Plan B: Bentley's road trip that outdid the Geneva Motor Show

COVID-19 foiled Bentley's grand entrance to this year's Geneva Motor Show. But as it turned out, the contingency plan proved to be even better.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

The call came about an hour after I landed in London. The 2020 Geneva Motor Show had been canceled over coronavirus-related concerns, and I was sitting in the back of a Bentley Bentayga, furiously typing out the news. I'd come to the UK to meet the Bentley folks for a grand road trip from England into France, ending in Switzerland the night before the motor show's first press day. But with the Geneva expo officially axed and everyone scrambling to adjust, I sunk back into the Bentayga's back seat and thought, "Now what the hell do I do?"

This is normally the point where I melt into a gooey blob of sweet, sweet pessimism, but the truth is, I wasn't worried. When I arrived at Leeds Castle and crossed the moat -- the moat! -- ahead of the gatehouse, I was greeted by the quintet of lovely grand tourers seen here, all gassed up and ready to go. Bentley kind of sensed that the S was about to hit the F with Geneva, and even before I showed up, Plan B was officially put in effect.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

Fantastic four

Driving into France didn't really make sense, and heading toward Switzerland was out of the question. Instead, Bentley hastily planned a route around its island home, from England up to Scotland, running from east coast to west, the whole trip culminating at the automaker's headquarters in Crewe. I'd cover 835 miles over the course of a weekend, every moment of the journey blessed by coddling, massaging seats.

You'll note five Bentleys in the convoy, but I was only allowed to drive four. The specially prepped Ice Race Continental GT was the one that eluded me, company representatives throwing out words like "insurance" and "safety" and "legality" as reasons why I wouldn't get to sample this very cool (and very loud) winter warrior.

Not that the Continental GT Coupe, Convertible, Flying Spur and Bentayga Speed are consolation prizes, mind you. With the big-daddy Mulsanne fixin' to go gentle into that good night, this foursome of core models ably demonstrated the full breadth of Bentley's portfolio.

The Flying Spur sedan was the new kid on the block, having just been launched last fall. It's got the same basic bones as the new Continental GT underneath, and a 6.0-liter, twin-turbocharged W12 engine under the hood. Thanks to 626 horsepower, 664 pound-feet of torque and a sense of athleticism I've never experienced in any four-door Bentley, it proved to be an absolute peach, whether quietly wafting through the city, bombing down the highway or being tossed about on gorgeous English backroads.

The smaller Continental two-doors proved to be even more engaging, both the GT and GTC spec'd with Bentley's 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V8. I've always thought this engine is better suited to the Continental than that big W12, and the eight is still plenty punchy, delivering 542 hp and 568 lb-ft of torque. Also, big ups to whomever on Bentley's staff decided to order the convertible in this striking, maybe-you-should-drink-some-more-water hue known as Julep.

Despite its now-senior status in the Bentley lineup, the Bentayga brought on this trip was a pretty fresh model. It's the Bentayga Speed -- the world's fastest SUV, in case you didn't know -- powered by the same 626-hp engine as the Flying Spur. No, I didn't get the chance to see what this thing is like at its 190-mph top end, but a colleague did get close. More on that shortly.

Lousy Smarch weather

England in March isn't exactly tropical, with chilly temperatures accompanied by a near-constant onslaught of rain and wind. Naturally, I was handed the keys to the GT Convertible for the first sopping wet morning of driving, and though it kills me to say so, I never once had the opportunity to put the top down. Not that that's totally a bad thing, mind you. With its four-layer roof affixed, the Continental GTC was every bit as quiet and luxurious as its hardtop sibling. Slogging through morning traffic east of London, the GTC was surefooted and graceful, turning this drag of a commute into an easy-peasy affair.

This first leg of the trip was all highway, save for short distances traveled between off-ramps and eateries. Things got much more interesting in the afternoon, when the pack finally headed off the beaten path. I'd swapped keys with another driver and grabbed the Flying Spur for this section of the trip -- a choice I would not regret. The farther I drove away from the highway, the better things got. Two-lane country roads went from straight to squiggly, and the Flying Spur's newly improved reflexes came alive.

