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Bentley's Big Secret

We sneak a peek at the British luxe brand's return to its racing roots
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

About the only things missing were the retinal scan and strip search. To get inside, you needed to be properly escorted, carry a special pass -- and sign an ironclad confidentiality agreement. Forget cameras, you couldn't even take a notebook and pen. Cell phones, tape recorders, just about everything but your shoes and belt buckle had to be left behind before you could walk into the darkened room for a brief glimpse at something that had long been rumored but never revealed.

Only a handful of journalists were permitted to attend the top-secret showing in Geneva last March. The confidentiality of the event made sense when you consider the significance of the machine draped mysteriously by a thick black tarp. Dubbed the GT Coupe, it just might be the single most important product in the 80-year history of the Bentley motor car company. The GT Coupe is the automotive antithesis of the big, lumbering behemoths that normally come to mind with the mention of the British marque. And it's intended to transform a struggling brand into one positioning itself to dominate the increasingly competitive upper reaches of the automotive strata.

With the GT Coupe still nearly a year away from production, the public will get only the first, carefully controlled look at Bentley's $150,000 ultra sports car at the upcoming Paris Auto Salon. But Cigar Aficionado readers don't have to wait. The magazine has wangled its way under the tarp, so to speak, capturing some of the first pictures and uncovering the inside story of the GT Coupe and the broader transformation of the Bentley brand.

RETURNING TO ITS ROOTS

Weaving and bobbing through the French countryside, the 8.53-mile track at Le Mans can prove unexpectedly treacherous, with sunshine on one end, a downpour at the other. Belgian driver Eric van de Poele found out the hard way when he spun out hard during this year's grueling 24 Heures du Le Mans. Limping back to the pits, van de Poele eventually got back in the race, and, with his teammates, Britain's Andy Wallace and America's Butch Leitzinger, the Bentley team nudged its way back through the pack during the long spring night. "Both car and team coped extremely well with the pressure," explained Wallace, a typically understated Brit. Fact is, Bentley's fourth-place finish was a more than respectable way for the "flying B" to cap its return to racing after more than 70 years on the sidelines.

For aficionados, the Bentley brand is inextricably linked to motor sports, and Le Mans in particular. For good reason, of course, considering that the factory team of W. O. Bentley and his legendary "Bentley Boys" took the checkered flag at the storied French circuit four straight times, from 1927 to 1930. ( A privately owned Bentley also had won in 1924.) It's a success story few other automakers have come close to matching, and it firmly established Bentley as one of the automotive world's most respectable nameplates.

W. O. was better at racing than business, however, and despite his success on the track, he was forced to sell out to his British archrival, Rolls-Royce, in 1931. Even then, the two brands continued competing, side by side, in showrooms. But over the decades, Bentley's glory steadily faded, in favor of its more glamorous sibling. By the latter 1980s, the flying B adorned vehicles that were little more than clones of whatever the Rolls-Royce brand was selling. And Bentley accounted for barely 5 percent of the cars produced at the company's assembly plant in Crewe, England, leading many to wonder whether Bentley might vanish entirely.

Then something unexpected happened. In 1988, an all-new Bentley hit the street. Like other Bentleys, it started out with a Rolls body and chassis. But the three-ton behemoth had one distinct difference: a massive, 410-cubic-inch V-8 and a turbocharger that would get hot enough to glow in the dark. The Turbo R wasn't what you'd typically think of as a muscle car, but it was meant as much to compete with a Mustang GT as it was the more sedate sedans of its sibling division.

The response to the Turbo R was overwhelming, setting in motion a rapid reversal of fortune. Today, it is Bentley outselling Rolls-Royce by a factor of nearly 10 to 1.

 


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