The luxury car industry pretty much grew out of the much older trade of coachbuilding.
In the early days of motoring, it made perfect sense to buy a car in the same way you would a carriage – commissioning an artisan to build a body to your own tastes, and without having to worry about the grubby bits that held the wheels on and the horsepower (or horse power) that made it go.
Automotive coachbuilding lasted for many decades, and ran alongside mass production, but the widespread move to monocoque construction pretty much killed it off: it’s hard to chop chunks out of a load-bearing structure.
But now Bentley’s Mulliner division is bringing something very close to traditional coachbuilding back. The 2021 Bentley Mulliner Bacalar is a stunning roofless barchetta based on the Continental GT Convertible, but with completely different bodywork.
Mulliner is going to make 12 of the Bacalar, all of which have already been sold to the sort of ultra-rich buyers who flock to such ultra-limited editions. However, the company says this is just a toe in the water for what is set to become a growing part of its business.
None of the customer-spec Bacalars have been built yet, nor even the ‘car zero’ prototype that will be used to perfect the mechanical package. But, CarAdvice got the chance to come and experience the very first Bacalar show car; the one that was meant to make its debut at the cancelled Geneva Motor Show in March.
The invite offered a chance to have a go at the famous Goodwood Circuit at what was meant to be the height of the English summer. Can you guess what happened next?
Of course – rain, and lots of it. Not the ideal conditions for experiencing a seven-figure one-off, especially on an infamously crashable high-speed circuit. It’s soon clear that velocities were never going to be high, whatever the conditions. The show car has been built to look pretty rather than for dynamic assessment. It’s not designed to run at much more than camera-blur speeds.
Climbing into the Bacalar’s beautifully finished cockpit is a bit like finding myself on a stage set. My first instinct is to close the windows, but the door switches don’t have any effect.
Similarly, the milled aluminium temperature controls for the climate turn without changing the ‘21’ permanently displayed on the digital read-out; there isn’t actually any HVAC system. The hands of the clock and the trio of dials that sit at the top of the dashboard are also frozen in place. The digital instruments are working, but only playing a looped video to represent rising revs and speeds. Look closely at the shot of me driving and you’ll see the unlikely claim I’m doing 170mph – 275km/h – as the shutter clicked.
On the plus side, at least the wipers are operational.
So, it’s not representative of how the finished car will drive, but the first Bacalar gives a fascinating insight into the level of change it’s possible to make while keeping the same underpinnings. Underneath, the Bacalar shares all of its substructure and mechanical package with the Continental GT Convertible, but the aluminium and carbon-fibre bodywork is all new.
It looks stunning, like a motor-show concept come to life. Which it is, of course, but with the difference that the dozen buyers will be getting pretty much the exact-same car, only with their own choice of colour and finish.
Bentley’s chief of colour and trim design, Maria Mulder, says that at least one customer will have the same Flame Yellow finish as the show car. It really comes alive under the grey skies, its metallic finish using rice husk ash for its sparkle.
The intricately designed 22-inch rims look more like weapons than wheels. It’s a rolling piece of automotive art. The only external parts common to the GTC are the windscreen and door handles – these containing the aerials for the keyless entry system.
The cabin sticks much closer to the base architecture of the Conti' due to the difficulty in moving around switchgear and componentry, but pretty much every surface has been covered in ultra-exotic materials.
The dashboard is made out of 5000-year-old petrified river wood recovered from a peat bog – and presumably therefore immune to a further soaking – but I’m more concerned about both the quilted leather seats (each with 148,000 individual stitches) and the ultra-fine wool cloth dashboard trim panels in the sodden conditions.
Maria assures me that all are actually pretty tough; Bentley has to meet Group standards for both durability and (in open-topped cars) short-term water resistance.
The good news is that, once rolling, the length of the windscreen actually keeps the front of the cabin surprisingly dry. It’s a gentle drive. Even if I were allowed to fang it, my enthusiasm for quicker progress would be limited by the fact that even the show car’s seatbelts are cosmetic.
But the concept sits on the same GTC underpinnings as the production version will, meaning a 484kW version of Bentley’s 6.0-litre W12 engine with drive dispatched to all four corners through a twin-clutch gearbox, and therefore gives a good impression of what the core experience will be like.
Bentley reckons the Bacalar will be its fastest-ever open-topped road car, estimating a 0–100km/h time of 3.5 seconds and a top speed of over 320km/h. But I reckon owners are far more likely to drive it as I do at Goodwood, sticking to the sort of respectful cruising pace that keeps the cabin calm and allows the 12-cylinder engine to demonstrate the effortlessness of its mid-range muscle.
Bentley’s twin-clutch transmission can deliver lightning fast changes, but it is also adept at replicating torque converter smoothness at lower speeds. It will be possible to travel very quickly in the finished Bacalar, but gentle is going to suit it better.
Mulliner boss Tim Hannig admits the decision to only build a dozen Bacalars was deliberately conservative – the company could undoubtedly have sold many more given the enthusiasm around limited-run models.
But although future Mulliner specials will be produced in greater numbers, they will never be allowed to get commonplace. “When you increase volumes people’s excitement goes away,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to 150, let’s say.”
But the Bacalar is definitely just a beginning. “We are absolutely not planning to do one and then stop,” Hannig says. “This is a very serious start into a forgotten niche of the market.”
Each Bacalar costs £1.5m (AUD$2.7m) ‘ex-works’ – before taxes and built under the UK’s IVA compliance rules rather than international homologation. Yet, the entire run was sold out before the company officially announced its existence.
Every Bentley is special, but some are clearly more special than others.