During the two previous recessions it was not unknown for Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners to replace their cars covertly. Proprietors were reluctant to be seen to trade in their two-year-old Shadows or Turbo Rs for brand new ones while staff were being laid off. They still bought the new models but they specified identical-looking cars and either transferred the number plates or bought personal registrations. Thus, money changed hands, the economy functioned and staff at Crewe, its suppliers and dealerships were not laid off.
Such discretion is doubtless still available to embarrassed proprietors who survive this shipwreck (there’s certainly no shortage of cars) but I can suggest a further element of concealment: the Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed. Of course, it’s absurd to talk of concealing a car almost 18 feet long, five high, seven wide and weighing two and a half tonnes, but its lines are understated. In a supermarket car park — I tested this — it attracted attention only from those who notice cars. Most shoppers trudged behind their trolleys without looking. If challenged they might have noticed a big car, some might even have posited a large Audi, a few — the cognoscenti — might ironically have suggested a VW Phaeton, but it wouldn’t have garnered anything like the stares bestowed on other Bentley models.
Better still, if you already own a Spur and want to upgrade to the new Speed variant without anyone realising you can be pretty sure that the external changes — a more upright grille and larger front air intake, a new rear bumper, wider rifled tail pipes and 20 inch alloys — will be unappreciated by all but those who do appreciate such things. (In fact, unlike its little sister, the Continental GT — many of whose owners change their cars with their socks — the Spur tends to stick to the hands of its first owners.)
Driving it, however, reveals bigger differences. The first Spur (The Spectator, 21 January 2006) was fast enough to jog along with — 0–60mph in 4.9 seconds and an official top speed of 195mph which was turned by Autocar into a verified 208mph with four men in and the air-conditioning on. But now this same chain-driven 6 litre W12 engine has been tweaked to 600bhp and 553lb ft of torque, which translates into 60mph in 4.5 seconds and an official top speed of 200mph. Suspension feels firmer — though it’s adjustable — and the steering turn-in is sharper. In fact, the Servotronic steering is one of the delights of the car, precise, with good feel and a turning circle of 38.7 feet — not bad for a Leviathan. Otherwise, it’s all comfort and luxury, with the largest interior of any Bentley, more rear headroom than the Rolls-Royce Phantom and — a first for me — a reversing camera that really works.
At launch in 2005 the original Spur was the fastest four-door saloon in the world and the Speed must surely still have that title. It also has the largest (ceramic) brakes of any production car. Of course, extreme performance isn’t everything. It counts little in one’s overall pleasure, which is more a matter of real-world usable speed, ride and handling (though just knowing that it would if you could counts for something). Yet you can’t ignore it when given a car like this to play with. The figures quoted above are merely points for comparison, conveying nothing of how effortlessly and intoxicatingly powerful a beast this feels, and is. A touch more flexion in your right foot than you intended and you can seriously frighten yourself.
But it’s also a considerate car with faultless low-speed manners, a beautifully synchronised six-speed automatic (plus paddle shift for the enthusiast) and unobtrusive all-wheel drive. Taller drivers might find the small steering wheel cuts off the tops of the unappealingly deep-set fuel and temperature gauges (they must have struggled to get all the instruments within the radius of that wheel) and you pay for the raked screen in dashboard reflections. The W12 engine is surprisingly compact — shorter than some four cylinder units — but the lack of room makes it painful to work on. I can’t begin to imagine what it costs to replace those four Pirellis but if you need to ask, as they used to say of Crewe products, you can’t afford it. In case you can, it’s listed at £133,000 for the tyres plus all the other bits (with a space-saver spare thrown in).
If you want a supercar, this is probably the most usable one on the planet. Not many people will buy it, so it will do less harm to the planet than the half-million or so Fiat 500s that will doubtless (and deservedly) be sold. It’s also probably the best way of pretending you haven’t got a supercar when you have. But if you use it as your everyday car, which you could, what would you have as your special?