I hadn't been in the 2020 Flying Spur prior to this, yet it all felt familiar. The great steering and controlled body motions of the smaller Continental GTC perfectly translated to this larger package, and I found myself confidently attacking turns at high speed. Super-narrow English backroads aren't exactly friendly to the Flying Spur's wide stance, but when you crest a hill and realize you're about to share a thin strip of asphalt with a camper straddling the center line, a set of powerful brakes slow the Big B down without drama.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

The sun would occasionally peek through the clouds, offering a glimmer of hope that maybe the rain would stop. And it did, in a way, turning from pure liquid into sleet and finally to snow, whiting out the road in front of me for several miles of rolling hills. Sport mode was eschewed in favor of Comfort, whereupon all of the car's inputs became lighter. The Flying Spur instantly adapted to this docile pace, its W12 engine agreeing to keep it slow and steady through the slop. Credit where credit's due, this test car's winter tires seriously helped matters, too. But the snow eventually melted, England eventually became Scotland and I rolled into Edinburgh with the ambient temperature hovering just above freezing, confident the Flying Spur was my favorite car of the pack.

Things hadn't dried up come morning, and while the rain wasn't coming down at such an unrelenting pace, Day 2 was every bit as cold and wet as Day 1. The Bentayga Speed was on my dance card this time around, and its higher ground clearance and better sightlines were appreciated while negotiating downtown Edinburgh's tight streets.

Like I said, the Bentayga is Bentley's now oldest model -- which is weird to say, since it still seems so new -- and its age shows in a number of areas. Sure, the interior is as lovely as any other Bentley, but the buttons on the center stack are comparatively plentiful and plasticky, and the car's multimedia tech now feels really, really old. The latter is glaringly true compared to the newer setups in the Continentals and Flying Spur, both of which are based on Porsche Communication Management tech borrowed from Bentley's corporate cousins in Germany.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

Thankfully, the Bentayga Speed's performance makes up for those shortcomings. With 626 hp, this thing is obviously quick, but what's most useful was the kick in the ass of power available whenever I needed it at speed. This is a big, heavy SUV, but the 48-volt anti-roll tech kept it stable hammering along Scottish hillsides, leaving only a robust exhaust grunt in my wake.

Later that morning, Bentley regaled me with a bit of Scottish heritage: a tour of the Glenkinchie whisky distillery, which traces its roots back to the early 1800s. How the hell could I go to Scotland and not sample its greatest export? 

Yes, I obviously waited until I handed the Bentayga's keys back to Bentley's staff before that sweet, sweet spirit touched my lips. Besides, I still had a full day of driving ahead (though I'm not one to scoff at the idea of breakfast whisky). Pretty Scottish country roads filled my morning with picturesque vistas, not to mention a shit-load of sheep, and hey, the sun would even manage an appearance. Its timing couldn't have been better.

When in doubt, close a runway

Honestly, Bentley could have skipped the run at Carlisle Airport altogether, and I still would've considered our Plan B a success. But I'm never, ever going to turn down the chance to wind out a fast car on a runway, and I'm thrilled the Bentley folks decided to make the many calls necessary to set this up.

The Carlisle Lake District Airport is small, handling regional aircraft only, and my colleagues and I had about an hour between scheduled flights in which to get our kicks. Some folks picked the Continental GT, others chose the Bentayga. But how could I resist unleashing the full chutzpah of a W12? Flying Spur for me, please.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

You can properly launch the Flying Spur, not that most owners ever will. Plonk it in Sport mode, put your left foot hard on the brake, build the revs with your right foot, hold on and let 'er rip. The nose of the Spur raises like the prow of a ship and triple-digit speeds arrive sooner than expected. Bentley says the new Flying Spur can accelerate to 60 mph in under 4 seconds, and yeah, that feels about right. I got to about 160 mph before lifting off the throttle -- any higher and I might've risked disassembling the winter tires, which could've been a real day-ruiner. The Flying Spur? Absolutely unfazed. It's happy to rip off this kind of acceleration and high speed with total grace.

