Ultimate GT? 820 miles in 12 hours with the Bentley Continental

Bentley Continental GT front Cannes
Bentley Continental GT front Cannes

The sight of the Continental in this specifications stirred Lane's inner Woolf Barnato

Car journalism: it can’t resist a good cliché. Among the top offenders is the notional ability of an assertive, long-snouted grand tourer to fire you to the Côte d’Azur ‘in one hit’.

One hit, you say? Blimey. It’s up there with ‘rifle-bolt’ shifts, ‘alacrity’ and the cursed ‘dab of oppo’.

Cliché or not, the point here is that the talent your flash GT has for shrinking the geography between Blighty and the Mediterranean Sea is, objectively speaking, less relevant now than ever before. A TGV train can hit 357mph; flights cost pennies. Cars themselves have also evolved.


In 1930, the contrast in appetite for big miles between a Bentley Blower and a Ford Model T was gaping; by 1965, standards had improved but horsepower and leather still counted. The attritional hit of six hours in an Aston Martin DB6, with its streamlined body, Selectaride dampers and 325bhp straight six, was massively less than in a Hillman Imp. The DB6, we said at the time, was for those needing “to travel far and fast”.

Today it’s a different story. Even a 15-year-old Volkswagen Golf TDI is considerably more relaxing than an oil-perfumed old Aston (which lacked even headrests). Up the ante to a new BMW 3 Series and you have a car so amply endowed with power and so serene at speed that it’s a prodigious GT in its own right.

It makes you wonder: in 2024, do the machines made and marketed on the undeniable allure of golden-age continental escapades still offer something unique when asked to fulfil the role? Or have they gone the same way as the horse: a nice plaything but essentially redundant?

The answer involves some opportunism on my part. For the facelifted Mercedes-Benz V-Class launch in Cannes, most UK journalists are getting there via Heathrow, but not me. My tool is a Bentley Continental GT in new-ish GT S guise – so it has the 542bhp 4.0-litre crossplane V8 and air springs of the regular car but a spicier diff, active anti-roll bars and sports exhaust.

I’m needed at the Hotel Belle Plage, some 820 miles away, by 7.30pm. It’s a serious stint, but if the 5am presence of a frost-encrusted, Alpine Green Conti lurking in the pale glow of a streetlight doesn’t stir your inner Woolf Barnato, nothing will – certainly no Golf, 3 Series or even Mercedes S-Class.

Black wheels, tan hide and knurled metal makes P40 BML suitably Brideshead Revisited. Grogginess quickly evaporates.

WO Bentley was no stranger to hardcore road trips. After the death of this brother Arthur from a throat infection in 1912, he drove a DFP Type 12/15 for 31 hours from London to the Scottish Highlands to scatter the ashes, eventually rolling into Cromarty “dead tired and stiff and cramped, but feeling, I think, we had done the right thing”.

Considering the length of that journey and the sort of car the DFP was, today’s equivalent would be driving a Caterham Seven, sans roof, from Leatherhead to Latvia, mid-winter. Hardcore.

The experience surely informed the sort of cars WO would concoct under the Bentley Motors name from 1919: monolithic and reliable, with barrel-chested engines of bottomless torque.

Merely setting off in a car like the GT is always special – borderline spiritual, even, for the true tragics among us. Slide aboard, foot on brake, a silent apology… Then bombs away.

Had Bentley’s decision to delay its evolution into an all-electric brand and instead PHEV-ify the Conti GT come a little earlier, I might have slunk out of London like a walnut-trimmed nuclear sub.

As it is, on a cold start, I wake the dead. This Audi-built motor can’t be traced back to the old L-Series, but it has been tuned to deliver a fatty warble that makes an RS6 or Porsche Cayenne Turbo sound coy. At idle, it sets the car’s Panamera-shared platform humming to delicious effect. The next sensation is not one of pulling away but of unmooring. The buzzword here is ‘heft’.

The Bentley inhales the run to Folkestone like it’s an amuse-bouche, which I suppose it is. Not trusting myself with the 21in wheels, I plump for the wide-boy Eurotunnel carriages, with the vans and trucks. Ettore Bugatti would have loved that. Half an hour later, France. Deserted, undulating, impossibly wrinkle-free France.

On the autoroute, it isn’t the job of a machine like the Conti GT to exhibit opioid-grade isolation and a flawless waft. Achieving the desired effect is actually a lot trickier than that.

Blue-blooded GTs need to provide a heady dose of iso-waft, absolutely, but they must also impart a sense of speed and action – of smashing through the air and of rubber surging over asphalt. Too much refinement and that dies; too little and a day’s drive isn’t effortless enough.

It’s not an easy balance to strike, but get it right and what the driver receives is a heady blend of restorative comfort and energising involvement. It’s like listening to Dark Side of the Moon on a £20k hi-fi.

Not everyone perfects this, or even attempts to. Front-engined Ferraris are too…competizione. Modern Aston Martins get closer to the sweet spot, but their aluminium construction makes them a tad boomy.

A Rolls-Royce Wraith is sublime. But like a £280k Faraday cage, it suppresses the sense of travel altogether. All are dream-level continent-crushers, of course, but for the blast down to Cannes, foot planted between the Armco, none deliver quite like the Bentley.

Even the steady-state behaviour of the GT’s driveline is dreamy. At 80mph, the car wants to creep faster still, but not in an irritating way.

Inclines don’t register. Diesel autoroute driftwood eats the Conti’s wash. A familiar set of goofy headlights appears on the horizon, closing in at pace. It’s a Spur, Brit plates, homeward bound, correctly going full Barnato.

Unsurprisingly it’s quiet in the double-glazed cabin, but not eerily so. The ergonomics capture that arse-over-axle pedigree but stop short of any claustrophobic pillbox charade. The rotating display, which gives you roundels, a touchscreen or nothing, is hideously expensive, but it’d be the first box I ticked. Banishing pixels is cathartic.

A refuel near Dijon. Pumping in 90 litres stings, but that’s me done until Cannes. Lyon flies by, then there’s a storm outside Aix – but only after a golden sunset that makes the musculature in the wing-mirror glow like a priceless Turner.

The GT’s wipers reach hyperdrive, but otherwise the autoroute may as well be bone-dry. Here you have Terminator performance with Don Draper polish. I dock outside Belle Plage at 7.07pm, fresh enough for me to discuss posh vans with an R&D bod over dinner. The vital statistics: 11hrs 54min, 27.3mpg, 68mph average.

Are ‘one hit’ GTs redundant? They have been for years, on paper. Merc’s 45mpg S400d or even a lukewarm Skoda would’ve done the job. But with the Conti’s swagger or emotion? Not a chance.