An Epic Grand Tour Across America in Bentley’s Continental GT

Simply Continental.

Michael Shafferwriter, photographer Mike Fosterphotographer

With 2.3 billion acres of snowcapped mountains, deserts of red Martian terrain, diverse forests brimming with all manner of wildlife, endless plains stretching as far as the skies above them, countless lakes, rivers, meandering streams, and two oceans, we're spoiled by the splendor of America. But given our busy daily lives, its majesty is also sometimes easy to forget. So in an effort to reacquaint myself with the glorious nature of our home, I became determined to embark on a good old-fashioned cross-country road trip. All I'd need was a car as magnificent as the scenery—a car like, say, the 2019 Bentley Continental GT.

2019 marks Bentley's 100th anniversary, and we're celebrating with a series of stories detailing the fascinating history of the iconic marque.
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Why the Bentley? The all-new, third-generation model is just hitting its stride, and crossing the continent in a Continental seemed apropos. But more than that, this year marks the 100th anniversary of one Walter Owen Bentley setting up shop just north of London to start his namesake marque. A century of building some of the finest cars in the world is worth celebrating, and our journey would be the proverbial first clink of the Champagne flutes.

Even in Bentley's modest shade of Verdant Green, the Continental was easy to spot as it arrived at our San Francisco starting gate, thanks to its lower, wider grille and four ascending headlamps that have evolved to perfection on the modern-era car. Sunbursts pinged off the metallic diamond grille and the lacerations of the scotch glass headlights. Inside, both main and secondary hides wore a lush saddle tan mix, accented by what seemed like a tree's worth of dark stained Burr Walnut inlays.

My co-driver on this epic adventure was Mike Foster, a handsome fella and one hell of a photographer. Overpriced coffees in hand, Foster and I made a break for the Golden Gate Bridge to capture the sunset. As the fog crept in and the cargo ships passing through turned to silhouettes, we grabbed a few shots then headed east toward our first motel stay of our 13-day, roughly 4,300-mile trip across the U.S.

The next morning, we awoke, then woke up the Bentley's fabulous 6.0-liter W-12 and lit off in the dark toward our first destination: Yosemite Valley. We made it as the sun crested the granite monoliths and just before an armada of tour buses would vomit out the first of their selfie-stick-wielding cargo. The roads to and from Yosemite proved almost as captivating as the park itself, with craggy white granite that slid down to the pavement like a petrified avalanche. The rock faces provided a perfect echo chamber for the Continental's throaty exhaust note as we made our way toward the dusty roads of California's Alabama Hills. There, we took our first measure of the GT's dynamic capabilities.

At the first of many empty straights, we experienced for ourselves how quickly 626 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque can shove some 5,000 pounds of metal and cow. (Bentley claims 60 mph arrives in 3.6 seconds.) There are so many cars that go fast these days, it's easy to forget what really quick really is. The Continental GT reminded us—in a hurry.

A dozen or so hard launches later, we moved on to flexing the $8,670 option that is the car's fabulous 2,200-watt, 18-speaker Naim sound system. I'm no hardcore audiophile, but I know the difference between a good stereo and a great stereo, and this one made our Bluetoothed iTunes music sound like it was emanating from the Disney Concert Hall.

The Naim was still cranking as we descended into Death Valley for lunch. While there, we encountered a friendly group of Harley riders who cracked wise with some "Nice Jaguar" jokes. From there we made it to Valley of Fire State Park outside of Las Vegas as dusk fell. As the ridges of the valley dimmed to an inky black, it lit up the Continental's profile just so, producing an image that turned out to be my favorite shot of the thousands we took along the way.

Later that evening at a red light on the Vegas Strip, a Nissan 370Z stopped next to us and dropped its airbags until the bodywork hovered a few hairs above the pavement and proceeded to bounce the engine off its rev limiter to the delight of a cheering gawker shooting a video from the sidewalk. Then he aimed his phone our way and urged us to do the same. No dice. I turned to Foster: "Bentley Boys don't rev for cell phones."

For all its weird charms and wild debauchery, Las Vegas is a slap in the face to America's natural beauty. So we kept our lens caps on and crashed hard into our beds at Aria. Come morning, we snaked our way through the late-night turned early-morning gamblers on our way to Utah's impossibly scenic Zion National Park. There we snagged some GT glamor shots before heading to Lake Powell on the border of Utah and Arizona for the night.

