As the Bentley nears 200 mph I focus solely on its fundamentals: steering, engine, brakes, and the view ahead. Suddenly, it feels race-car basic in here. The hand-made, leather-lined cabin is long forgotten. The two-lane Australian public road stretching out ahead of me is straight, but its surface is uneven. Each dip causes the wheel to kick back and the car’s line to drift. Nerves make me want to strangle the rim, and it’s a conscious effort to keep my grip loose.
The throttle requires the same constant attention to hold wide open. The noise and the sensation through my backside tell me that the 626-horsepower, 6.0-liter W-12 engine is starting to labor, so I must be getting close to 206 mph, or whatever the Continental’s top speed is in these conditions. My gaze is fixed out through the bug-flecked windshield, and I have no desire to follow my progress on the dials. I ought to be able to see 3 miles to the horizon, but there’s a solid heat haze in front of me, so it looks like I’m constantly approaching a crest. The pilot of the helicopter overhead tells me the road is clear, but my instinct for self-preservation would prefer visual confirmation. I’m also hyperaware of the brake pedal because I would very much like to use it.
Plenty of cars will propel you across the face of the Earth at 200 mph, but very few places exist where you can. The autobahns are normally too congested. There are only a handful of test tracks at which you might sustain that speed, and they are closed to the public. And now, there’s this place.
Until 2007, Australia’s Northern Territory had no speed limits on most of its two-lane highways. Vast stretches weren’t even policed. This would astonish anywhere, but it was particularly odd that an absence of speed limits should persist in Australia, whose other states have a monomaniacal focus on speed as the cause of road accidents and enforce their low speed limits with severity.
This isn’t a free-for-all; you can still be jailed for six months for driving “carelessly, recklessly, or at a speed or in a manner that is dangerous to the public.”
Northern Territory eventually gave in to federal pressure and imposed a blanket 130 km/h speed limit (just above 80 mph). But last year the territory’s new right-wing Country Liberal administration lifted the limit on two trial stretches of the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs in the heart of the outback to the territorial capital, Darwin, on the coast. In doing so, Northern Territory extended both middle fingers to the global trend toward lower speed limits, greater regulation, and less discretion for the driver. It is the only place in the world that has turned against the tide.
I wanted to sample this freedom while it lasts. I wanted to see how it feels to be given the responsibility to drive on ordinary roads at whatever speed seems right and to be able to drive without the fear of a ticket if my speed inadvertently drifts up slightly to something still safe but usually illegal. I wanted to ask the locals and the police what they think about their “open” limit and at what speed they choose to drive. I wanted to find out why this is happening in Northern Territory and nowhere else. I wanted to mark this moment, this last hurrah for speed and personal responsibility, by putting a really big number on a dial.
But I had to do it quickly. The open limit is hugely controversial. “They’ll have blood on their hands,” says Harold Scruby, chief executive of the dull-sounding Pedestrian Council of Australia. “This is government by hillbilly.”
Peter Chandler, Northern Territory’s transport minister, says, “We are not a state. Northern Territory only exists through a piece of federal legislation, so at any time the federal government can shut us down or influence our laws. I’m hopeful they don’t do that. A lot of people would come out against them trying to take away our rights again.”
Northern Territory is nearly the size of Alaska and more than twice the size of Texas but has only as many inhabitants as Buffalo, New York, or Laredo, Texas, or Irvine, California, and they’re concentrated in its two main towns. Even at 200 mph you’ll struggle to find anyone to hit.
Why a Bentley? Honestly, because Bentley agreed and other carmakers declined. Porsche tested the 918 here after the limit was lifted and made a short online film about it, and Bentley recently did the same, giving me use of the car after its film was safely in the digital can.
The Continental GT Speed is the fastest road car Bentley has ever made. If you plan to do a genuine 200 mph on an uncontrolled public road, you need a car that can do comfortably more, and even the Speed’s claimed 206 mph v-max offers a smaller buffer than I’d like. But its all-wheel drive and air springs have long offered supercar performance with all-condition usability, and it has always been engineered to do 200 mph even if it seldom will.
I meet the car in Alice Springs and head north, and as we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, I find what I’ve come for: the diagonal black stripe through a white circle that indicates the end of speed restriction and the three words that every enthusiastic driver would love to see: Drive to Conditions. This isn’t a free-for-all; you can still be jailed for six months for driving “carelessly, recklessly, or at a speed or in a manner that is dangerous to the public,” according to the new Northern Territory traffic regulations, which I made sure to read.
So, what speed do the conditions suggest? Certainly not 200 mph. The car, the road, the weather, and my skill find a natural, comfortable balance between 140 and 150 mph. The Bentley feels utterly within its capabilities at that speed. The steering is calm, braking more than sufficient, and the cabin as quiet as an ordinary car’s at 80 mph. If the open limit were endless, I could have breakfast in Alice Springs and lunch in Darwin more than 900 miles north, and the Continental would cover half a continent in half a day.
You can see the benefit for Territorians who have to make this trip regularly. Even a 100-mph cruise might cut two tired hours from the end of a long trip. I wanted to ask them how they used their freedom, but first I had to find one. There is only one-fifth of a person per square kilometer in Northern Territory. (In comparison, 33 people occupy the same space in the U.S.) I stop at a gas station and ask if many fast cars fill up here, taking advantage of the open speed limits. “Not really,” says the girl making the coffee. “I think we saw a Lamborghini once.”
After only 3 miles–a minute and 16 seconds after the chopper pilot says all is clear–we hit 200 mph.
Outside I bump into two cops, who confirm the findings of a survey of crashes and average speeds over the unrestricted stretch during its first year. Of 11 such incidents, only one involved a serious injury, and that was due to drug use and not wearing a seat belt. Most interestingly, the speed at which Territorians choose to drive when you give them freedom of choice is, on average, between 83 mph and 86 mph, barely more than the old limit. One officer repeats what almost every other Territorian has told me: Few people up here have cars that can do much more than that, and for almost everyone, the cost of burning more gas outweighs the temptation to go fast.
What is it then that makes Territorians support the open limits when the rest of Australia is so obsessed with safety? Not all of them do, and some see it as a libertarian stunt. “We like to be different,” minister Chandler tells me. “I think the average Territorian doesn’t much like the South and doesn’t much like being told what to do. I see this as just giving back a right that we once had.”
We’re finally ready to attempt what I came halfway across the world for. What will the Continental do? Australian racing legend John Bowe is in the passenger seat next to me, watching the big GPS speed display stuck to the windshield, working the stopwatch, and spotting for kangaroos. He drove the car down the same stretch of road for the official film. Two local TV news crews have appeared. The cops know what we’re doing and are cool with it.
The high-speed run doesn’t require much more than checking tire pressures, switching off the air-conditioning, putting the adaptive dampers into their firmest setting, and switching the transmission into Sport mode, which locks out eighth gear. After only 3 miles–a minute and 16 seconds after the chopper pilot says all is clear–we hit 200 mph.
I press on to see how much faster the car will go. In gusting wind and with the steering kicking back furiously, the fine ride quality gone, I eventually hit 204 mph. This feels quite fast enough. As I finally, carefully apply the brakes, I wonder if I’ll ever do this again, or if unregulated speed will vanish over the horizon as quickly as this Bentley.