Foreboding skies, bracing wind and incessant rain set the scene for my drive along the Normandy coast, but the rolling of thunder you hear is the gargle of my Bentley Mulsanne Speed.
My destinations are Trouville-sur-Mer and Honfleur, but first I’ve come to Gold Beach to stand where British soldiers landed on 6 June 1944. The Bentley ticks over by the large stone memorial like a General saluting his troops.
Measuring over 5.5m in length and headed by a radiator that looks like a battering ram, it is a commanding presence. The big circular lamps evoke memories of the great Le Mans winning Bentleys of the 1920s, back when headlights needed to be the size of dustbin lids to see. These make the whole world illuminated. Indeed, the name ‘Mulsanne’ is borrowed from Le Mans’ most famous stretch of high-speed blacktop.
After such a bellicose front the seamless lines roll backwards elegantly over and around the huge cabin to form a svelte rear. It looks as solid and regal as a Bentley should.
Under that long bonnet hides the secret to its majesty. The torque figure of its V8 is second only to the Bugatti Veyron. Despite its weight it’ll out-sprint an Aston Martin Rapide. Put your foot down and the car immediately launches forward with the kind of gusto reserved for Cape Canaveral launches. This serene belle of the ball hitches up its gown to reveal legs like Usain Bolt. Zero to 60mph takes just 4.8 seconds and it’ll keep on going to 190.
What’s perhaps most impressive about this car is that you don’t notice any of that. Hardly any engine noise enters the cabin, and there’s very little perception of speed as you glide along in those narcoleptically comfortable armchairs. All that energy and force disperses as you brush the brakes, the chassis unfazed as you throw it into a turn. There’s very little lurching or roll. It might look like an ocean liner but it corners like a train.
The Mulsanne is the perfect machine for time travel. Despite clever chassis trickery and iPad chargers in the tray tables this is a car firmly rooted in the 20th Century, maybe even the industrial revolution. There’s something ‘steampunk’ about this car, with its enormous charging pistons, the diamond-pleat hide and choice of nine timbers.
I pull off the coastal road towards Caen and then take the autoroute for Deauville. Once a glamorous destination for northern Europe’s old money and known as the Parisian Riviera, its glory days are behind it, though it does a better job of keeping up appearances than its English seaside relations.
I’m actually more interested in Trouville, its immediate neighbour just across the River Touques, which is smaller and less touristy, still abundant with belle époque villas, and the preferred playground of current and more informal French nobility – the ones who choose not to flaunt their wealth like the droves who head south to Saint Tropez every summer.
Trouville inspired Ian Fleming’s fictionalized spa town Royale-les-Eaux, in Casino Royale, which survived on “the crumbs which fell to its elegantly dilapidated casino from the table at Le Touquet”. In the book, 007 arrived at the casino in a modified Bentley 4 ½ Litre. Mine’s 6.75 and looks right at home in front of the imposing Casino Barrière Trouville.
The gaming hall today is empty save for a few old biddies playing the slot machines. Horlicks is the usual drink round here, not vodka martini. Still, there are signs of Trouville’s unlikely Hollywood lure at Les Vapeurs, a famous bistro across the street from the casino, where I lunch on its signature mountain of moules-frites on the terrace, the town’s primary people-watching post. A trip to the bathroom is recommended so you can star-spot on the staircase. Since 1975 Deauville has hosted its annual Festival du Cinéma Américain and Les Vapeurs has been its de-facto canteen, with framed photos along the corridor to the facilities, capturing diners Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone and Al Pacino to cite a few. The Mulsanne should be included on the VIP list. It seems to cruise with its own imaginary police escort. People respect it, envy it, and get out of its way.
If this car were a movie character, it would be Colin Firth’s in Kingsman: The Secret Service. The calm exterior, the timeless styling, tasteful materials and well-appointed accessories, all so very English and yet capable of extreme fury. It’s a horn-handled umbrella with a trigger at one end and a gun barrel at the other.
The trip from lunch to my country hotel, Les Manoirs de Tourgèville, set among some of France’s top equine stud farms, is therefore swift. Here, the film theme continues. Though the property has now been acquired by Groupe Floirat as a sister hotel to the legendary Byblos in St Tropez, its previous owner was French director Claude Lelouch, who still lives nearby and drops in occasionally. For car nuts like me he’s most notorious for his 1976 short C’était un Rendez-vous; an eight minute and 38 second high-speed blast through Paris at sunrise. In these days of Go-Pros I’m amazed no one else has chanced it.
The property consists of four round-shaped ‘manoirs’ and the main half-timbered house in which I stayed, in a two storey timbered suite with a welcoming fireplace that was quickly put to work. In part of the basement Lelouch constructed a private screening room which can seat 50 people so, after dining on filet mignon at the hotel’s 1899 Restaurant, I withdrew with a bottle of Ruinart and a copy of Saving Private Ryan to recall those Normandy beaches.
The following morning I headed to Honfleur which, for my money, is the continent’s most handsome fishing town north of Portofino. The sun had appeared radiantly and illuminated the colourful, slate-roofed buildings that wrap around the café-crammed harbour.
The journey was as charming as the destination. The Mulsanne sits in a rarified niche; you want the style and legroom of a Rolls-Royce Phantom but you want to give your chauffeur the weekends off. You could take the slightly smaller Rolls-Royce Ghost instead, but it’s still a little too staid; you want something sportier, but you don’t want to scrimp on the luxury.
And what a sumptuous environment the interior is. In the driver’s seat you can cruise for thousands of miles, the only uncomfortable thing being the sight of the fuel needle regressing into the red every couple of hours. In the back, passengers will receive levels of comfort that make the finest first class airline cabins look like a bus stop bench. The quilted-perforated hand-stitched leather is the result of 16 bull hides – male cows only, not female, to avoid unsightly stretch marks.
The 2.2 metre width of the Mulsanne proved extremely challenging as I navigated Honfleur’s narrow, windy cobbled streets but after a bit of nervous backwards-and-forwards I crawled up to SaQuaNa, Alexandre Bourdas’ two-star restaurant on the Place Hamelin. I’ve visited once before, while a talented friend of mine was working under Bourdas, and it’s my favourite restaurant gourmand in the region. Alexandre’s wife Delphine runs the front-of-house which comprises just six tables, and the waiting list stretches into months.
The 120 Euro menu degustation is what any self respecting Bentley owner would choose, so that saved on the thinking. It began with a trio of nibbles followed by a sweet pancake with chives and truffle oil – essentially the most delicious Yorkshire pudding you’ve ever tasted. Then the mains: Monkfish with lime in a coconut broth; cod with courgette tempura; sea bream with grated cauliflower, semolina, caramelized onions and a North African marinade; turbot with cold pistou soup; sweetbreads with garden peas; followed by local cheeses; tarte au citroen; and finally cherry and red wine ice cream with almonds.
It was indulgent but so wonderfully fresh, innovative and refined. After a preamble and a cigar beside the harbour, I slid across the Bentley’s chaise longue satisfied after a fine day’s dining. The rear of the Mulsanne is a heavenly place to be. My car had TVs in the headrests, motor-driven leather and wood picnic tables, seat controls that include a massage function, and electric curtains side and rear that cocoon you like you’re riding a stage coach on a moonless night.
My favourite feature was the refrigerator between the two rear seats, which is exposed when you pull the armrest down. Press a button and a frosted glass panel slides to reveal three bespoke crystal champagne flutes and, if your driver followed instruction, two perfectly chilled bottles of Dom Perignon.
With the cork popped and a chauffeur up front this was the cue to set the chrome flying B towards Paris and leave the holiday behind.