The next morning, we caught the sunrise on a boat launch feeding into the Arizona waters of Wahweap Bay, then followed a reservoir road to the Glen Canyon Dam before making a break for Colorado. Following the infinite lines of the horizon, we grew to appreciate what is arguably the Continental's most unique feature, its infotainment screen that can flip into the dash to reveal an analog stopwatch, thermometer, and compass at the touch of a button.

As we ascended into Colorado toward Telluride, the temperature dropped and snow started to blanket the landscape. Good thing the GT had been fitted with Pirelli SottoZero 3 winter rubber. Although the tires didn't wrap around the Continental's more desirable five-spoke rims, the aesthetic trade-off was more than worth it when the otherwise perfect pavement turned sketchy on us.

Previous-generation Continentals handled well despite being oil-tanker heavy, and various sport models culminating in the GT3-R pushed the limits of that hefty handicap. The new Continental doesn't change direction like a Cayman—nor is it made to—but it does share some of its chassis DNA with today's Porsche Panamera, and it proved more than capable of tackling the mountain road's myriad twists and turns. To change direction as well as it does despite being as heavy as it is, I tip my monocle to the engineers in Crewe. From Telluride we bombed down to a scenic overlook to get a clean shot of the range from the Coors Light commercials before beelining it to Colorado's famed Pikes Peak.

Praise be to the Continental's ability to quickly dispose of slow-moving RV convoys, poky Priuses, and other rolling obstacles. We got to the gate seven minutes before closing time. The peak was closed, but we made it as far as Devil's Playground, about a thousand feet from the summit. "You guys were just up here!" the ranger at the closure exclaimed, referring to Bentley in general. True enough, a nearly stock Bentayga had recently obliterated the SUV Class record during the 102nd Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

As much as we wanted to enjoy soaking in the serenity of the Midwest, most of the scenery between Eastern Colorado and Western Tennessee is, let's just say, consistent. With that in mind, we decided to drive as long and as far as we could and sleep only when we couldn't drive anymore. We traversed roughly 1,200 miles in a day, and the next morning our tushies were happy to sink back into the Continental's diamond-patterned thrones, a testament to how comfortable they are. Two days later we arrived outside of Nashville in a small town near the start of the Tail of the Dragon—one of the most storied stretches of road in America.

The following morning, we awoke to steady rain, which kept the usual swarms of motorcyclists away from the route. Although the big coupe prefers the gentler, sweeping curves we tackled in the mountains of Colorado, the GT swallowed up the Tail's sharp, dramatic increasing- and decreasing-radius hairpins almost as happily. It didn't hurt to know that the car's somewhat invasive traction control was there to help keep us from spinning off the Dragon's sopping-wet pavement.

With the car's heater blasting our rain-soaked boots, we wound our way up North Carolina's picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway. It was well past dark, so we took it easy to avoid any dicey patches of road or rogue deer and made plans to hit the Linn Cove Viaduct—a 1,243-foot bridge that winds around Grandfather Mountain in western North Carolina—by sunrise. Brutal gusts of wind made for a harrowing morning, but we braved the gale and headed back down from the viaduct toward Assateague Island, a thin sliver of Atlantic barrier straddling Maryland and Virginia.

We arrived before anyone else and drove onto the sand. Just as the wheels started to slip, we got out to let some air out of the tires. At exactly that time a lifted Wrangler drove up. Stifling laughter, they asked, "You stuck?" and proceeded to tell us to do what we were already doing. "Can we take a picture? We never thought we'd see a Bentley out here!" Later that day an old friend found me on Instagram and sent me a link to the local Assateague off-road Facebook group with the headline: 'BENTLEY STUCK ON THE BEACH IN MD!!!'

I take great pride in the fact that after that photo was taken, we hopped back in with tires appropriately deflated and emerged triumphant, breaking nary a sweat. Not only that, but we did several laps on the soft beach to snap off some photos. If you're reading this, Mr. Lifted Wrangler Guy, you can take the sand you thought we were stuck in and pound it.

As we rolled into the nation's capital at our journey's end, we couldn't help but reflect on what an astonishing trip we'd had. It's hard to express how perfect the Continental was for this adventure. Its power was exhilarating and effortless from the first freeway entry in San Francisco to the last one outside D.C. It chewed up and spit out gnarled, twisting mountain roads and coddled us with heat, massage, and music during those endless highway miles. It conquered the sands of Alabama Hills and (especially) Assateague. There is no environment where the Continental wouldn't thrive. We know, because we put it through all of them. And it is beautiful. Heartachingly and timelessly so—much like the amazing country we traversed in it.

Below is a selection of additional photos and captions from the trip, and be sure to view all the breathtaking images in the gallery at the bottom of this story. 

 

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