6 OCTOBER 2007, Page 53

Driving *ss Johnson

Rachel Johnson cruises the south of France in style So here I am, driving two and a half metric tonnes of machine, a purring, gleaming advertisement for the centuries-old skills of British coachbuilding, and I know what the trucker in the wife-beater vest in the stubby Decaux lorry is thinking.

I have my sunglasses pushed back, one hand is lightly gripping the leatherclad and walnutveneered steering wheel, and the other rests on the felty hide of the seat-rest. I toss my head, pout like a poule de luxe, and try to look as if I am always behind the wheel of a Bentley Amage on the Riviera, as if driving £250,000-worth of handmade, road-chomping sedan, so powerful that it pins the children against the seats when I put the pedal to the metal on the AS from Nice to Aix-enProvence, in a display not so much torque but of G-force, is what I do all the time.

I've never before driven a luxury car. And I've never driven a luxury car in places where luxury cars feel most at home, places seemingly put on this earth for rich people to drive their luxury cars around in — Antibes, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Juan-les-Pins, Nice, the Croisette, the Corniche — places for blonde princesses to die young in. And let me tell you a secret. It not only felt very nice. It felt right.

When we took the Bentley to Monaco, no one gave us a second glance. Frankly, there are more Bentleys in Monte Carlo than Suburbans in the Green Zone. My husband parked her underneath the Casino in Monte Carlo, alongside a Lagonda, a Ferrari, a Bugatti and a car that looked like a snarling black Batmobile which not even my 14-year-old son could identify. After Monaco, we drove to Juan-les-Pins and couldn't find anywhere to park, so went on to Cannes, and couldn't find anywhere to park (the four-door sedan is 1.9m high and 5.6m long, and you need a space the size of Canada to execute a threepoint turn) so at 2.30 p.m., when the l'heure du repas was gliding into l'heure de sieste and things were getting desperate in our air-conditioned leather deluxe cabin handcrafted by Mulliner of Crewe, my husband sighed, and turned in to the Carlton on the Croisette.

Bellboys swarmed and opened the doors. It was as if they'd been expecting us. My husband handed over the key, and we had no option but to lunch on the Terrasse des Celebrites, on club sandwiches cut into cubes, crunchy French fries and salades nicoises, and reckoned that a €200 snack and valet parking was, on the whole, better than a more substantial midday meal somewhere modest, and being towed.

Then we took the Bentley to Provence, so she could stretch her legs a little and we could visit our friends who had kindly invited her to stay in the Mas des Graviers. The Bentley had a lovely time, although one would hesitate to take even a hired car on the track from Pourrieres to the aming beast Mas, which brings me to the only drawback of the car — the sheer terror of being in charge of a fast-moving object that costs the same as a house, with three children in the back drinking Coke and eating crisps. 'No feet on the seats! Put those chips down!' I would scream. As for those adorable Provencal hill towns — eek! Time for my husband to take the wheel in St Paul de Vence, Vence, Tourettes sur Loup, and whenever parking in underground car parks was required. Luckily the Bentley had a sensor system which beeped whenever we came close to impaling her gleaming chassis on an old man playing boules or a small child. But even for such an expert driver as he, things got challenging at times, and as he overtook at 120 mph, or eased the Amage into a tiny crevice between two concrete pillars, the only sound you could hear in the cabin was his concentrated champing on his Nicorette gum.

Which brings us back to that peage. 'Nice car' is what the Decaux trucker was thinking, indeed what I imagine all the men were thinking as their eyes lingered on the Bentley.

And as for her ... well, she's got three kids in the back, and a husband who obviously doesn't drive, I mean, who'd trust a woman — let alone the wife — with that beauty? OK, she's not exactly a babe, definitely not getting any younger, but if the car's part of the deal, I'd be prepared to overlook the obvious drawbacks and make an exception. Just this once.'

BENTLEY www.bentleymotors.com