My colleagues completed 160-mph runs with the other cars, everyone returning to the starting line wearing the same silly grin. And with just 15 minutes remaining before we absolutely had to clear the runway, we got into formation and pulled off the flying-V shot you see above -- a souvenir from the trip unlike any other (and one I'm pretty sure that found its way to every single one of our Instagram accounts, mine included).

Behind the scenes

Tucked inside the Lake District along England's west coast is a company called M-Sport. The women and men employed here spend their days building race cars: Ford Fiesta rally cars and the Bentley Continental GT3, as well as a few other special things I promised I wouldn't talk about. Being able to walk through the various buildings and see how a Continental GT becomes a GT3 was incredible, and M-Sport isn't just a glorified upfitter, either. The team tests engines and transmissions and they support race teams at events around the world.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

M-Sport was my first stop on the last day of the trip, and I arrived in the GT Coupe, powered by the same 4.0-liter V8 that race engineers fit into the Continental GT3. I've spent a lot of time in the new GT now, from a tour of Italy, to a sunny day in Napa, to a week living large at home in Los Angeles. Every time I drive the Continental, I find more reasons to like it.

At last, my final destination was in sight: Crewe, a small manufacturing town about 30 miles south of Manchester, and the home of Bentley Motors. This was my first time seeing the charming, old brick buildings where every Bentley is built. Their appearances seem almost anachronistic after experiencing the state-of-the-art machinery housed within. One main line was full of Continentals and Flying Spurs, with another building Bentayga SUVs. A few final-run Mulsannes were hanging out, too -- these vast, impressive sedans take anywhere from two to three months to build.

It's one thing to read the phrase "hand-built" on a placard, and it's another to witness assembly with your own eyes. Walking through the factory, I encountered rows of seamstresses carefully stitching together soft leather seats. Their efforts culminated at a final inspection point, where if things weren't absolutely perfect, they'd be told to do it again. Pallets of wood were stacked on high shelves, all ready to be formed into the different pieces of trim fitted inside each car.

I'd spent the last few days poring over the details of these test cars, running my fingers over their metal brightwork and toggling between the various massage settings of those ultra-comfy seats. The level of craftsmanship these cars possess has never ceased to amaze me, and it's all due to the skilled workers who smiled back as I walked past.

No auto show? No problem

Though the 2020 Geneva Motor Show's cancellation was last minute, it still gave Bentley enough time to turn its trucks around and bring its showcars back to Crewe. The Continental GT Mulliner Convertible and EXP 100 GT were displayed in the company's CW1 House, a sort of onsite showroom where the marque's most-exclusive customers can come design their cars. A few more treats were tucked away inside CW1, as well, including the oldest Bentley in existence, but that was hardly the main event.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

By now, you've seen the Bacalar, Bentley's return to proper coachbuilding through its Mulliner division. Only 12 of these two-seaters will be built, none of which will look the same, and they'll each cost about $2 million when everything is said and done. Bentley had planned to unveil this yellow showstopper in Geneva that Tuesday morning, but I got to see it on a rainy (yes, again) Monday afternoon instead.

All things considered, I'm glad Geneva was canceled. Purely from a work standpoint, I got better access to the Bentleys I was assigned to cover without a million smelly journalists and hangers-on swarming around taking pictures with iPads. I also got to spend more time talking with the company's designers and executives, which made for richer stories -- and a few extra scoops, too. From a not-work standpoint, I got to pilot a bunch of Bentleys around the UK all weekend while making new friends.  

As this whole COVID-19 pandemic teaches us about just how many things can be done remotely, it's less clear than ever what the future of auto shows will look like. Press materials can be emailed. New car reveals can be livestreamed.

The experience of getting up close and personal with both a car and a car company, however, is something that can't be replicated. I'll be stoked when auto show season gets into full swing once again. But at least this one time, I'm also not mad Geneva got the axe.

Mark Fagelson/Bentley

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.