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Bentley Brings It

Britain's venerable sports-luxury car revisits its heritage of high performance and panache
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

The antiquated headlights barely cut through the dense, pre-dawn fog, as we crawl through ancient villages and deserted farm hamlets. An icy drizzle stings our cheeks and blurs what little we can perceive through our goggles. Road signs emerge in the mist like ghostly specters, then vanish almost as suddenly, as we strain our eyes, desperately searching for the turnoff to Calais. We have a ferry to catch, but if we take the wrong turn now, we could soon find ourselves backtracking towards Cannes.

On a night much like this, 75 years ago, Woolf Barnato set out in his Bentley Speed Six. He did enjoy the luxury of a closed saloon car, while we drive in an open-top 1930 Bentley "Blower." But he didn't have the benefit of a backup car equipped with GPS navigation, nor paved roads, 24-hour service stations and a warm hotel halfway along. He just had the will to win—as he'd proven chalking up an unprecedented three victories at the grueling 24-hour race at Le Mans.

Barnato was one of the original Bentley Boys, the group of affluent Londoners who'd served as the support team for the legendary W. O. Bentley. By 1926, the company was going broke, and only Barnato could keep it alive, tapping into the seemingly bottomless fortune he'd gotten as heir to South Africa's Kimberley

diamond mines. Handsome, charming and a generous, genial host, Barnato was vacationing on the Riviera when the idea of the race came up.

Surely, argued one of his guests, no one could beat the Blue Train from Cannes to Calais, not in an automobile. The Blue Train was among the fastest and most elite coaches of its day, shuttling affluent British vacationers back and forth from the ferry to the French Riviera. The wager was impressive, 200 pounds sterling, a huge sum in its day, but Barnato decided to make things a little more sporting. Not only would he beat the Blue Train, but by the time it reached the French ferry docks, Barnato boasted, he'd already be sipping Sherry at his club in London.

So the next evening, as the conductor shouted everyone aboard, the Blue Train slowly building a head of steam, Barnato launched out on his 700-mile adventure. With amateur golfer Dale Bourne at his side, Barnato had one spare tire, enough gas to get them halfway to Calais, and a hastily drawn map showing where they hoped to find the cache of fuel that would get them the rest of the way.

Barnato's chance of success seemed as improbable as the odds that Bentley itself would survive.

W. O. and the Bentley Boys

Things haven't changed much at Bentley's Crewe factory over the last 65 years—at least not at first glance. The old plant looks much like it did in 1938, when it was rolling out engines for the Spitfire, the fighter that helped England prevail during its "finest hour," as Winston Churchill described the Battle of Britain. But old brick surfaces can be deceiving.

A closer look reveals that the name Rolls-Royce has been scratched off the weathered building. In 1998, what was then the Rolls-Royce Motor Co. was cleaved in two as part of the Solomon-like settlement of a bitter bidding war. The better-known half wound up under the control of the German automaker BMW, which relocated its acquisition to a new assembly and engineering complex near Southampton, England. The other half also wound up in German hands, in this case, Volkswagen AG, just the latest in a series of owners who saw gold in the Bentley brand. Fool's gold, it's often turned out.

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