I’ve decided it’s time to change the way we drive. You may consider that being stuck in an exasperating two-hour, Friday-night tailback on the North Circular would not be the most likely scenario in which to have such an epiphany. But it wasn’t where I was that lead to it; rather what I was in.
If I had been driving my own car, I’d have been banging the steering wheel in frustration, blaspheming at anyone who dared leave more than a two-inch gap between their own vehicle and the car ahead, and generally emulating Basil Fawlty on an angry day. But I wasn’t in my own car; I was in a Bentley Mulsanne.
Life is more serene, more refined, when in a Bentley. And it makes you want to drive in a way that reflects this. In his excellent new book The Gentleman’s Guide to Motoring, Vic Darkwood, co-founder of The Chap, bemoans the loss of the golden age of driving: “Just because most contemporary car design has all the aesthetic finesse of your average vacuum cleaner and the majority of our fellow road-users often exhibit behaviour no better than slavering beasts, it doesn’t mean that those of an independent frame of mind, poetry in their soul and vim in their trousers, can’t take a bash at reclaiming the whole adventure of motoring as the sanctified mission of the gentleman.”
Basically, stop driving like a bunch of pricks.
Step one: buy a Bentley.
From the moment the door closes, with the reassuring thud of a Döttling safe, you’re sealed within a cathedral-like silence. It’s as if you’re in some holy place: a shrine to driving. With acres of glossy walnut-burr veneer and a field of deep-pile carpet, it’s a beautiful place just to be, let alone drive. To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, it’s a car in which you can laugh in the face of traffic jams and tweak the nose of road rage.
I’m not usually one for listening to classical music. But then, I’m also not usually one for driving a Bentley. When in the Mulsanne, it just feels like the right thing to do. Especially considering the 1,100W Naim stereo with which you have to play. This £5,000 kit would impress in a 1,000sq-ft living room – but in the cabin of the Bentley, it’s breathtaking. Sitting back in the diamond-quilted leather, as rich and soft as foie gras, listening to Delibes’s flower duet from Lakmé, it’s a bit like being in an advert for British Airways First Class. There are even tray tables mounted on the back of the front seats. The only thing missing is an air hostess. (Although, if you opt to use Bentley’s Mulliner styling service to customise your Mulsanne, who knows what would be possible?)
As it happens, at more than 18ft long and 6ft wide, the Mulsanne is not that much smaller than a Boeing 747. And the engine is pretty jumbo, too. You’d have thought that a 6.75-litre V8 might be able to cope all right on its own, but good ol’ Bentley has thrown in a couple of turbo chargers just to be on the safe side. The result is 505bhp and enough torque to take on a tractor. The whisper-silent V8 only pipes up when you give it some welly – and you’ll certainly feel it: the revs reverberate through your foot and rattle your rib cage.
Fortunately, the chunky rear wheels – suited and booted in polished 21-inch alloys – cope admirably. I did manage a bit of wheelspin once, then immediately chastised myself; that’s not what a Mulsanne driver would do, after all.
In fact, as my wife will attest, the only thing better than driving it is being driven in it. The heated seats; the TV screens; the champagne cooler hidden in the arm rest; the detachable tumbler holders snuggly stored in their own draw: all these little touches add up to a unique passenger experience – one with which few cars could compete.
Details have always been one of Bentley’s strong suits. Its signature Clos de Paris guilloche work is everywhere – inside the door handles, on the back of the paddle shifters, around the stereo knobs, and even inverted on the key fob. And the flying Bs also make a fair few appearances – on the sat-nav panel, on the engine cover, and even on the brake pedal.
As for the external aesthetics, they’re definitely unapologetic; it has real presence. It’s also managed to echo Bentleys of old while still embracing enough modern flair not to look slavishly retro. It’s worth noting that it’s much better looking in real life than in the photos. It definitely seems to provoke a reaction from the great unwashed. One minibus of young men decided the best way to show their appreciation for the car’s flowing curves was by showing us some of their own, er, flowing curves – in areas upon which I’d rather not dwell. On another occasion, a group of teenage school children stopped their game of football and began applauding. One kindly fellow even seemed to gesticulate in some type of royal wave comprising of two separated fingers – perhaps Masonic? – but I can’t say that was definitely directed at us.
As for the driver? I was like a pig in shit. OK, that’s definitely not what a gentlemanly driver of a Bentley should say. But it’s true. And beyond the Mulsanne’s obvious charms, I had also become a better driver. Somehow its class rubs off on you. It’s a car for a different type of driver – and a different time.
Back in 1926, a year after Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato bought the company and created the iconic Bentley Blower, L.V.E. Smith wrote the book How To Drive A Car Correctly. “Drive always with courtesy,” he advised. “A car driver would not think of eating his meals like an uncouth savage, and yet many have manners when at the wheel which are despicable.”
If you decide to buy one, please remember that the only thing worse than a bad driver is a bad driver in a good car.