A quest for perspective: Boston to Bar Harbor by Continental GT Speed.
The last time I sat in his Bar Harbor, Maine, dining room, Bill Ruger was thumbing through a Christie's auction catalog while his sixty-fifth-birthday-party guests drank champagne and ate cake. A transatlantic fax was sent, an offer proffered, and three days later a telephone call was received saying that he'd been the successful bidder for the iconic 1931 Bentley 8-litre Lancefield four-seat open tourer he'd admired.
Happy birthday, dear Bill, happy birthday to you.
My husband Tim (who once worked for Ruger) and I returned for Ruger's seventieth birthday this year, and I thought it would be perfect to arrive in a Continental GT Speed borrowed from Bentley's new Boston digs. I would like to believe that I can properly evaluate a $246,645 Bentley, but this is one of those rare moments when there's nothing like an actual owner's perspective on things. And I do mean an actual owner. Ruger called several times to pry an arrival date from us, but I hadn't nailed down a firm date on the loan from Bentley. "You don't need to borrow a Bentley," he insisted. "We have plenty of Bentleys here."
Yes, indeed. In addition to the rare, prewar 8-litre (number 69 of 100 built) - which has since been fully restored by Fran Roxas and won Most Elegant Bentley at the 2007 Amelia Island Concours - there are three other Bentleys in Ruger's sizable collection of great touring cars. The 1972 T-series standard saloon was bought by his father in 1974, and Bill added a new 2002 long-wheelbase Arnage Red Label and a 2007 Continental GTC ragtop.
He's owned 8-litre Bentleys (yes, that was plural) before. The 8-litre is a massive, three-ton car known for its large-displacement six-cylinder engine. It was the largest and most luxurious Bentley made before the marque was purchased by Rolls-Royce. Ruger's first was a Vanden Plas four-door saloon he bought in 1958 when he was nineteen, then traded two years later for a Park Ward four-door saloon that he kept until 1974. In 2002, Ruger inherited a 1928 4-litre Vanden Plas tourer that his father had owned for forty-nine years. "I used it for a year," he said, "and I realized that only an 8-litre would do." Well, really.
So the circle is complete, an 8-litre is back in the Ruger fold, and here we are in our extremely zoomy GT Speed, arriving punctually at 5 p.m. for cocktails at Ruger's 1909 Italianate manse on the ocean.
How do all these Bentleys mesh in this Harvard engineer's mind? In Ruger's inimitable way, he muses that they are "utterly different cars, made by totally different companies, in completely different eras, yet fulfill similar needs appropriate to their times." He sips his martini. "One might say they are contextually the same car, though totally different, seventy years apart in development.
"The same general person would own them, from a sports figure, to someone from rock 'n' roll, to a dignified old boy who would pull up to the Everglades Club in Palm Beach. Me, I'm a regular type of person [?!?], a car enthusiast who likes a Bentley's mechanical and physical attributes as opposed to its social attributes, which are, of course, imagined. Bentleys are expensive, not altogether practical, but do what they do very well and never disappoint. The GT Speed is very much recognizably the same car as my Continental GTC."
From this perspective, we bring you Mr. Ruger's specific comments on the Continental GT Speed:
"It's like driving the same car, with the exception that my GTC's visibility out of the windscreen is superior. The Speed's A-pillar is in your visual field. It feels a little more like you're wearing the Speed than what you feel in the convertible. The Speed has more speed; the accelerator is snappier than any practical possibility requires except for bragging rights. The Speed, to its credit, gives up nothing in terms of suspension comfort. It feels almost identical on average bumpy roads at average speeds. That's good."
What about $16,500 for the optional carbon-ceramic brakes? I ask. "You cahn't be serious," he says, all lockjaw, fixing the deadeye on me. "Oh, I suppose if you suddenly found yourself in the middle of a Formula 1 race . . ." And so it goes, as I recite the entire $37,000 list of options on our Speed. He would have none of them, but then, he added nothing to his GTC, "and I'm very glad I didn't. There are certain levels of impracticality to which even I can't rise."
Written by: Jean Jennings Photos: Jean Jennings and Fred Atherton