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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.

 

THE BRIDGE CAR

The sun beats down mercilessly as we race east from Cape Town along the coastal road towards the point where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet in a swirl of foam. The southern tip of Africa is a land of extremes, vast plains interrupted by towering cliffs, lush forests opening onto scraggy brush. A baboon darts across the roadway, wildebeests and ostriches briefly interrupt their grazing to gaze up as we roar by.

South Africa is a long way to go to test-drive a new car. But the Bentley Arnage T isn't your average automobile. It's not just the latest from the stately British automaker, but a vehicle Bentley officials are calling their "bridge car."

To understand why, a brief lesson in recent automotive history is in order. In today's global economy, it's become virtually impossible for small auto manufacturers to maintain their independence, even those producing $250,000 sedans. The challenge that faced Rolls-Royce Motor Co. as it approached the new millennium was how to continue justifying such a stratospheric price tag. Despite handcrafted bodies, Connolly leather and hand-rubbed burl walnut, the company's products were becoming an anachronism in the increasingly high-tech world of luxury cars. Rolls-Royce simply couldn't afford to deliver state-of-the-art features like electronic stability control or telematics.

Reluctantly but realistically, Rolls's owner, Vickers PLC, planted a for-sale sign in its yard in 1997 and sat back to wait for the highest bid. There was no way to anticipate the war this would touch off.

Initially, three German carmakers weighed in, though Daimler-Benz ( now DaimlerChrysler) quickly dropped out and set off to create its own ultraluxury marque, the Maybach. Having had a long association with Rolls and Bentley, BMW seemed the shoo-in, but just before Rolls's board was set to give its formal approval, Volkswagen made the proverbial offer that, in this case, Rolls's board simply couldn't refuse. But it wasn't over yet, and in a complex series of backroom negotiations, a Solomon-like settlement was worked out. BMW got Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen took Bentley.

Four years later, at the end of this coming December, the two companies will finally and formally part, ending their 71-year marriage. Bentley will keep the factory in England, while Rolls moves into a new assembly operation in picturesque Goodwood, in the southeast corner of Great Britain.

 

DIVORCE: BRITISH STYLE

After any divorce, it takes time and money to start over. Volkswagen has already sunk millions into its new flagship brand. The factory in Crewe has been completely refurbished, and the product lineup is undergoing a massive transformation of its own. "The good thing about being a part of a big corporation like Volkswagen is that there is no problem getting the latest technology on the market," suggests Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, the new German chief executive officer of the old British automaker.

The T is the latest addition to the Arnage line, a model that, in Bentley fashions, lifts its name from that of a tricky corner on the Le Mans circuit. Grand, elegant and stately, there's no mistaking the look of a Bentley. The bumpers of the T have been subtly restyled and a large front air scoop has been added to the original Arnage front end in an effort to improve engine breathing. Even so, "The exterior changes are hard to spot," cautions Bentley brand manager David Goggins. "You'll see [the most] significant changes," he adds, as we slip inside the silver sedan, "in the way the car drives."

Raise the hood and you'll quickly see why. The Arnage T is powered by a newly reworked 6.75-liter V-8 mated to a pair of turbochargers transforming this beauty into a roaring beast. At 450 horsepower, the car is the most powerful Bentley ever built, capable of smoking the 19-inch tires and launching the five-seat sedan from 0 to 60 in just 5.5 seconds. That's no small feat when you consider the Arnage T weighs 5,700 pounds.

Were this just a high-priced boulevard cruiser, that might actually be too much power. But Bentley engineers -- with the assistance of their new colleagues at VW -- have paid equal attention to the road manners of the second-generation Arnage. The body has been stiffened and the suspension has been tuned, especially when Sport mode is activated, to the point where it is far more taut than one would expect of a car this big.

Of course, this isn't a Ferrari. So performance alone isn't enough to justify the $228,900 price tag. What traditionally has set Bentley apart is its level of craftsmanship. Though the plant in Crewe now features a moving assembly line, each car is still built largely by hand. The interior of the Arnage T is swaddled in the trademark Connolly leather and black walnut lacquered to a mirror-like finish. Indeed, it takes four to five weeks to prepare the wood veneer, while the sedan's exquisite silver paint is the result of a 120-step process.

 

A NEW DIRECTION

All that said, the Arnage T is still a car from another generation. Despite some surprisingly effective technical band-aids applied with the assistance of VW, the sedan still falls short in several key areas, certainly when compared with the refined ride of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class and even BMW's controversial new 7-Series.

The bigger and more troubling question for Bentley is whether the basic concept of the Arnage has become an expression of luxury increasingly out of sync with the affluent motorists of today. The numbers would bear such concerns out. We have recently gone through the biggest economic boom in history -- in the United States, at least -- a time when marques like Mercedes and BMW were setting records almost every year. Even with the recession, there is room, by some estimates, to nearly triple global ultraluxury sales before this decade is out. Yet, combined Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales have been flat, at best, for more than 10 years, and have fallen well short of their all-time peak. So Bentley is betting it's time to literally shift gears. And that brings us back to that dark room in Geneva.

As the covers came off the tarp, there was no avoiding the sense of déj* vu. The new GT Coupe bears an uncanny sense of what automotive stylists like to call design DNA. It's not hard to spot the elegant lines and aggressive shoulders of the legendary 1952 R Type Continental. If you're really up on your Bentley background, you might also pick up a few cues from the '28 Speed Six. Dirk van Braeckel, Bentley's director of design, put it this way in a meeting with dealers: "We like to think we have created an automobile sculpture, bearing the coach-building cues typical of the cars we make at Crewe, with interiors that display all the handcrafted excellence in hide, wood and metal that is unique to Bentley."

The GT Coupe will be a technological tour de force, Bentley officials promise, with super car performance, in keeping with plans to make it a serious challenger to the likes of the Porsche 911 Turbo and Ferrari's 360 Modena. It will feature such high-tech touches as stability control and an electronically modulated front double-wishbone and rear multilink suspension. Its 6.0-liter, twin-turbo W-12 engine will deliver "in excess of'' 550 horsepower and be mated to a Formula One­style, paddle-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. Bentley's first-ever use of all-wheel drive will help connect all that power to the road and the Coupe is expected to turn 0-to-60 times well under five seconds, while topping out at more than 180 mph.

 

 

THE TRUE BENTLEY

For decades, "the true value of Bentley was hidden and mixed up with Rolls-Royce," explains Paefgen. "If you look at the two brands, Rolls is the chauffeur's brand, but Bentley is the driver's brand. The core values of Bentley are sportiness, combined with a high degree of comfort and elegance."

The emphasis on performance, Bentley claims, will sacrifice neither comfort nor luxury. Unlike other 2+2 sports coupes, in which the rear seat is little more than a cargo shelf, the promise is that the GT Coupe will offer enough room for four adults -- and their luggage.


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