2020 Bentley Continental GT V8: What Would the “Bentley Girls” Think?
The women who helped build the legacy of Bentley.
This year, as you may have figured, the 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8 coupe is a contender in our annual Automobile All-Stars competition. While outright sportier contenders shredded rubber at Willow Springs Raceway during our track evaluation, I quietly grabbed the Bentley Continental GT key for a quick drive on the surrounding roads. Before I even started the engine of the sophisticated coupe, the lavishly appointed interior alone nearly earned my All-Star vote.
The Bentley arrived slathered in $83,434 worth of options, as if it were making an appearance at the Met Gala. And because I am forbidden from sharing more details (yet—Automobile's 2020 All-Stars package is coming soon), I'd like to use the Continental GT as an opportunity to introduce a group of extraordinary women who had an important role in the history of Bentley.
From left to right: Dorothy Paget with Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin, Diana Barnato Walker, and Mary Petre Bruce
Between 1923 and 1930, the famed Bentley Boys won numerous trophies on the racetrack, among them five wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While the boys swept the highest accolades for W.O. Bentley at the races, three fascinating women were hard at work establishing the Bentley legacy in other ways. With a hunger for speed and adventure, these women took unimaginable risks and pushed boundaries to achieve whatever they set their sights on. And though they had no relation to one another, they became universally known as the "Bentley Girls." Diana Barnato Walker, Mary Petre Bruce, and Dorothy Paget were Bentley ambassadors in their own right. What would they think of the 2020 Continental GT if they were here today?
Dorothy Paget was a British horse aficionado who gambled all night and slept all day.
Despite her eccentric lifestyle, Paget was a powerful businesswoman who had her priorities in order. Born into a wealthy and prominent family in horse racing, she took to the family business, and owned a stable of champion thoroughbreds. During a visit the 2.75-mile Brooklands racing circuit in Surrey, England, in the late 1920s, she received driving lessons from Bentley Boy and race driver Tim Birkin. Impressed by her driving skills, Birkin said Paget was "capable of handling any make of racing car produced in this country or abroad."
Paget subsequently developed a serious interest in motor racing. Birkin, who was working on the development of a performance Bentley 4½ Litre, convinced her to sponsor a racing team of supercharged Blower Bentleys. Against W.O. Bentley's wishes—he hated the idea of forced induction—four Blower Bentleys were built and entered into races at Brooklands and ultimately Le Mans. The supercharged Bentley 4½ Litre competed against Bentley's 6½ Litre Speed Six at Le Mans. The Blower Bentleys did not succeed at Le Mans but did take second place in the 1930 French Grand Prix.
Famously crowned as "Bentley's Flying Girl," Diana Barnato Walker was the daughter of Bentley Boy and chairman of Bentley Motors, Woolf Barnato, a three-time Le Mans champion. On her 21st birthday, Walker, already a skilled horsewoman and driver, was gifted a silver-gray Bentley 4½ Litre Park Ward saloon by her father. For a short period at the start of World War II, she volunteered as a nurse with the Red Cross and drove her own Bentley as an ambulance. Though she had a fondness for motoring and horseback riding, Walker's greatest passion was flying.
In 1941, after having received only six hours of training, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary and began delivering single-engine aircraft from the factories to frontline squadrons.
Most impressive, due to the available radio frequencies being reserved for frontline squadrons, she navigated without the help of any ground contact, and would usually fly solo. By the end of her career with ATA in 1945, Walker had delivered 260 Spitfires and had flown 80 different types of airplane. Years later in 1963, she persuaded the Air Minister to grant her permission to fly an English Electric Lightning T14 and flew at 1,262 mph, breaking the sound barrier and setting an air-speed record for women.
Of these three remarkable women, Essex native Mary Petre Bruce, widely known as Mrs. Victor Bruce, had an even more storied life than the other two, if you can believe it. As a teenager, Bruce would borrow her brother's Matchless motorcycle to ride around London with her collie. In 1911 at the age of 15, Bruce was caught traveling above the legal speed limit and given a citation for speeding, which resulted in a ban from riding the motorcycle until the age of 16. This incident would earn her the title of the first female to be fined for speeding in the U.K. Nine years later in 1920, Bruce purchased her first car, an Enfield-Allday, and collected several more citations for speeding on public roads.
In the case of Bruce, her formative years on a motorcycle and a pile of speeding tickets would pay off in monumental ways. She went on to become a record-breaking speedboat racer, car racer, aviator, and successful businesswoman.
During her racing career, Bruce decided to enter the Class C of the 24 hours race at L'Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry and approached W.O. Bentley about borrowing a Bentley racing team 4½ Litre. In response to the request, W.O. asked, "Who is your co-driver?" to which Bruce replied, "I've no co-driver. I'm going alone." Nevertheless convinced she had a chance at winning, W.O. let Bruce borrow Tim Birkin's 4½ Litre. It was her first time behind the wheel of a Bentley, and Bruce needed cushions in order to reach the pedals. Under hazardous road conditions, she set the record by covering 2,164 miles with an average speed of 90 mph in 24 hours. As a reward for her triumphant finish at Montlhéry, Bruce was given a lifetime membership to the British Racing Drivers' Club.
In the present, as I drove the Continental GT to no particular destination, the words "elegant," "powerful," "confident," and "audacious" recurred in my thoughts. With both hands firmly on the steering wheel, I cruised the desolate roads of Rosamond—it felt liberating. Performance-wise, the Conti V8's heavyweight appearance is deceiving; this luxury coupe is agile and offers incredible throttle response, to boot. Braking inputs are linear and progressive, and their urgency when called for will snap any passenger to quick attention. There's no end of things to like about the Continental GT, especially the refined interior details. The Bentley Centenary badges, rotating dashboard display, diamond-pattern knurling, headlamp design, and 3D-quilted seats were among my personal favorites.
If the Bentley Girls were here today, I'm confident they'd approve of where the company has gone and its delectable 2020 Bentley Continental GT V8—it might even inspire them to have a go at breaking more records.