How Bentley Turned an Abandoned Military Base Into a Performance-Car Proving Ground
Built right at the time of WWII, the Comiso Air Base in Sicily has been abandoned since the late ’90s.
Having worked a short six months in public relations, I know a little bit about the challenges of hosting an in-person automotive drive event. What I cannot fathom is organizing one internationally and that involves an abandoned air base in Sicily, Italy. But this is exactly what Bentley did during its recent media preview event for the 2022 Bentley Continental GT Speed.
Normally, we try not to make a big deal out of media preview events for you guys here at The Drive. Oftentimes, it's boring stuff and far too inside-baseball for anyone outside of the automotive media industry to care about. But Bentley's event was held, in part, at the Comiso Air Base near the southern tip of the island. The air base is located just south of the Comiso Airport runway, but unlike the airport—which runs and functions perfectly well—the base itself was abandoned in the late '90s. So it made for a pretty spectacularly cool place to visit and drive through.
Bentley didn't say anything about where we were going that afternoon, so I 100 percent thought I had taken a wrong turn when the test car's navigation guided me down a road that dead-ended at a police booth. But instead of shooing me away, the officer waved me through the gate, where, inside, Bentley signage awaited, pointing me in the right direction.
Magliocco Aerodromo: A History
Comiso Air Base started life as Magliocco Aerodromo and was built between 1935 and 1939. Because of Italy's alliance with the Axis powers during World War II—and because of Magliocco Aerodromo's advantageous Sicilian location—the German Luftwaffe used the base from 1941 until the Allies bombed it successfully on May 26 and June 17, 1943.
On July 11, 1943, Allied forces captured the base. They fixed up its runway and resumed operations out of it under the USAAF Twelfth Air Force. The base was used for three squadrons of Spitfires under Great Britain's Royal Air Force, and supported airborne and assault glider operations as well. This lasted all the way up until the end of the war. You can see wartime photos of the base here.
Postwar, Magliocco's facilities and airfield suffered obsolescence until 1954, when the main runway was extended so that Italian airline Alitalia could start flying commercially off of it until the Cold War.
On August 7, 1981, the base became Europe's second-most prominent operations center for the BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile—nuclear-armed weapons that played a key role in NATO's defense against the Soviet Union's potential use of its own nukes. When the United States and its cruise missiles arrived, major construction started at the base. They removed the bombed-out and ruined buildings and also carefully disposed of unexploded bombs leftover from WWII. The first stage of the new base finished on August 13, 1982, and was renamed the Comiso Air Station in May of 1983.
From then until 1991, the base saw the addition of living quarters and other communal structures that made it as real a little town as any. During my drive around the compound, I passed condos, a supermarket, a gas station, a high school, a fire station, and even a community pool. Things I didn't see included a sports center, clinic, and chapel. At its height, around 2,000 military service members and their families resided on the one-million-square-meter base.
As the biggest NATO base in southern Europe, Comiso Air Base had seven concrete bunkers in which were kept 112 BCM-109G GLCMs. So you can imagine security there was pretty tight. After the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Treaty was signed in 1987, an April 10, 1989, story in The Washington Post wondered what would become of the expensive base whose purpose was suddenly extinguished. Nothing, as it turned out, and the base closed on June 30, 1991. (You might be interested to learn that after withdrawing from the INF Treaty in 2019, the U.S. military began testing a ground-launched BGM-109 Tomahawk land attack missile.)
Comiso Air Base saw relatively little use in the subsequent years, though it was used as a temporary settlement for 5,000 Kosovo refugees during the Yugoslav Wars.
Today, the main runway and the northern section of the base function as the working airport for the Catania region of Sicily. Anything south of that runway has lain abandoned since the late '90s. It's overgrown and forlorn.
And then came Bentley.
After discovering the base with the help of a local scout, the Bentley media drive event was "the first time the abandoned base has been put in service for any driving activity," according to the automaker in a release. "The local mayor was certainly excited," Wayne Bruce, Bentley's director of communications said. And getting Comiso Air Base into shape for close to a dozen GT Speeds wearing 22-inch wheels to charge through was no easy task.
"When we first visited Comiso, it was so overgrown that we couldn’t actually drive a great deal of it," Mike Sayer, Bentley's head of product communications told us. "So we explored the whole base both by car and on foot, looking at which sections would work for us and be safe to use."
The team wanted to design the course to test and present different aspects of the car: a straight part for its power and brakes, another flowing part for its chassis and suspension, a skidpad for traction-control-free drifting, and a tight and twisty part for the rear-wheel steering.
"Once we established those, the next job was to link them together in a way that meant the route never crossed itself—nor intersected the route from the main gate to our 'Piazza'—so that once driving the course, it was impossible to meet another car," Sayer said.
To make all this happen, the team had to remove vegetation from the middle of the road and cut back bushes—but also while being mindful of not disturbing how much nature had already reclaimed the base. Giant, open manholes everywhere—"big enough to happily swallow a Bentley wheel," Sayer added—had to be closed and secured. They built small concrete ramps to connect all the different sections of the course.
The course also briefly snakes through the old fire station, which had "been untouched for nearly 25 years," according to Sayer. "We therefore had to deep-clean the areas we were operating in so that they were sanitary—some areas had bird droppings several inches deep."
There was one challenge the Bentley team could not overcome, however.
"When the base was abandoned, one of the bunkers was left with one of its blast doors open, and we wanted the course to allow you to drive through the bunker," Sayer explained. "That meant trying to get the door at the other end—closed for 30 years—open. The door is a 50-ton steel blast door, hinged at the bottom and hydraulically actuated. After many calls—including one with a team at the Pentagon—we realized it was just going to be too difficult and would’ve involved flying a team of military engineers over from the U.S. and completely recommissioning the hydraulic and electrical systems. Sadly, a step too far."
Sad indeed! Bentley, in pursuing a herculean feat that must have taken an unthinkable amount of time and money, was stopped in its tracks by a bunker. What was designed as protection against nuclear fallout can also best Bentley, it seems.
Finally, because the resulting course had little to zero run-off, the team had to make sure, first and foremost, that everyone would be safe while driving on it.
As an experience, driving through Comiso was otherworldly. When Bentley said it was "reclaimed by nature" it meant it—I'm talking plant growth all over the place, doors swinging on their rusted hinges in the breeze. But because it's behind a barbed-wire fence and presumably guarded by cops, it also hasn't been vandalized. It just looks like everyone left one day and no one came back.
I don't know if anyone in Sicily has any plans for the Comiso Air Base, but it sure as hell is a cool spot. I can almost guarantee you if it started offering tours, people would go. I totally would. Or! Keep the closed course, fix up the residences, and turn it into a place for racing. That big nuclear bunker? Run supercomputers in there (once you figure out how to get it open, hah).
Check out the course in the POV lap below, it gives you a good scope of the place. After that, read our review of the 2022 Bentley Continental GT Speed if you haven't already!
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