The fate of Britain’s legendary Rolls-Royce and Bentley marques is so crazy that plenty of folk still don’t understand it — so a recapitulation is in order. Last year, Germany’s Volkswagen bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. when it outbid BMW. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. makes both Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, so VW thought it had bought the rights to manufacture both brands.
Unfortunately, it had bought everything but the rights to the Rolls-Royce name, which were held by Rolls-Royce plc. This company builds Rolls-Royce jet engines and was spun off from the car-making arm of the company back in the 1970s, when the aero-engine half of the business plunged R-R into effective bankruptcy.
The aviation company already had a liaison with BMW to make jets, and its chairman decided to stand by his chums in Munich. VW was foreign, said R-R plc, and wasn’t therefore suitable to look after the future of Rolls-Royce cars. BMW was also foreign, but it was obviously a much better class of foreigner, for it was deemed to be worthy to take over the Rolls-Royce name.
One of the best brand names in the world was therefore sold (for peanuts) to BMW, who licensed it back to VW until 2003. At that point, BMW will take over the manufacture of Rolls-Royces in a new British factory, and VW will concentrate on Bentley.
Got it? Well, try to follow along.
In a sidelight on this, it’s worth pointing out that although the aviation company had the rights to the name, the flying lady mascot and the shape of the radiator, the two most recognizable symbols of Rolls-Royce, were in fact registered designs owned by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. and, as such, had been bought by VW. In a gesture much more worthy of an English gentleman than the mean-spirited action of Rolls-Royce plc, Dr Ferdinand Piech, VW’s boss, handed them both over to BMW.
2000 Bentley Arnage
However, when you bear in mind the background, you will be better positioned to understand why VW isn’t all that keen on the idea that Bentley’s new Arnage sedan, launched last year, is powered by a BMW engine. Neither, it seems, are some of Bentley’s traditional customers. But their reason is based on power, not politics. Since it was reborn in the '80s as a hairy-chested sporting car, the Bentley has been noted for its ability to lift up its prow and head for the horizon at great speed, driven forward by torque delivered by the bucketful.
The Arnage, introduced with a turbocharged BMW V-8 in its engine bay, didn’t deliver the same raw power. Power — and the performance it made possible — was there, but it was smooth, and modern Bentley fans wanted the kind of urge that reminded them that in the '20s, Bentleys owned the Le Mans 24-hour race. Dr. Piech, a gifted engineer who has designed world-beating sports racing cars for Porsche, knew what the customers wanted and he knew how to give it to them.
The answer lay in the engine that had powered the cars the Arnage had replaced, Rolls-Royce’s 6.75-liter V-8. Big, brutal and turbocharged, it had the power to make the Arnage the acceleration powerhouse the customers wanted, but it was outdated — it couldn’t be adapted to comply with upcoming emissions legislation.
When the boss says jump …
At least, that was the feeling of the Bentley engineers, but when Dr. Piech said he thought it could, they suddenly found themselves agreeing with him. Sure enough, they found it could be adapted to meet the legislation — and without calling on the services of the technicians at VW headquarters in Germany. Working with Zytek, a British company that started by developing engine electronics for Jaguar’s Le Mans and Daytona winners in the late '80s, the engineers at the Bentley factory in Crewe, Northern England, succeeded in making the old V-8 not only clean but also powerful. Although it has a lineage going back to a GM design of almost 50 years ago, the engine now develops 400 horsepower.
But more important from the point of view of the new generation of Bentley fans, it now puts out a staggering 619 lb-ft of torque, more than any other sedan in the world. That adds up to a top speed electronically limited at 155 mph and acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds — for a car that weighs 6546 lb fully laden.
The body has been stiffened, making the new version even better than the original Arnage (introduced last year), which was itself a quantum-leap forward in ride, comfort, handling and silence over previous Bentley four-doors.
Drawing on Bentley heritage, in which different models carried different colors as the background to their radiator badges, the new model is called the "Red Label" Arnage. Although the BMW-engined Arnage, now called the Green Label, continues in production, it’s likely its sales will fade into insignificance alongside its more powerful sibling, which will cost a few thousand dollars more but will once more have that hairy-chested appeal owners have come to appreciate.
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