UK: Motor mouth - Hand-rubbed karma.

UK: Motor mouth - Hand-rubbed karma. - No matter how much money you have, there's always another threshold on the horizon. Yes, we drink champagne, but it's delicious Veuve Clicquot, not other-worldly Cristal.

by STEPHEN BAYLEY.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

No matter how much money you have, there's always another threshold on the horizon. Yes, we drink champagne, but it's delicious Veuve Clicquot, not other-worldly Cristal.

Sure, my suits are handmade, but I don't have many of them. Of course, we fly anywhere we fancy, but always at the back of the plane. We eat out all the time, but steak-frites, not lamprey and beluga. And then there are those who can afford to buy a Bentley. Just how much money do you need to be able to spend £170,000 on a car?

I wasn't sure, so I asked a friend who owns a bank. He said he always buys second-hand BMWs. Hmm. There's a resonance here because BMW is one of the two companies who fought for ownership of Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motors. After a tussle of numbing complexity, BMW lost and expensively acquired the Rolls-Royce name. Volkswagen won and got Bentley. The Rolls-Royce name has diminishing value: it has been eclipsed by Bentley ever since the latter introduced its first Turbo in 1982. Now, Volkswagen plans to quadruple production.

This is not impossible. The Bentley factory in Crewe is populated by robots and transfer devices rather than ruddy artisans in leather aprons clutching mallets. Still, Volkswagen was buying a brand, not capital equipment or technological expertise. While Rolls-Royce, mired in associations of Arab kitsch and Hertfordshire scrap dealers, is probably irredeemable in image terms (and adds to BMW's doleful existing burden of Rover), Bentley means something more positive. The question is: what exactly?

I was once full of pious technocratic flim-flam about the (sigh) absurdity of having a handmade car in this day and age when machines do it better.

Thing is, only people who have never driven a Bentley think like that.

The Turbo R that I first drove clattered like a bin full of cutlery but offered an experience that was profound and exalting. Because it was intangible, it was more intense. It's a car like Echezaux is a drink. I'm not sure a Volkswagen engineer would get the idea, but there you are.

Making cars by hand is an absurdity. That's the point. It is an assault on all that is rational in modern life. It is inefficient, results in lower quality and ensures flaws which no machine or technician in a lab would tolerate. Yup. These all confer a karma on the vehicle and the driver that is incalculably valuable. Frankly, the wood and leather do not much appeal, but the amazing sense of otherness definitely does. Do you mind getting out of your car at the end of a journey? If you find that an odd question, again, you probably have not driven a Bentley.

The new Arnage is a handsome car which draws on a tradition of Rolls-Royce and Bentley architecture that goes back to Fritz Feller and John Blatchley. I say 'architecture' and Blatchley meant it: he is the source of that analogy about a moving drawing room. But at the same time, the style has certain modern inflections, like putting low-voltage down-lighters in Chatsworth. There is presence without ostentation.

Structurally and dynamically, there are no problems. Modern design and assembly mean fewer components and more welds: a Bentley body now has mechanical integrity approaching that of a Focus or a Golf. Dynamically, the Arnage has a twin turbo BMW 4.4 litre V8 with Cosworth heads. No cause for complaint here.

Empire loyalists might regret that the entire motive unit is trucked in from Germany, but in fact the outgoing Rolls-Royce and Bentley engine was based on an American design and the old gearboxes were sourced from General Motors of Michigan. Reflecting geo-political changes over 30 years, current gearboxes are sourced from the Zahnradfabrik of Friedrichshafen.

Narrow definitions of patriotism are misplaced here.

What problems the Arnage has are not in and of itself: the world is a better place because cars like this exist. But who wants to buy them?

Definitions of luxury are rapidly evolving: luxury is no longer the same as opulence. When Bentley began, small cars were worse than big cars.

Today, small cars simply have different dimensions to larger ones. But, of course, you can't measure intangibles. Would I buy a Bentley Arnage?

Probably not. Would I like to use one on a regular basis? Certainly. If the new ownership can close this loop, we'll all be better off.

Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.

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