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Back-seat driving

Seven hundred miles now in the borrowed Bristol 410 and I’ve loved every yard of it.

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

Seven hundred miles now in the borrowed Bristol 410 and I’ve loved every yard of it.

Seven hundred miles now in the borrowed Bristol 410 and I’ve loved every yard of it. It’s poised, tolerant, powerful and very comfortable, now that I’ve removed the sunroof windshield that was threatening to scalp me. The elegantly understated lines make you feel you’re driving your club, appreciated by those who know, unrecognised by those who don’t (fortunately it handles rather better than the club would). In fact, the handling continues to surprise, partly because the wide, old-fashioned wheel makes you more conscious of steering, while the naturally aspirated 5.2 Chrysler V8 burbles and hums with unstressed power. The throttle is floor-mounted, which suits it, as is the dipswitch. Remember how they always were?


It reminds me in some ways of another big V8 of late 1960s vintage I used to own, a Daimler Majestic Major limousine. That was the superb 4.5 litre designed by Edward Turner, progenitor of a number of great engines for four wheels and two. The Daimler was half as wide again as the Bristol, of course, but was surprisingly nimble for its size and age and equally redolent of wood and leather. It had a glass division and behind that a couple of acres of Wilton before you reached more leather. I drove it for a while at Oxford, usually in lonely splendour in the front as my friends wrote essays or did whatever they did in the back.

I’d like another Majestic, not least to compare it with modern chauffeured cars. A friend who is often driven believes there’s a gap in the market for a What Chauffeur Car publication, which prompted an informal and rigorously unscientific survey of those who are promoted beyond the point at which they’re permitted to drive themselves.

The BMW 7 Series got deservedly high marks except for the cheap-looking wood-trim options. V12 versions, particularly in the Middle East, have extensive control panels in the back for bored VIPs to play with. The Mercedes S Class scored equally, with one suggesting that its only problem is its own E Class sibling, which is so good, spacious and quiet that he queried the need for the S Class. The same point was made about the 5 Series BMW 530D — it did everything so well, including economy/emissions, why bother with the 7? The Lexus GS 450h was up there with them, faster than a Porsche Cayman but hybrid-quiet in town, with excellent interior lighting and sound system. The cabin is light and spacious but the leather can smell strongly in hot weather and boot space is compromised by batteries. The Toyota Pious/Prius, compulsory transport for Whitehall mandarins, was well rated for its interior space but less well so for luxury. It’s also less environmentally friendly and performs less well out of town.

One rated the Audi A8 above all these, partly for its uncluttered sobriety but mainly for its performance, comfort and gold-standard build quality. Another found the A6 (sports version, low-profile tyres) ‘dreadful’ for its harsh ride and noise levels but thought the new Volvo S80 a classy motor, if not very spacious. A regular Washington visitor reckoned the Cadillac DTS the most comfortable wheels ever and was appalled to return to Heathrow and be met by a Smart ForTwo — ‘Murderous, couldn’t wait to get out’. One rated the Range Rover highly, except that it didn’t feel quite right to be chauffeured in it — ‘Made me feel like a chief constable.’ The previous model Jaguar XJ ticked all the boxes (it’s been prime-ministerial transport for some years), rivalling the Lexus for the sense of specialness and intimacy engendered by its interior lights. In fact, there was general agreement that the quality of internal lighting is one of the two most important factors for the chauffeured. The other is comfort.

I could find no captain of industry with experience of Maybach and only myself to comment (as pilot) on Rolls and Bentley. It doesn’t get better than the Rolls Royce Phantom — once you’ve gazed along that long bonnet to Nellie Thornton’s Spirit of Ecstasy you’ll follow her anywhere (she was the model for it, as mistress to the then Lord Montagu). However, my personal favourite as everyday transport has long been the Arnage, the traditional Bentley. That’s the drawing room on wheels, except that it floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. The Bentley Flying Spur makes more sense as a chauffeur car — cheaper, more room in the back, relatively incognito — but why not save more money and get the W12 Audi A8 with which it shares so much?

However, the ultimate choice for the man or woman in the back has to be Al Capone’s magnificent 1930 Cadillac V16 Imperial sedan, complete with armour-plating, five-layer laminated windows, gun-ports and oil-slick and smoke-screen options. It was auctioned this summer for a mere £185,700, presumably to the head of MI5.


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