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Bentley Brings It

Britain's venerable sports-luxury car revisits its heritage of high performance and panache
By Paul A. Eisenstein | From "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.

The automaker was founded in 1919 by the visionary engineer W. O. Bentley. With the help—and financial support—of his Bentley Boys, the hard-drinking W. O. was a force to be reckoned with, at least on the racetrack. In an era when the automobile was little more than a temperamental toy, the company proved its worth with a string of four wins at the challenging 24 Hours of Le Mans between 1927 and 1930. A team run by a privateer took the first victory and Barnato's own team filled in the other three victories in the series.

Off the track, however, Bentley was far less the success, and it was only through the financial support of Barnato that the company survived. "One of the best things I can recall was the fact that my father would come home with a new Bentley every other week," recalls Diana Barnato Walker, Woolf's nonagenarian daughter. He would buy the cars himself to help Bentley make payroll, then personally sell them to his many wealthy friends. One of the cars he drove home in was the Speed Six that he pitted against the Blue Train. But it turns out that until recently, no one really knew which Bentley that was.

The Mystery Car

Like many an automotive collector, Bruce McCaw was sure he did. After all, there was a famous painting of the race, executed by the legendary artist Terrence Cuneo. The picture showed Barnato behind the wheel of a strikingly sleek and powerful coupe. As with all Bentleys of that era, the factory had produced the engine and chassis, but the body was supplied by a carrossier. Indeed, these coachbuilders produced the vast majority of luxury car bodies through the beginning of the Second World War. In this case, the swept-back three-seater was crafted by London's Guerney Nutting. With the publicity generated by the Blue Train race, the car influenced automotive design for the next decade.

The only problem: it wasn't the car that Barnato ran the race in. McCaw found that out the hard way. Based in Seattle, he is part of the family that founded the vast McCaw Cellular phone network, and later Nextel. An avid automotive collector, he acquired and proudly restored the so-called Guerney Nutting coupe, which became a top prizewinner on the classic car circuit. But that also drew the attention of automotive historians, one of whom discovered that the car had not yet been completed when Barnato raced the Blue Train.

Barnato himself had hinted so much in a letter to a Bentley enthusiast publication, written a decade after the race. But as McCaw came to realize years later, "Everyone wanted it to be that beautiful car, and not just some fairly ordinary-looking sedan." But the truth be told, that's exactly what it was. The Blue Train was beaten by an absolutely ordinary-looking Mulliner-bodied, four-door Speed Six, a saloon, in British parlance.

An absolutely determined McCaw set out to find and acquire the correct car to add to his collection. It took plenty of detective work to discover that the Mulliner had been carved into three pieces. The chassis was now bolted to a different body. The engine had been transplanted into yet another car. And the rusting remains of the Mulliner body were stored away.

McCaw bought them all, spending a princely sum—which he politely declines to reveal—on restoration. In August 2003, the real "Blue Train Bentley" made its debut at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

Two years later, both the Mulliner and Guerney Nutting Bentleys were being airlifted to France for a 75th-anniversary re-creation of the Blue Train race.

Bentley's Back

Under the guidance of former chief executive officer Ferdinand Piech, VW had gone on a luxury buying spree in the late '90s, snapping up an assortment of nameplates, including the Italian sports car manufacturer Lamborghini, as well as the rights to the once-mighty French brand Bugatti. But Piech saw Bentley as the proverbial jewel in Volkswagen's crown.

In Piech's mind, it wasn't going to be the same Bentley that had been married to Rolls-Royce for more than half a century. That partnership had begun back in 1931, when Barnato, who had become the majority shareholder, finally realized he would turn his large fortune into a small one if he continued struggling to keep Bentley afloat. The company went into receivership and was sold to Rolls, which saw the opportunity to appeal to a very different sort of buyer, playing off Bentley's legendary racing prowess. But Rolls focused more and more attention and resources on its flagship brand, and by the early 1980s, Bentley barely accounted for 10 percent of the company's unit sales.

Struggling Rolls managers gave serious thought to abandoning the Flying B hood ornament that distinguished its Bentley product. Instead, they returned to the brand's roots, in one final desperate bid to keep Bentley alive. In 1985, the British automaker rolled out the new Turbo R, a three-ton, twin-turbocharged, 410-cubic-inch behemoth that could speed from 0 to 60 faster than most muscle cars. By the time the company was cleft in two, the sales numbers had turned upside down, and Piech was more than willing to let his rival, BMW, walk off with Rolls-Royce.

The highest reaches of the automotive market have traditionally been an exclusive club in which a select few manufacturers compete for a limited, if extraordinarily affluent clientele. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone wanted in. There was DaimlerChrysler's new Maybach brand, and Ferrari planned to revive the moribund Maserati. Even Cadillac was considering its options in the ultra-luxury segment.

So far, with rare exceptions, the market has responded with a yawn. Maybach and the segment's icon, Rolls-Royce, have fallen far short of sales expectations. The notable exception has been Bentley. But not the Bentley that Volkswagen first acquired. Sure, the company still produces, for about $220,000, the massive Arnage, which began life as little more than a re-badged Rolls. The key to success has been an entirely new lineup of products, starting with the Continental GT.

