines, but by 2009, they were giving their workers a five-week “furlough.” Nigel told us that this year, Bentley is attempting to move 7,000 cars.
Bentley sells all over the world, he said, but all Bentley customers have one common denominator: They’re rich. Thirty-two percent of the cars go to the U.S., with about 20 each in the U.K. and Western Europe. The biggest boom customer is China, which this year is poised to become Bentley’s largest market. “It’s a chauffeur-driven culture,” Nigel said, politically.
The average Chinese Bentley buyer is 15 years younger than his Western counterpart. As one Bentley executive told us later, “He comes into the dealership and he wants his car now. If you talk about customizing, he goes next door and buys a Ferrari. We have to respond to this.”
Different Bentley markets have their eccentricities, Nigel said on our tour. The U.K. and Europe prefer their cars silver and gray, while China and Russia like them black. In the 80s, all the white Bentleys went to the Middle East, and now most of them ship to the States. Most Bentleys have two trim colors on the interior leather, but the Chinese are now asking for a third color, “which is perhaps a step too far,” in Nigel’s opinion. “The customer isn’t always right,” he said. “But the customer is always the customer.” To that end, he shared the nauseating fact that soccer star David Beckham had his daughter Brooklyn’s name hand-stitched into his Bentley’s back passenger seat.
Nigel, like everyone else I met from the company, clearly took great pride in the craftsmanship that goes into a Bentley. “I once trimmed a set of seats for the queen,” he said. “The flutes were Scottish tartan. I took pictures home to me mum and dad, and said, ‘look, I did this.’”