Rapid Transit

Fri, Feb 18, 2011

Gear

Train photo by Ryan Stavely; Car photo courtesy Bentley; Illustration by Sonia Roy, colagene.com

It’s now known for indulgent rides built from the finest materials, but Bentley made its name in the early 1900s by creating some of the world’s fastest cars. So we tried to race the new Bentley Mulsanne. Against a train.

by Ezra Dyer

In 1930, a man dared Bentley chairman Woolf Barnato to race France’s famous Blue Train between Cannes and Calais. Not only did he accept the 100-pound wager, Barnato added that he’d park his Bentley Speed Six in Victoria, London, before the train reached Calais. He won by four minutes, a fact recognized by the French authorities — who then levied speeding fines that exceeded his winnings. Barnato got the last laugh, though: His tickets remain unpaid to this day.

Eighty-one years later, Bentley has a new model that Barnato would be proud to drive. The 2011 Mulsanne is a throwback to the days when Bentleys were low-volume, hand-built exercises in extravagance, the sporting man’s alternative to a Rolls-Royce. It takes nine weeks to build a Mulsanne. The steering wheel alone requires 15 hours to stitch together. One of the stated design targets: how the interior smells. (Answer: expensive.) All very well, but I wanted to know if the Mulsanne had the performance to live up to the Speed Six legend. I wanted to know if it could beat a train.

Enter the Acela Express, the fastest passenger train in the Western Hemisphere. Each weekday morning, the 9:10 am Acela needs only two hours and six minutes to go from Boston to New Haven, Connecticut, hitting 150 mph along the way. Defeating it would involve equal parts speed and luck.

First, I have to escape the gravitational orbit of Boston traffic, which extends nearly to Hartford, Connecticut — at which point I’ll hit Hartford traffic. Add in a bathroom break and highway police, and Boston to New Haven in 2:06 seems as likely as running a four-minute mile through Times Square.

One crisp winter morning, the Mulsanne and I depart South Station at 9:10 sharp. Right now the Acela is hobbled by the antiquated urban rails near the city, and I need to build a lead before it reaches 150 mph. The Mulsanne’s top speed is 184 mph, but I won’t get to test that claim on the tollbooth-laden Mass Pike.

Even with my Fast Lane pass, I waste precious seconds slowing to center the Bentley into the gates. The upshot is that once I’m out, I can accelerate. The Mulsanne’s 6.75-­liter V-8, first introduced in 1969, now wears twin turbochargers, doling out 505 horsepower and a trainlike 752 lb-ft of torque. Step on the gas and there’s a muted rumble from the prow accompanied by furious acceleration. Some engines call more attention to themselves than Katy Perry, but this one politely asks you to admire the rest of the car and ignore the explosion factory at work.

Thanks to the relaxed power, massaging seats, and adjustable air suspension (would you prefer soft or softer?), the Mulsanne makes for an excellent long-distance racer. The tall cabin and outward visibility help me spy a Connecticut state trooper before he sees me. I trundle past at 72 mph, just another $330,195 sedan with British ­license plates. The subtle “pale sapphire” paint, a $4,225 option, helps me blend in. The $2,550 “Flying B radiator mascot” — what the rougher classes might refer to as a hood ornament — does not.

I soon realize I haven’t set the Bentley’s nav system. I have no idea how to get to New Haven’s Union Station, or if I’m on pace to beat the train. After a costly stop, my ETA is displayed: 11:25 am. The train arrives at 11:16. I need to make up nine minutes in only 52 miles.

I weave and hustle like someone who’s too rich to worry about the consequences. The GPS keeps subtracting time from my ETA, but I’m running out of miles.

I get a visual of Union Station at 11:15 am. No sign of the train. By the time I illegally park the Mulsanne, two minutes have passed. In that span the Acela, last seen in Boston, stops at the platform, right on schedule. I’m declaring myself victor, by one minute.

That the Bentley beat America’s fastest train on its fastest route says more about the U.S. rail system than the car. But if you plan to drive for hours at high speeds, skip the cramped, cop-magnet supercar. A money’s-no-object sedan comes highly suggested.

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Muscle-Bound and Topless

If you want a boulevard cruiser with a vulgar growl and a more palatable price than the Bentley’s, try the $37,500 Chevy Camaro Convertible SS. Its power-retracting cloth roof (where art thou, T-top?) does an admirable job of mimicking the coupe’s lines. Not that it matters — you’ll stow it even on chilly days just to hear that 426-pony V-8.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.

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This post was written by:

Ezra Dyer - who has written 8 posts on Men’s Journal.


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1 Comments For This Post

  1. gps Says:

    Bentley cars have come on a long way since they were big luxury saloons, the GT continental manages to mix sport and luxury very well.

    [Reply]

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