Starting All Over

Since acquiring Bentley, VW has pumped nearly $1 billion into the brand. It has gutted the factory in Crewe, and besides scratching Rolls's name off the door, it has completely modernized the factory. But alongside the robots on the assembly line, plenty of handwork still goes into each vehicle. In the woodshop where craftsmen carefully hand-cut, trim and polish the maple, oak and other woods that go into every Bentley, tools dating back to the Second World War coexist with a new laser cutting machine. The woodworking process requires 70 man-hours for each GT and Arnage. Consider that building an entire Cadillac or Lexus takes little more than 20 hours of labor.

Part of the challenge for Bentley is to strike the right balance between traditional and modern. The Continental GT is a perfect example, with its polished wood juxtaposed with an electronically controlled suspension. The car's design evokes an earlier era, but with its 6.0-liter, twin-turbo W-12 engine capable of a 198 mph top speed, the Continental GT is going head-to-head with very modern competitors, such as Ferrari and Aston Martin.

"It was not just for nostalgia" that Bentley returned to the grueling 24-hour race at Le Mans in 2001, explains Mark Tennant, director of marketing and product strategy. Bentley's 2003 victory helped lend credibility to the new GT's performance claims. "You can overdo the reproduction of sepia-toned pictures from 70 years ago to support your racing history, so we actually had to do something to support our claims."

With a base price of $164,990, or about $60,000 less than a well-outfitted Arnage, the Continental GT has targeted an entirely new class of customer, notes Tennant. These customers are younger and more enthusiastic about the actual driving experience than traditional Bentley drivers. A sizable share of them are trading up from relatively mainstream models, such as the Mercedes-Benz S600 or BMW 760iL. So the new GT offers the practical touches that will make it a "daily driver," such as all-wheel drive, along with less definable touches of elegance, such as the wood and a hand-stitched steering wheel. "The car must smell like a Bentley, feel like a Bentley," adds Tennant.

Apparently, buyers agree. Demand for the Bentley Continental GT, a luxury sports coupe, has been so strong that the automaker is struggling under the weight of a six-month backlog. Bentley sales nudged 6,500 in 2004, the GT accounting for all but a few hundred of that total. The tally for last year was expected to come in around 9,000. "We all have to pinch ourselves sometimes," says Tennant, with a mixture of pleasure and awe. How much more could the brand grow? "We could easily do 50,000," suggests CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen, by moving even more down-market. "It is not a question of how many we could make, but how many we will choose to make."

Don't expect to see an $80,000 Bentley, or even one at $120,000. Paefgen and his team like where they're sitting. The newest addition to the lineup falls into the same price category as the GT. The Continental Flying Spur shares the GT's basic platform and power train. But it adds an extra 20 inches in length, most of it in the rear seat, which can be described as both cavernous and sumptuous, in sharp contrast to the GT's minimalist rear.

On the Road Again

With the leisure of spreading the trip over two full days, we break for lunch. Stiff from the morning's cold, I peel back my goggles, unzip my parka and towel off. The rest of the trip will be spent alternating between the Mulliner saloon car and the Guerney Nutting coupe.

Despite their age, they prove reasonably modern in many ways. Of course, by this point, anything with heat would seem decidedly au currant. It takes some skill to shift the transmissions, what with their old, square-cut gears, but during a brief stretch of driving on the Autoroute, we're moving fast enough for the cars ahead to scurry out of our way. We pass a policeman at well over the speed limit, the quizzical look on his face suggesting he can't decide whether to pull us over or lend an escort.

Barnato and Bourne didn't get a break from driving. They blew a tire, missed their fuel stop and had to double back, lost in the fog and rain. But they ultimately completed the 570-mile run from Cannes to Calais at 10:30 the next morning. They had averaged an incredible—considering the dust and the mud, the ruts and the potholes—43.43 mph. Yet the race wasn't over—nor the wager won. Remember that Barnato had handicapped himself. He still had to get to London.

Barnato wisely decided not to wait for the ferry. Instead, he chartered a ride on a packet steamer. Landing under the white cliffs of Dover, the pair hopped into the Speed Six and dashed the final leg to London, finishing their 700-mile journey at 3:20 that afternoon. Barnato and Bourne were upstairs at the Conservative Club just four minutes before the Blue Train arrived in Calais. Barnato's winnings barely covered his costs—before French authorities tacked on 160 pounds in fines for racing on public roads (which Barnato refused to pay).

In the end, it was a fine show of sportsmanship, but a nonetheless futile effort. Bentley's losses were mounting, and even with all his friends, Barnato simply couldn't drive home enough Bentleys to keep the company solvent. He was forced to sell out a year later.

It's doubtful even the GT could win a race with today's version of the Blue Train, France's TGV. But Barnato's exploits on and off the track are all part of the legend and lore that make up Bentley's storied history. They are an integral element in the DNA that the company's new owners have so aptly translated into rubber, wood and sheet metal. No wonder Bentley is enjoying the greatest success in its nearly 90-year history. v

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes the Internet automobile magazine