Currently reading: Southern comfort: Bentley Continental on the English Riviera
When we proposed a Continental road trip to the Riviera, Andrew Frankel immediately said ‘oui’. He might not have expected what was to come…

I remember this. Playing on the beach under Paignton Pier. Granny had retired to Torquay and my mother got to offload her idiot offspring on her mother for one excruciating weekend per year for all concerned.

We were never allowed onto the pier, of course, for it was a place for the down at heel, the dissolute and practitioners of all seven known deadly sins and a few more besides. So of course getting onto Paignton Pier became not so much an ambition as a life goal. And we made it. 

It was here I played my first arcade game, an early version of Forza Motorsport, otherwise known as an unwound coat hanger with a model car on one end and a steering rack on the other, allowing the driver (in exchange for two new pence) to ‘steer’ said car while some murky film of an on-board lap of some unknown track was projected on the background. It was bloody disappointing even then. 

And now, nearer half a century later than I would care to admit, I was back. 

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We came to find the Riviera – not the one in France (because that would involve a navigational error that not even my desperate sense of direction could excuse) but England’s equivalent (because overseas travel is somewhat sub-optimal at present). And it really exists, not just as some abstract construct in the increasingly addled brain of an ageing hack but as a real place – a Unesco Global Geopark, no less, alongside those in Tuscany and Provence, not to mention the Ngorongoro volcano in Tanzania. 

At this stage, you might think I’m making this up. I promise I’m not. So where once you may have thought Cannes, Antibes and St Tropez, try saying Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. As you can see, here they also have sun, sea, palm trees and at least one Bentley. And does Cannes have a pier where a dodgy-looking bloke in a glass booth will tell you your fortune? Not that I could find. Does the Casino de Monte-Carlo have wall-to-wall slot machines projecting son-et-lumière effects to sear your eyeballs and eardrums? I think you will find it does not. And as you gaze out across the Promenade des Anglais from your suite in the Negresco in Nice, will you find inflatable slides and bouncy castles? Not the last time I was in town. Besides, if it’s real promenading Anglais you want, especially those of a certain vintage, it’s our Riviera and not theirs to which you should head. 

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So there we were in our powder-blue Continental GT Convertible with me doing my best to look the part – at least from the waist up. I had the blazer, the Panama hat, a waistline moving in inverse proportion to my hairline and, I hoped, just the right air of plutocratic entitlement. Yes, below that lurked the jeans-an- trainers apparel of the common-or-garden road tester, but Granny has been gone 40 years now, so there’s no longer anyone’s disdain to earn here. How did we fit in down on the English Riviera? How do you think? Like the Queen Mary in one of the many dinghy races they hold off the coast here. But actually, and after a while, I stopped feeling self-conscious about swanning about top-down in what, with the few choice Mulliner options, totted up to £222,725 worth of Bentley. 

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There are places you could go on in Britain where such an ostentatious wealth statement might elicit just the kind of reaction you would hope not to receive in a car like this. But not here. In Torquay, they grin at Bentleys as they pass and coo over them when they’re parked. Hang around long enough and they will ask incredibly politely if it might be possible to take a photograph. Which I really appreciated. Because you would think that as I wafted south-west, swaddled in softest-quilted, diamond-patterned leather, with only the distant rumble of a twin-turbocharged V8 for company, the wind just gently ruffling what’s left of my hair, it might be hard to interfere with the serenity of such progress. 

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But no. Because somewhere at the back of my mind lurked the suspicion, the fear even, that this was just a cheap shot: using a massively posh car as a prop to illustrate just how rubbish is England’s Riviera relative to the one found in France. The contrast would provide good photo shoot fodder and me with 1500 easy words to write. Best of all, I could blame it all on Covid-19, excusing the trip on the grounds that as it’s now more difficult to travel to their Riviera, we should try ours instead.

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Happily, my Princess and the Pea fears came to naught. The people of the English Riviera seemed just as happy to see the Bentley there as I had been to bring it. And happy I was. 

I’ll share with you now that I don’t really see myself as a convertible kind of guy. Indeed, I’ve always worked on the basis that if you’re to have an open car, it should also be a slow one, and no one enjoys peeling back the roof of a Citroën 2CV more than me. But at this level, what does a convertible roof bring? A lot more cost, of course, and a stack more weight – 170kg in this case. Obviously, this blunts performance to a small extent (although only a tenth off the 0-62mph time), but far more importantly it makes the car feel less precise to drive. It also uses more fuel and emits more CO2 (although I can’t see many prospective owners losing too much sleep over that). And all for what? The occasional top-down jaunt during which people whom you’ve never met and will never see again will discover that you’re wealthy enough to drive a convertible Bentley. Or a motoring journalist. 

