Bentley designer meets Porsche 928 Second time lucky? Bentley designer drives the Porsche 928 that got away. The List - Bentley designer Crispin Marshield lands a drive in a Porsche 928GTS. After missing out on the chance to buy when they were cheap, will he want his own? Your dream drive made real What does someone who designs Bentleys by day dream of? In Crispin Marshield’s case it’s Porsches. Will one he nearly bought lead to regret? Words Russ Smith. Photography Charlie Mag.
‘It already feels like my car I’m so at home in it’
Essex-based salesman and drummer Ken Johnson is just explaining how he has managed to acquire four Porsche 928s when the familiar and distinctive sound of a flat-six ills his driveway. That will be today’s lucky reader, Crispin Marshield, who has fittingly arrived in a Porsche to drive a Porsche. And there’s a strong connection between the two models that is partly what he is here to explore and relive, as Crispin explains.
‘A few years ago, when the time came to replace my 996, the choice came down to a 928GTS and a 997 version of the 911, which at the time could both be had for around the same price. In the end the 911 won out because I’d be buying a car that was around ten years younger and, for the budget I had, would come with fewer miles on the clock. Following that, of course, 928GTSs shot up in price – they almost doubled in a year, so it looks like I may have missed the boat. ‘Ever since, I’ve wondered what I missed – I never even got to test drive one, though I was briefly a passenger in one once – and it is the only car on my dream list that I would or could seriously think of buying for myself.’
Ken Johnson’s GTS has an added attraction – it’s one of just 44 UK market cars to be sold with the optional manual gearbox. They are understandably much sought after, so there has to be a story behind his getting one. ‘I bought it six years ago, while they were still cheap. I’m a big fan of Quentin Willson and he rated these a lot, so I followed the market and watched and waited while their values dropped, then pounced when it looked like they’d bottomed out. At exactly the right time, it turned out. I try to keep the miles down, but it’s very hard not to drive it.’
It will be getting some exercise today, and Crispin is looking over it with a smile and a designer’s eye. ‘I’ve always liked the 928; it’s the design as much as anything. It was so alien when it came out, like something from a sci-fi film. I’m sure there’s some Stanley Kubrick spaceship influence. And perhaps some Gerry Anderson too. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of his series. My favourite car as a kid was the Jensen Interceptor, and there’s something of that in the Porsche too.
‘For me, on the early ones the rear track is a bit too narrow for the body. The GTS is wider at the rear and has such a great stance. That’s something that car designers always talk about and in this it’s absolutely spot-on. The way they flared out the rear arches on these to match the fronts helps too. And the rear red strip that connect the tail-lights.’
I can’t help but agree. I’d always assumed the fronts had been flared for the GTS too, but it’s just a trick of the eye that’s down to how well the wider rear wings have been lowed into the 928’s lines. But enough of that for now. Crispin’s here to drive the car, not just look at it, so it’s time for him to fold his lanky frame into the Porsche and play with the electric seat controls.
‘I it very well; my height is in my legs and there’s plenty of legroom to play with. The driving position is spot-on and the seats are so comfortable I’d like them in my living room. You collapse into them and they soak you up. But it has bizarre pedal-spacing – the brake is where you expect the throttle to be, and the clutch pedal is way over to the left.
‘I like that is has a light interior rather than the usual black overload; it adds more Space 1999 feel this way. As does the 928 having the face-level air vents set in the door panels, which is really unusual. In fact I can’t think of another car that has them arranged like that. Talking of which, have you noticed the rear sun visors? Unfolding back over the rear hatch glass, I guess they keep the sun of passengers’ necks, but it just looks bizarre and is something else I’ve not seen in another car.’
After some final instruction from Ken, who is mostly concerned that the car’s dogleg position for first gear is remembered, we’re away. Crispin is enthusiastic from the of, ‘The car looks so smooth and cool from the outside but has that muscle car roar, like a modern Mustang. It’s a nice V8 sound, natural, nothing artificial about it. Performance cars did get too quiet, and now, of course, they use software tweaks and gadgets to enhance the sounds.
‘My first impressions are of a car that has a lot of power and performance but protects you from it to an extent. There’s a long travel to the throttle pedal that actually makes the car feel quite sluggish at first but allows you to drive it normally. Once you push a bit further and get past that it really opens up. The V8 is quite revvy but pulls hard from low down all the way to the 6500rpm redline. By comparison, my old Corvette ran out of puf very suddenly at 5000rpm, like a diesel. In these conditions, with the roads a bit damp and greasy, I had worried about using all the revs and power, but there’s such good traction from that rear transaxle that it really doesn’t seem to be an issue, the grip is superb.
