Her name was Marlie and she wasn’t pleased. To be honest I don’t think she’d have been exactly happy if I’d passed her in a Ford Focus; instead, I had elected to overtake a Death Valley park ranger while driving a £170,000 convertible Bentley.
Nor I suspect was her mood much lifted as she brought her vast Dodge Ram pick-up truck to rest behind the now meekly parked Bentley, when several more of the 200mph British roadsters swept past, all travelling at least as fast as the one she’d just pulled over.
Though a fleet of Bentleys might be more at home on the Croisette in Cannes, or in the Manchester United players’ car park, than among the sand dunes and sun-blasted rocks of Death Valley, this was no mirage. The carmaker, based in Crewe in north-west England, had decided the open roads of California and Nevada were the perfect place to launch its new convertible, the Continental GTC Speed – a car billed as the world’s fastest four-seat convertible. So, earlier this month, I was one of 64 motoring writers flown in to drive it from San Francisco to Las Vegas.
In fact, by the standards of the car industry, this was a relatively modest affair. Alfa Romeo once imported more than 1,000 car writers into Lisbon on the same day. Mazda once flew me from London to Hawaii and back – a total of 44 hours – to drive its new MX-5 for less than 90 minutes. And I attended a Maybach launch where genuine surprise was registered when I asked if I might drive the car rather than sit in its sumptuous back seat drinking champagne.
Back in Death Valley, Marlie and I exchanged pleasantries and paperwork and all seemed to go well until she asked what I was doing on her patch. “Testing this Bentley,” was my perhaps too honest reply. “Then I’ll need to see your permit. Sir.” I knew from the way she spat the word “sir” and the fact I didn’t know such permits even existed that this might not be good.
Death Valley is not exactly the most welcoming of places at the best of times. You can wander through Hell’s Gate, along Deadman Pass, climb your choice of Coffin or Funeral Peak and visit both Desolation and Starvation canyons. It is the driest place on the North American continent and, at 282ft below sea level, the lowest too.
But its most notable claim to fame came only last year. For 90 years the world thought the highest temperature ever recorded on the planet was 58C at El Azizia in Libya. But last September the World Meteorological Organisation dismissed the record as unreliable. So now the record reverts to Death Valley where, at the appropriately entitled Furnace Creek, 56.7C was unimpeachably recorded in 1913.
It is a stunning place to drive. The roads stretch across the floor of the Mojave Desert in undulating black ribbons past rocks whose colours range from black to startling gold.
Being February, it’s not that hot but I can still feel my forehead starting to fry as we wait for Marlie to hand down Death Valley justice. With a muttered expletive, the photographer accompanying me announces he is going to seek shade, only to be instantly disabused of the notion by Marlie’s bellowed, “Get back in the car. Sir.” It’s that word again. I ask if I may at least be permitted to raise the roof. Marlie gives me a long stare and then, perhaps because she’s spotted my bubbling brow, her features soften. “You can do that, sir,” and this time it’s all one sentence. Progress.
It turns out that manufacturers also use Death Valley to test the durability of prototype vehicles in hot weather, for which a permit is required. When I finally twig this and explain I am merely passing through, Marlie turns into a different person. She apologises for keeping us for so long, forgets I’ve been speeding and wishes us a nice day.
Later that night, 120 miles away and safe within the absurd confines of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, the press corps gathers to compare notes. It turns out that while I was the first Bentley to be stopped, I was by no means the last. It appears that, on reflection, Marlie had decided she could probably do without high-speed convoys of gaily coloured Bentleys roaming around her valley, whether they were entitled to be there or not. Having now spent just a little time in Death Valley myself, it wasn’t hard to see her point.