2023 Bentley Continental GT Speed - in Sicily
For the launch of its new Continental GT Speed, Bentley chose a unique test track — an abandoned USAF nuclear missile base in Sicily.
Words Mark Dixon
CREWE’S MISSILE BASE
A Cold War location in Crewe's latest missile
BENTLEY IN SICILY
A Cold War location in Crewe's latest missile
There’s something of a Blues Brothers moment about this. The instructor and I are sitting in a brand-new Bentley Continental GT Speed, a full 650bhp-worth of W12-powered British beef, and, while it’s not dark, we do have a full tank of unleaded and — because we’re in Sicily, and it’s sunny — we’re wearing sunglasses. Playing Jake to my Elwood, my instructor says: ‘Hit it!’
Normally, I would require little encouragement. But this is the most fascinating ‘test track’ I’ve ever been to, and I really want to spend some time drinking in the atmosphere. Bentley has pulled off an amazing coup and gained access to a derelict US airbase that once housed more than 100 nuclear cruise missiles. The largest such facility in Southern Europe, it was in the front line of Cold War defence during the 1980s and was a self-contained town in its own right, complete with municipal-sized supermarket, swimming pool, hospital and houses for thousands for personnel.
‘WE HURTLE THROUGH RESIDENTIAL AREAS THAT COULD EASILY BE A SUBURB IN, SAY, NEW MEXICO’
The missiles were decommissioned in 1991 and the airbase has lain derelict since then. Trees and bushes grow up through the sidewalks; faded road markings warn ghostly drivers of a long-closed school or to ‘YIELD’ to three-box Buicks and Chevys. You half-expect zombies to shamble out of the abandoned and crumbling buildings.
WE ENTER A LOST WORLD OF CRUMBLING OFFICE BLOCKS AND JUNGLE-LIKE CREEPERS’
I’ve never been to Chernobyl but this is how I imagine it must be — albeit there’s rather less background radiation and a lot more sunshine.
Comiso Airbase has an incredible history, much like Sicily itself. The island's position off the southern tip of Italy, a gateway to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, has ensured that it’s been occupied by a whole variety of peoples since as long ago as 12,000BC. It wasn’t absorbed into Italy until I860 and still has an other-worldly aura; driving from our hotel to Comiso at times felt like passing through a landscape that hasn’t changed much since the Roman era.
Located in the bottom right-hand corner of Sicily, Comiso airbase started life as a civilian airfield in the late 1930s. Named Magliocco after an Italian Air Corps general, Vincenzo Magliocco, who was killed during Italy’s 1936 Ethiopian campaign, it was completed in 1939, just in time for the outbreak of war. In 1941, German Luftwaffe aircraft — primarily Stuka divebombers — were stationed here, until the Allied invasion of Sicily on 9-10 July 1943. The Allies quickly overran the airfield, leading to surreal sights such as the image, above, of an RAF Spitfire receiving maintenance in front of a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109.
After the war, the airfield reverted to civilian use until in 1981 the US announced that it was deploying Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs, colloquially known as Glick-Ems) in Europe to counter the threat from Russian SS-20s, and the Italian Government offered Comiso as a base. Comiso was perfectly suited as a missile launch site, offering a strike range far further east and south than any other base in Europe, so, on 30 June 1983, USAF’s 487th Tactical Missile Wing opened for business here.
I arrive at Comiso in the convertible version of Bentley’s new Speed model. It’s vanishingly rare that you can say the restyled version of a car actually improves on the purity of the original, but Bentley may just have pulled it off with the latest Continental. The first-generation Conti was a stunner but the latest one is even more elegant; if at times I’ve felt more-than-conspicuous threading it down medieval urban streets, the locals didn’t seem to object.
Once out of town, dropping the soft-top allows you to appreciate the pop-pop-pop theatre of the exhaust on the overrun. That’s in Sport mode, which would be perfect for track days but is a bit hardcore away from the circuit. For road use, throttle response is rather too on-off and the gearchanges snappy to the point of jerkiness — but, then, the Speed is claimed to be ‘the most performance-focused Bentley ever, with no compromise to comfort or luxury’.
Better to select Bentley mode (yes, it’s really called that) which offers the ideal compromise between comfort and dynamics — with 650bhp and 664lb ft on tap, you really
don’t feel that you’re sacrificing any performance. Whether in Bentley or Sport, the W12 has a surprisingly muted voice, its chief characteristic being a turbine-like hum that subtly evolves into a refined and discreet snarl. If there’s any diminution of luxury at all, it’s the slight impairment of ride quality at low speed that’s dictated by the fashionably huge wheels — in this case 22in diameter — but they also cover the largest brakes ever fitted to a production car: 440mm (17in) carbon ceramic discs, with calipers featuring no fewer than ten pistons each at the front. Which makes you think: has Bentley missed a trick by not dialling them up to 11?
A huge painted mural, depicting a map of Sicily, the Italian and US flags and the motto ‘Friendship Beyond the Seas’, greets me as I swing the GT Speed Convertible past Comiso’s gatehouse, following the markers to Bentley’s temporary HQ. Immediately, we enter a lost world of crumbling office blocks and jungle-like creepers, and, sensing that I may not have the opportunity later, I pull into an abandoned parking lot (even in ruins, this place feels very American) and sneak into a derelict office building. Disappointingly, it’s been pretty comprehensively cleared, other than a torn fragment of a calendar showing an Italian anti-submarine ‘hunter’ aircraft — a reminder that USAF was working with the locals here as part of NATO.
