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Page last updated
February 15, 2003





ISSN No:1470-5494 All rights reserved. No part or portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the express, prior and written permission of the publisher. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, the publisher accepts no responsibility for any person acting as a result of the content herein.

 

I

Bentley:Britain's 21st Century Grand Tourers

In the automotive world, the days are long gone when the word 'British' automatically conferred a sense of excellence. 'Teutonic' and 'engineering' may have become synonyms thanks to the products of Audi, Porsche and VW, whilst Italy, the land of linguine and Lamborghini, is often associated with design. But for the people at Crewe entrusted with the development of Bentley into the 21st century, the challenge was to define and clarify a unique set of values for Bentley that could restore it to its place at the pinnacle of automotive desirability.

Be assured; defining 'Bentleyness' is no small task. Bentley's strategists have discovered that there is no single attribute that explains the alchemy of the cars with the winged 'B' badge. Instead they define the marque by five attributes, or values. Some, such as 'power', 'craftsmanship' or 'driving exhilaration' need little explanation. The other two, 'racing' and 'design' call for an understanding of the marque's heritage.

At this point a little history might be in order. When Walter Owen Bentley created the first Bentley car in 1919 he also set out the simplest of mission statements. He wanted to make 'a good car, a fast car, the best in its class'. That he succeeded beyond even his own dreams is demonstrated by the marque's successes at the Le Mans 24-Hour Grand Prix d'Endurance; five outright wins in seven years, along with countless other world records and race victories.

And yet it was never W.O's intention to build racing cars. His creations were grand tourers; fast yet reliable, exhilarating yet relaxing. That they were also unbeatable over the 24 hours of Le Mans merely reinforced their status as the pre-eminent supercars of the day. Sadly, the Wall Street crash of '29 made such exploits a memory, and Bentley became a sister brand to Rolls-Royce - beautifully built, luxurious and refined, but perhaps lacking the original visceral appeal of raw power.

There were exceptions. The 1952 R-Type Continental is today one of the most sought-after of all classic Bentley cars. In an era when most cars struggled to crack 70mph, the R-Type Continental could hit 120 mph and cruise at 100mph whilst carrying four adults and luggage; a world first for a four-seat saloon. Autocar hailed it as 'a modern magic carpet'. Another descriptor might have been 'grand tourer' - a car that could, as its name implies, cross entire continents at a single bound.

Fifty years on, at Crewe, one finds the old order completely reversed. Rolls-Royce will shortly depart to become the responsibility of BMW, leaving Bentley the sole focus of the site and its 2,500 craftsmen, engineers and support staff. New investment is pouring in to the production lines, part of some £500m for the development of the next generation of Bentleys.

Alongside the celebrated craftsmanship in flawless leather; up to 17 hides per car; and unbleached wood veneers, technicians will be building the new engines for tomorrow's Bentleys. Wood and leather may be the traditional signifiers of a British luxury marque, but a Bentley's core characteristic is the beating heart of a huge engine. The Arnage T's twin-turbocharged 6.75 litre V8 engine, for example, produces 450bhp and 645 lb.ft of torque, making it the most powerful production four-door saloon in the world. With such a reputation to uphold, the engine is not a part of Bentley that could ever be outsourced.

And design? According to those who have seen the preview prototypes, design chief Dirk van Braeckel and his 40-strong team have risen to the challenge of creating a new GT coupe, worthy successor to the Speed Six and the R-Type but emphatically not a retrospective re-make of them. The next Bentley will not only contain the marque's design and engineering DNA, it will also represent an evolution of the species. A Bentley will always be British, and it will always respect its own legendary past, but it cannot dwell there; for the marque to succeed by its own demanding criteria, it must look forward, not back. A principle W.O would have been the first to applaud.

 

 

 

 


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