‘The other surprise is that in period road tests these were said to have a hard ride, but compared to what I’ve read it feels fine, and it’s not that it’s gone soft because Ken says he’s just fitted new rear dampers. The more I drive it the more I find myself comparing the driving experience to a modern car rather than a classic. In a way that shows how far ahead of its time the 928 was – even this late development of it is 25 years old, but it doesn’t feel anything like that. It doesn’t look its age either, it’s hard to believe these were launched over 40 years ago, it still looks like a modern car.
‘The dogleg first gear takes some getting used to, mentally; I’ve never used one before. I can understand why most buyers went for the auto – the 928 is that kind of car – but the manual ’box makes it a real muscle car. You can see why they are so much more highly prized now. The gearchange itself is very mechanical, like there’s no rubber in the linkage at all, but it’s nice once you get used to it. There’s a slight lack of precision that you need to adapt to. I have hit fourth instead of second a couple of times but am OK with it now.
‘The gearing itself is quite long, though there’s so much torque it doesn’t seem to blunt performance at all. But it’s surprising how long you find yourself staying in second and third gears and the response is instant.’ Crispin explores some of the car’s potential in those gears, in which Autocar recorded a 30-70mph time of under five seconds. Subjectively, today it feels even quicker – and such acceleration is very easily achieved. Crispin comments, ‘I couldn’t imagine needing more performance than this. You give it some and the V8 keeps going and going. Yet it feels so planted and ills you with confidence.
‘It’s quite a physical car to drive, but that’s not an issue at all. You feel more involved; it’s what you want from something like this. The clutch pedal is heavy, but again not too much, and I found the period of acclimatisation was only a couple of miles. Now, it already feels like ‘my’ car, if you know what I mean, I’m so at home driving it. And that’s after just half an hour behind the wheel. It doesn’t feel like a big car either once you get going, even on these minor A-roads. You just don’t think about its size. I know it’s bigger than my 911 [by around 100mm in length and 80mm in width] but it simply doesn’t feel like it. It does get hot in the cabin though,’ he says, cracking a window open. ‘In a 911 all the heat is at the back so you never feel it.’ I’m keen to find out what led Crispin to Porsches, and in particular the 928.
There’s nothing in his early car CV to suggest a logical path in the direction of Stuttgart. ‘Well, of course everyone remembers the 928 from Risky Business – the whole film revolved around it, and the car was still quite new to people then. That planted a seed,’ he recalls. ‘But it was working out in Germany as part of Volkswagen’s design team that really got me into Porsches. I’ve owned one ever since – you can get hooked.’
The loyalty even survived a major change in Crispin’s life. ‘When Volkswagen bought Bentley in 1998, I stood out as being English and they asked me to go back to the UK and join their team to reinvent the Bentley brand. I’ve been involved in designing all the Bentleys produced since, including the Continental GT. In a way, the Conti GT is like a modern interpretation of the 928. Much bigger, of course, and only a two-seater, but the similarities are there. That’s not the only thing the 928 is responsible for either; believe it or not, it inspired the Ford Sierra too. You can see it in the softness of line and especially the shape of the door windows. ‘The 928 is a hard car to draw thanks to all those curves, and for me the shape is at its best in GTS form,’ Crispin continues. ‘The styling changes that were made are subtle but clever, and make such an overall difference compared to other 928s. The rear three-quarter is my favourite view; I love it.
‘The 928 has always been hard to place, as in what competition they were up against. The XJ-Ss were all too soft... and the BMW 850CSi E31? I could never decide what that was. I remember CAR magazine compared the three of them in a cover feature and found that the Porsche was in another league. This GTS, the model that tips the range of, is at least equal to a Testarossa. I drive a lot of powerful cars thanks to my job, but they are all a lot heavier. This does more with less.’
After having explored much of the south-east corner of Essex, it’s time to hand the keys back. Over fish and chips in Old Leigh, overlooking the mud flats of the Thames Estuary, Crispin is in a reflective mood. ‘I really enjoyed that. I didn’t know what to expect because you get so many conflicting reports about 928s. I still believe my 911 was the right choice at the time, it’s so easy to it into my life as an everyday car. For a not-everyday car, I prefer the 928. I love its individuality – it’s a Porsche but it’s different; not a 911. At the moment I’m restricted by only having a single-car garage. But if I could have a car for weekend use and was in a position to buy something, I’d love a 928. Some prefer the purity of the early cars, but for me it would have to be a GTS.’
‘I couldn’t imagine needing more performance. You give it some and the V8 keeps going and going. Yet it feels so planted and ills you with confidence’