Bentley has set up shop in a huge open-fronted storage unit, artfully decorated with a couple of Mkl Fiat Pandas (because Bentley communications director Wayne Bruce knows that petrolhead journos love them as much as he does) and fronted by a line-up of new GT Speeds. I don a race helmet and swap from Convertible to Coupe so that product comms manager Jon Smedley can show me our test route. First, we’re heading to the missile bunkers...
Contrary to what I’d imagined, the cruise missiles were not launched straight from their silos. Instead, they were stored within reinforced concrete bunkers with massively thick blast doors; should tensions rise, then the missiles would be deployed to remote locations in convoys of huge, over-tyred weapons carriers. Through the power of Facebook, I later contact the lady who handled public relations at Comiso in 1987-1988. This was late in the Cold War, when tensions were finally starting to ease, and Susan Clizbe has fond memories of her time here.
‘Sure, it wasn’t exactly difficult to work out what was happening when all these trucks started rolling out of the base on exercises!’ she laughs down the line from the US. ‘But our relationship with the locals was truly excellent. Like a lot of us, I actually lived off-base in the nearby town, and at Christmas some of the base staff would become sponsors for less-fortunate local children and act as dads or parents. I loved my time on Sicily.’
The base personnel must have felt under rather more pressure in the ‘danger years’ of 1983-84, before the start of nuclear limitation talks in ’85. As we roll between the huge bunkers in our GT Speed Coupe, Jon Smedley explains how Bentley tried to obtain permission to open one up for the car launch — ‘but the Pentagon said they’d have to send a specialist over to sort out the blast door locks, and it all started to get a bit complicated’. Even now, the site is clearly a sensitive one and we’re not allowed to stop to explore or take photos on our way round. Pity.
Our route takes us winding through old workshop hangars, past a fuel station and a spherically topped water tower that resembles a red-and-white checked alien from a ’50s sci-fi movie; with Jon urging me to up the pace, the Speed’s all-wheel steering is getting a work-out here. The ambience becomes progressively more spooky as we hurtle through residential areas that could easily be any downmarket suburb in, say, California or New Mexico, all brutalist apartment blocks and cement-wall housing, their utilitarianism now softened by encroaching vegetation that covers the sidewalks and spills onto the road.
Round and about we roar, left and right through a bewildering succession of turns and junctions; even though I'm fully aware it’s a closed area, with no chance of encountering another human being (a live one, at least), I find it hard to resist looking both ways at a Stop sign before powering out in another shower of dust. The most surreal moment is when we drive past an abandoned outdoor swimming pool, all pastel-green tiling, cracked concrete and weeds, that would look right at home outside a Florida motel; and then we’re at the parking lot for the old base supermarket, whose gravel-strewn surface is perfect for indulging in some lazy doughnutting with the car’s Electronic Stability Mode set to ‘Dynamic’.
The GT Speed is targeted at seriously keen drivers and features an e-diff, which also helps you steer on the throttle; hooning the car around in these bizarre surroundings is like participating in some cult video driving game, where the Reality is anything but Virtual. It’s huge fun and I urge you to search out the Bentley Motors video on YouTube that is aptly titled Continental Drift. Filmed at Comiso, it showcases the car’s abilities to perfection.
All too soon we’re back at Piazza del Bentley, as the temporary HQ has been dubbed. The car has barely broken sweat and, truth be told, neither have we, coooned in quilted leather and Alcantara and with the air-conditioning turned down low. But those last few minutes have been among the most memorable I’ve spent on a car launch.
This former missile base saw brief flurries of further use in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the old accommodation blocks were used to house refugees from conflicts in Bosnia and the Middle East. Then, from 2004, a large part of the site, the far side of the old central runway, was redeveloped as a new civilian airport. With no apparent sense of irony, it was once again named Magliocco after the former fascist general. And it’s from Magliocco that our small band of weary but happy hacks will fly home.
In the febrile atmosphere of the 1980s, Comiso was always going to be a controversial place. It attracted its share of anti-nuke demos, although they now appear rather halfhearted in comparison to what was going on at Greenham Common in the UK. And nearly all the protestors were from outside the area. As Susan Clizbe discovered, the locals ended up getting on rather well with their new neighbours.
USAF operations formally ceased at Comiso on 27 May 1991. It had existed as a missile base for just eight years and yet, says Susan Clizbe, those in charge of the warheads had absolutely no doubt their presence helped end the Cold War. ‘The official line was neither to confirm nor deny that there were nuclear weapons at the base,’ she explains, ‘but you can be sure that the Soviets knew. They were well aware that there were very powerful weapons capable of reaching Moscow in just a couple of hours.’
Thankfully, the danger receded, and the military strategists were never called upon — as the self-learning computer, Joshua, in the brilliant 1983 teen movie War Games put it — ‘to play global thermonuclear war’. As Joshua finally realised: ‘The only winning move is not to play.
Right, from top Anti-nuclear demonstrations were being held outside the fence at Comiso even as the military buildings were still being erected — but those in charge of the missiles have always believed they actually helped to avert a nuclear conflict
Top and facing page top
Map of test route shows weapons bunkers on right, accommodation blocks to left; Sicilian, Italian and EU flags emphasise that Comiso was very much part of NATO, not purely a US satellite base.
Above and below
One of the most unusual places ever chosen for a new car launch, Comiso airbase has changed little since
nuclear cruise missiles were removed in 1991 and their American guardians departed.
An abandoned Messerschmitt Bf109G rests at Comiso after the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, while a Spitfire MkV behind it is checked over by ground crew.