Despite the recent credit-crunch gloom-mongering media reports prophesying (often gleefully) that the super-rich are tightening their wallets, the truth is that there’s so much ultra high net worth wealth sloshing around in the world today – some 11 million individuals with liquid assets of over $5 million – that the truly rich are hardly bothered by the collapse of a few banks, soaring oil prices, slumping property markets or the price of a Bentley.
In this case, as I tighten my seat-belt and sit behind the wheel of the new 2.7 tonne, 184mph, two-door Bentley Brooklands Coupé, which is waiting for me in the grounds of the late Lord Lambton’s magnificent Villa Cetinale near Siena, we are talking about a price tag of £230,000. And that excludes such extras as the iconic Flying ‘B’ mascot (£2,136), the dark-stained Vavona veneer (£3,474), carbon ceramic brakes (£19,650), a sports pack (£5,159), special-effect paint finishes (such as Pearlescent) and personalised treadplate plaques (POA).
‘Our policy is that we’ll do pretty much anything for a client as long as it’s legal and you can pay for it,’ says one of Bentley’s top designers, Brett Boydell, who climbs into the 17-foot beast with me as I gun the start button and the world’s most famous V8 engine (whose heritage dates back to the 1920s when the Bentley Boys won in Le Mans) roars into life, causing a group of gardeners to emerge from their work in the Villa’s ‘citrus garden’. As I rev the twin-turbo engine – delivering 530bhp and 774lb of torque – the aero-engine noise that echoes around the 17th-century former hunting retreat of Pope Alexander VII is so beautifully deafening that the sculpted peacocks and marble statues adorning the garden’s walls almost visibly wobble.
Starting my Tuscan road trip at the exquisite Villa Cetinale was perfectly appropriate. Bentley has always been happy to admit that its heritage has always been an exotic cocktail of aristocratic lineage, love of mad speeds and beauty, combined with a dash of Continental raffishness – or ‘rakishness’ as the official literature calls it.
Well, it just so happens that the Palio of Italy – the country’s most famous, fiercely patriotic, skilful and dangerous horse race that takes place in the summer around the main piazza in Siena – was held in the sacred woods, known as the Tebaide, to the north of the Cetinale estate between 1679 and 1692, when the plague prevented it being held in Siena.
The chapels are decorated with the sort of attention to detail and craftsmanship that you will also find in the Mulliner department of Bentley if you go up to Crewe for a custom car fitting for your £230k purchase. Flavio Chigi, the cardinal-nephew of Pope Alexander VII, who was in charge of his uncle’s building ambitions (which included the majestic colonnade around St Peter’s), splurged out on improving the Villa from 1676 to 1686, turning it into a hunting park and luxury retreat, complete with a steep ‘holy stairway’ (Scala Santa), known as the ‘pathway of penitence’, to a hermitage.
The cardinal would climb the steps daily to pray at the top for the sins of his family to be forgiven. He also ensured his family coat of arms was emblazoned everywhere on the new Villa – something that Bentley is happy to do should you wish to personalise your car in similar heraldic style. ‘We’ve had people wanting their crests engraved on the wheel nuts and were once sent a lipstick and asked to copy the colour,’ says Boydell as we slip along the narrow Tuscan lanes as effortlessly as if we were driving a conventional GT sports car.
The miracle of driving this car is that, once behind the wheel, it doesn’t feel like manoeuvring a huge speedboat; it feels easier to drive around the winding lanes than a Range Rover. And the brakes bring you to a fast yet smooth stop.
Bentley has created something special with its marque in recent years. A coup was to give the Queen, who used to use a rather tired old Rolls for official functions, a new one-off Bentley state car as a Golden Jubilee present. Like any other Bentley customer, the Queen was invited to specify which colour she wanted. She chose deep Burgundy and black for the coachwork. ‘When it came to choosing the interior, she was very specific,’ a Bentley source told me. “I don’t want all this wood”, she said. “I prefer it to be quite plain in a walnut burr.” And then she supplied us with her own royal light blue wool cloth for the upholstery.’
Not so long ago, when Rolls and Bentley were owned by the same company, Vickers, it was sometimes hard to tell them apart. Now, thankfully, each car has its own soul and identity. The choice between the two is a matter of personal taste, style and, to an extent, budget. The new Rolls Phantom Coupé starts at £280,000, which is quite a bit more than the price of the Bentley Brooklands. Traditionally, Rolls-Royces have always cost slightly more, but now there is absolutely no sense that the Bentley is the younger cousin or brother of the first-born Rolls.