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I’m afraid it just doesn’t interest me that much. I’ve never driven a convertible that I preferred to the coupé from which it was derived, and this Bentley does nothing to change that, not least because I consider the Continental GT to be the best car of its kind money can buy, the car that understands best what those two little initials mean and executes more honestly and accurately the brief they contain. 

But here’s the thing. Motoring hacks who write exclusively for themselves tend to have somewhat abbreviated shelf lives; the trick is to understand how the car should stack up in the eyes of the person for whom it has been designed, and the fact that’s not you is really neither here nor there. And in its intended role, the GT Convertible (note, not the GTC any more) is simply superb. 

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It knows what’s important and what it isn’t, and the fact that it doesn’t handle as well as the GT is emphatically in the latter category. And the weight gain? Actually, it should be welcomed, because it’s this structural reinforcement that means it still rides as a Bentley should. In fact, it glides. It’s also why, with the roof up, it’s damn near as quiet as the GT too. True, that locked-in-a-vault feeling is missing, but only because a vault with a fabric roof wouldn’t be a very good vault. It looks fine with the roof down, as that’s important too. 

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Where it excels, however, has nothing to do with it being a convertible and everything to do with it being a Bentley. Of course it has lots of shiny switches and dials, all of which help to create that glossy veneer of luxury; but they also serve almost as distractions, as if they were covering up a lack of deeper, designed-in quality. But they’re not. On the contrary, the real charm of this car has little to do with the way that it looks, performs or sounds, impressive though it is in all such regards. It’s the way that it feels. It has that profound sense of heft, of solidity, the sense of an engineering team who reached the point where they needed to go no further, barely even noticed it and just kept going. 

If I were creating a tagline for Bentley, it would be something like ‘the art of over-engineering’, because that to me is what a Bentley should be about. Luxury to me isn’t best expressed by the amount of trinketry that a car can carry but that sense of strength, of deep and structural integrity that can’t be synthesised. 

And I think that’s the reason for the warm reception the car enjoyed on the English Riviera. Because they appeared not to be looking at a superannuated dork in a flash car but something British of obvious and profound quality. Something to aspire to, to covet more than envy. In short, something to be proud of. As we should be of our Riviera. It may be a bit faded, somewhat scruffy and aimed at a rather different position in the market from its French namesake, but it’s not stuffy, you don’t need to be a millionaire to buy lunch and the coastline between the towns is genuinely beautiful. 

After all these years, I think I understand what Granny saw in the place.

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W8 or W12?

Is bigger really better or is less actually more? Well, ask yourself what the almost £50,000 extra for the 6.0-litre W12 Speed version of the Continental GT Convertible actually buys you. Perhaps most persuasively, its immunity from 12-cylinder Bentley owners looking down their noses at you and saving yourself the bother of having to explain why you bought the cheap one.

But if you don’t care about that, the V8 is the better engine: it’s lighter, it’s more efficient and, most importantly, it sounds far better, its deep thunder matching the car’s character to perfection.

Visiting the Riviera 

If you find yourself tempted to fall off the bottom of the M5 and head towards the Riviera for a few days, first visit its website, where truly comprehensive guides about its towns and villages, life on and offshore and its many places to eat and stay can be found. 

Torquay is probably most famous as being the home town of Agatha Christie, and you can’t go far without bumping into something that will remind you of the fact. Just don’t come here expecting similar reverence for Fawlty Towers: the seminal 1970s sitcom may have been set in Torquay, but not one frame of it was shot there.

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f839 28 November 2021

Somehow I don't think lighter or more efficient are the criteria for which most Bentley owners base their decision in regard to anything, let alone the engine, upon. So the V8's only triumph is, subjectively, the sound, which to me sounds a little immature and unstately with the AMG-esque farting. The W12's certainly the more dynamic option, the one with the most lineage and the one that feels like you didn't settle for less. I'd take that. Great car either way though and I agree; coupe all day every day.  

f839 28 November 2021

Somehow I don't think lighter or more efficient are the criteria for which most Bentley owners base their decision in regard to anything, let alone the engine, upon. So the V8's only triumph is, subjectively, the sound, which to me sounds a little immature and unstately with the AMG-esque farting. The W12's certainly the more dynamic option, the one with the most lineage and the one that feels like you didn't settle for less. I'd take that. Great car either way though and I agree; coupe all day every day.