What I’m looking at is unmistakably a Bentley Continental GT steering wheel. The dashboard may have some writing scrawled to the far right and there might be more Alcantara than usual, but otherwise, there’s nothing out of the ordinary. There’s even a very normal-looking centre console, complete with all the usual glitzy Bentley bits like ‘organ-stop’ vent controls. So why am I in pinned into a bucket seat with a six-point harness, and surrounded by a roll cage?
For the answer, I only have to look a little closer at the writing scrawled on the dash. It’s a signature from a chap called Rhys Millen, who you might remember from a record-breaking Pikes Peak run in a Bentley Continental GT last year. This Continental GT, in fact.
Yes, for some reason, Bentley is letting me drive this priceless piece of its 101-year history. Around rural Northamptonshire, which is about to get a whole lot noisier. After turning the safety cut-off switch (which is in the cup holder - no chai latte stops for us today), the GT’s 6.0-litre W12 is awoken with the regular starter button. A pretty much straight-through Akrapovic exhaust and a stripped-out interior mean what happens next is a little different to the regular Conti experience. Good lord, is it loud in here.
On the move, that normally hushed 12-cylinder engine fills the cabin with high-volume mechanical violence. The first full-throttle application makes me feel - for the briefest of moments - that I’m bombing down the Mulsanne straight in some prototype racer from the 90s. All that’s missing from this incredible, booming soundtrack is a slightly higher rev ceiling than the modest 6000rpm one we have here, and maybe the whine of straight-cut gears.
Still, the eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox is plenty capable of producing drama. A squeeze of the Continental’s diddly little upshift paddle lets off a FATOOM as the exhaust explodes and a new cog is shoved in. It’s like pulling the trigger of a potato gun to fire an artillery shell.
Hilarious contrasts are this car’s jam, though. For all the noise, the drama and the pared-back purposefulness of the thing, the ride is just as brilliantly smooth as it is on a standard Continental GT. It has to be - you can’t fit motorsport-spec coilovers and claim a production car Pikes Peak Hillclimb record.
That said, some changes were permitted, and not just the ditching of the interior, the addition of safety equipment and the exhaust addition already mentioned. The Pikes Peak-spec Continental defaults to the firmest (but still comfortable) chassis setup, and the all-wheel drive system’s software has been tweaked.
The latter has a big effect on the way this GT drives. It never sends more than 17 per cent of the W12’s 664lb ft torque output to the front wheels, and when oversteering, the system limits that to less than nine per cent. So, get too greedy with the throttle in a corner, and it feels pretty much rear-wheel drive.
As well as a much greater love of hanging its arse out, the Continental also feels a touch more reactive to my steering inputs. Bentley won’t say how heavy it is, but even with the weight savings offset by the roll cage, firing extinguisher and other safety systems, the Pikes Peak car is surely at least a little lighter than the standard car. Especially given that a motor and heater-packed front Bentley seat will weigh getting on for 40kg on its own.
Or, perhaps the noise and the ever-present aroma of super unleaded are tricking my brain a little. After all, the W12 Continental is a car that shrugs off its over-two-tonne weight figure remarkably well.
In the end, Millen fired this bizarre but fantastic vehicular capsule of contradictions up Pikes Peak’s 156 corners and 4720-feet of elevation in 10 minutes and 18.488 seconds. This beats the production record set by a considerably lighter Porsche 911 Turbo from four years ago, and shows just how far performance cars have moved on in the last few years.
A quick blast around the rolling green hills of the East Midlands might not quite be the same thing as a fall-out ascent to one of the highest points of the Rocky Mountains, but it goes some way to helping me understand how this Bentley got up there so damn fast. And it’s also left me with an urge to buy a used first-gen Continental, strip it, and stick a straight-through exhaust on it.