“The Le Mans 24-hour race is stupid,” Bentley’s creator, W.O. Bentley, said when he first heard of the iconic race. He believed no car could perform under such strain for an entire day and survive. He was wrong.

WORDS Richard Webb

Despite W.O. Bentley’s initial scepticism, John Duff and Frank Clement took the chequered flag 10 minutes ahead of their nearest competitor 90 years ago in a Bentley, creating the ‘Bentley Boy’ legend that rivalled anything Hollywood could dream up at the time. Fellow Bentley Boy Captain Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato provided the South African connection. A financier and racing driver, he divided his early life between London and Johannesburg as the heir to the Kimberley diamond mines. His first Bentley, a 3-litre purchased in 1925, so inspired him that he bought the company just 12 months later.

Bentley’s revived fortunes under Barnato’s financial muscle saw a new generation of cars, including the supercharged Bentley ‘Blower’ 4.5-litre, but the Great Depression temporarily strangled demand for these expensive cars, and the company was sold via a sealed bid auction to Rolls-Royce for just £125 000. Today that sum will barely buy you one new Bentley – the Bentley Continental GT – and it is more than double that for the Mulsanne Speed recently launched at the Paris Motor Show.

Barnato won many important races in Bentleys and became the only Le Mans driver with a perfect wins-to-starts ratio. He profoundly influenced Bentley’s history, and it was my quest to experience being a ‘Bentley Boy’, albeit for only a couple of weeks, that took me to London to pay homage to two of the most quintessentially British automotive brands in history – Rolls-Royce and Bentley. They have shaped and inspired the bespoke car world for decades, and still do, thanks to the inspired curatorship of BMW and Volkswagen respectively.

For some, cars like Bentley and Rolls Royce are an opulent and ostentatious display of wealth, even a cry for attention. For others, myself included, they are a thing of beauty and craftsmanship of a bygone era. Yet they have a future; they are cleaner, more frugal, safer and faster than ever and therefore are worthy machines to covet.

Exclusively modern and contemporary, their individual design DNA draws on more than 95 years of heritage, much of it shared. Typical Rolls-Royce or Bentley owners have more than just one car in their portfolio, and therefore can often afford to drive some of the more overtly sporting cars like Bugatti, Ferrari and Maserati.

But what do owners of these exotics normally choose as alternatives? After his presentation of the Rolls-Royce Wraith in Park Lane, I asked Alex Innes, bespoke designer for Rolls Royce, what car he considered primary competition for the brand? “A Riva Iseo yacht, an apartment in Monaco or a race-horse,” he smiled.

Then it was my turn to drive. Parked at the foot of Europe’s tallest building – the London Shard – ‘my’ Rolls-Royce Ghost arrived on a low-loader and was immediately surrounded by tourists who Instagrammed themselves around the world standing in front of the car. The Shard gave way to streaming traffic as I wafted over London Bridge with this R5.5 million car. London cabbies smiled and waved as they let me out of junctions. Now this was the life!

If spectral ghosts are symbolic of those unresolved moments in history that linger, the worldly Rolls-Royce iteration is a suave, totally resolved place to be, with its crème light leather that bids you a welcome worthy of any head of state. The cabin feels almost minimalist in its layout – a hint of rich timber spice from the walnut veneer unites with a freshness brought by the panoramic sunroof to provide the unique sensation of real luxury.

The simplicity of operating the Ghost is inspiring. Point the car and press the accelerator – it’s that simple – just an effortless surge of power so seamless, it delivers the sensation of an infinite first gear. The Marie biscuit-thin steering wheel sits elegantly in your hands as the sound of its 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12 rises barely enough to be heard. It clocks 0 to 100km/h in an unruffled 4.9 seconds, dispatching most sports cars at the traffic light Grand Prix with ease. We are probably all haunted – both by the things we experience and the things we will never know – but this Ghost is one I chased and am glad to have caught.

The sorrow of handing the Ghost’s keys back was mitigated entirely by the arrival of the refined and rare Bentley Mulsanne. Flexibility turns out to be the Mulsanne’s greatest dynamic asset – it is cosseting and involving at the same time. This aristocratic automotive palace changes character once sport mode is engaged and it is remarkable how hard you can press it along winding country roads. It is a highly satisfying driver’s car – a hand-built positive bank statement.

The Mulsanne sports a version of the original Bentley V8 of 1959, but with all of the latest technology. Bentley’s V8 twin-turbocharged 6.75 litre has waves of torque and causes you to glance at the rev counter to make sure the car is still running, so refined is this aristocrat.

The R6.16 million Mulsanne combines modern elegance and classic rich detailing on every surface. The winged ‘B’ badge sits atop the big, bluff, wire-mesh radiator grill, flanked by prominent circular headlights, instantly recalling its motorsport lineage.

Barnato and his Bentley Boys would have simply loved it – if not for its refinement, for its champagne chiller.

Rolls Royce Ghost Series II V-Specification
Engine Twin-turbo 12cyl 6.6 litre
Power 441kW
Torque 780 Nm
0-100km/h 4.8 sec
Top speed 250km/h (governed)
Combined 13.6/100km
List price Upon application
CO2 emissions (g/km) 317

Bentley Mulsanne Speed
Engine Twin-turbo V8 6.75 litre
Power 395 kW
Torque 1100 Nm
0-100km/h 4.9 sec
Top speed 305km/h
Combined 14.6/100km
List price Upon application
CO2 emissions (g/km) 342