Indeed, for the debonair, speed-loving boulevardier type who loves nothing more than touring Europe’s best restaurants and hotels in the finest car available, the Bentley Brooklands is as close as one will can get to a fuel-injection of nostalgie de la boue for the carefree and decadent 1920s and 1930s. Those days before private jets when the good life meant indulgent, gas-guzzling (the Brooklands will do around 14 miles to the gallon, fewer than ten in town) grand touring and grand living in a car the size of a small plane.
As we speed and weave along the dusty Tuscan roads, with the car getting more admiring glances than Carla Bruni would if she were cycling naked through the local olive groves, Boydell points out that so much leather (sixteen cows to be exact) is used, along with ten square metres of walnut, that it takes 125 hours to sew the interior hide together and that there is stitching in the middle of the roof because ‘cows simply don’t come 17 feet long!’
After two hours behind the wheel we finally pull into what looks like an elegant and vast private villa. A discreet sign by the imposing entrance gates states: Villa Mangiacane. Talk about heritage. Now owned by a party-loving South African tycoon (photographs of his hedonistic parties adorn the grand piano), it used to belong to Machievelli’s uncle. I tend to be a bit of a snob about these sort of ‘private’ hotels as so often they are just glorified B&Bs with five-star price tags, but this was very much the real thing.
The hotel where Bentley put me up is one of the most luxuriant and civilised of the new breed of boutique five star hotels that have started to crop up in Tuscany. The Rothschild family recently held a family wedding at this place, which has 26 superb rooms and suites, three swimming pools, its own vineyards, and breathtaking views over Florence.
The dining room is like that of a private house where you converse with your neighbours at a large oval table – a pleasant change from corporate business hotels where guests are using their Blackberrys from 7am, laptops open like greedy pelican gulls at the ready. There is also a cellar dining room, where we had a wine tasting and informal dinner, and the ‘Naduschka Spa’ which offered extreme indulgence along with some amusing, naked-female murals that would definitely be described as rakish in tone. Parked in the courtyard of the hotel was ‘Old Number One’, the 8-litre winner of Le Mans and Tim Birkin’s very own single-seater Bentley ‘Blower’ , the very car which set the Brooklands record time lap time of 137.96mph. In the days before ceramic brakes, seat-belts and air bags, that’s going some.
The next day, continuing with the bespoke theme, Bentley organised a visit to Tony Blair’s favourite bespoke perfumery, Lorenzo Villoresi, followed by a private visit to the Uffizi gallery. A wonderfully witty guide took us round, explaining such tiny details as the fact that the famous painting of the Duke of Urbino was painted in profile because he lost an eye in a jousting tournament. Another highlight was walking along the secret passage built by Cosimo de Medici in 1565 to connect the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace so the ruling Florentine family could spy on other families as well as avoid walking along the streets with the hoi poloi.
One reason for the identity crisis between Rolls and Bentley in the past was that they were pretty much the same car. Indeed, the new Brooklands series is actually the second generation of Brooklands, the first being assembled in Crewe between 1992 and 1998. I remember a friend of my father had a Post Office-red Bentley Brooklands in the mid-1990s that he had fitted with a cigar humidor. The old model also had a 6.75-litre engine but it was only a four-speed automatic transmission; the new model has six automatic gears as well as a Tiptronic manual option. My friend’s father’s Bentley was always driven by his chauffeur – the new model is definitely a car that is designed to be driven by the owner.
So who is the perfect Bentley driver? Lord Marchmain, the exiled Marquis of Brideshead Revisited fame who lived in Venice with his Italian mistress, would be, one imagines, had he not had a personal gondola. So, if he actually had a driving license, would Lord Lambton himself. In the drawing room of Cetinale, next to the 18th-century wallpaper and an old copy of Annabel’s Magazine, there is a photograph of Lord Lambton – who exiled himself to Tuscany in the late 1970s after buying Cetinale from the aristocratic Chigi family – in his trademark sunglasses, behind the wheel of what looks like a red Alfa Romeo Spyder.
‘Did he enjoy cars?’ I ask Lord Lambton’s niece and our hostess for the visit, Rosie Bowdrey, who lives on the estate and is restoring the family villa with the current owner, Lord Lambton’s son Ned. ‘He couldn’t actually drive; he was good at crashing cars though,’ she replies.
Villa Cetinale will soon be ready to be let out by the week (doubtless to the same ‘swells’ who are on the Bentley Brooklands’ waiting list). The property already boasts two wonderful villas, Casa Vin Santo and La Cerbaia, that can be rented all year round. Yet it’s the prospect of being able to take the Villa Cetinale itself for a few weeks in the summer that’s enough to make any oligarch weep with joy.