Bentley Prepping for Change

2003 Bentley Arnage T (2/24/2002)

Up in Crewe, they like to call the new Arnage T a “bridge car,” but that raises a fundamental question about the new, $235,000 Bentley: exactly where is it taking the stately British automaker as it prepares to split off from long-time partner, Rolls-Royce?

Cast in the shadow of its sibling division, Bentley products were, for decades, little more than clones of those sold by Rolls. But in 1998, as part of the settlement of a bitterly fought bidding war, Rolls-Royce was sold to BMW, while its German rival, Volkswagen, took possession of Bentley. Now Bentley must search for its own identity as the two nameplates part ways.

The Arnage T gives some hint of where that search will be taking the British marque. It’s the latest version of the automaker’s big Arnage sedan, and as such, it still shares its underlying chassis and many major components with such Rolls-Royce products as the Silver Seraph. But with the “T”, Bentley puts a premium on performance, as well as luxury, a blend that will be further emphasized when a new generation of products starts rolling out of the Crewe plant in mid-2003.

Past and future

“We see it as a bridge between Bentley past and future,” says Brand Manager David Goggins, during a preview of the Arnage T along the Cape Town coast of South Africa.

Long, tall and weighing in at nearly three tons, the Arnage T has all the trappings one would expect of a vehicle that has traditionally positioned itself at the pinnacle of luxury brands. The interior is lavished in leather and wood that is carefully hand-finished. It takes a 120-step process to paint a Bentley. While Crewe was updated several years back with its first—slowly—moving assembly line, each vehicle still is largely hand-built.

But the standout feature of the new car is what’s initially hidden from view. Largely shrouded by a discreet cover, the Arnage T’s 6.75-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8 pumps out 450 horsepower. That makes the Arnage T the most powerful Bentley ever produced, with numbers rivaling those of supercar makers, such as Ferrari and Lamborghini. Despite the car’s mass, that’s enough to launch it to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds.

“This is the essence of Bentley,” adds Bentley board member Christine Gaskell. Indeed, the Bentley legend was borne of the marque’s performance, both on and off the racetrack. In 1918, founder W.O. Bentley was able to squeeze out 180 horsepower from one of his elegant, open-top roadsters, enormous power from its time. The reputation was cemented between 1924 and 1930, when the “Bentley boys,” a team of engineers and professional racers, captured an unprecedented five victories at the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Racing success didn’t translate into financial acumen, and W.O. was forced to sell his company a few years later. And over the years, it languished as the poor sister to the better-known Rolls-Royce. By the late 1980s, the Bentley brand accounted for as little as five percent of the automaker’s annual production. But that began to change with the introduction of the Turbo R, Bentley’s first performance-focused model.

Rolls turnoffs

The timing was fortunate, tapping into a shift in the mindset of a new generation of upscale consumers. They were turned off by the conspicuous consumption Rolls’ winged mascot, dubbed the Spirit of Ecstasy, represented. And they wanted a more nimble and powerful vehicle they could personally enjoy driving, rather than one in which they were to simply ride in the back seat. And so, over the last few years, Bentley has reversed its fortunes, now accounting for more than 80 percent of total sales, which came to 1750 last year, a nearly three-percent increase.

Both brands were clearly facing problems by the mid-‘90s, as marques like Mercedes-Benz and BMW began moving upmarket. Despite the astronomical asking price, Rolls and Bentley sales weren’t enough to generate the cash flow necessary to produce truly modern and technically competitive products. That forced the decision to sell the nameplates.

Initially, BMW thought it won the auction, but VW forced and won a second round of bidding—only to discover the revered Rolls brand name was actually owned by Rolls-Royce plc, not Rolls-Royce Motors, and the aerospace company had struck its own deal with BMW. A Solomon-like settlement gave VW Bentley and BMW Rolls. A formal split occurs at year’s end, with Bentley maintaining operations in Crewe, while Rolls heads off to an all-new plant in Goodwood, near Southampton.

Both German makers will spend heavily to modernize and expand their new British subsidiaries. VW has promised to invest about $700 million, of which roughly $180 million will be spent this year.

“This great injection of money from the Volkswagen Group has made the future very assured,” says long-time race driver and Bentley advisor Derek Bell. Hints of that money already are visible in the new Arnage T, but the real test will come with the mid-’03 introduction of the GT Coupe.

Approachable at $150K?

While BMW intends to maintain Rolls’ exclusivity, VW plans to make Bentley a bit more approachable and affordable, though at a planned $150,000, it might be difficult to think of the new Coupe as downmarket. But it will position the new Bentley a bit more within reach of those who already own more mass-market vehicles, such as Mercedes’ top-line S600.

The GT Coupe will take its first public bow during a series of limited showings at the upcoming Geneva Motor Show.

“The paradox,” concedes Goggins, “is that there’s a lot more competition in that part of the market than in the top end of the market.” So the Coupe will need to offer even more technology, and just about as much in the way of luxury features, as the current line of Bentleys.

That raises some fundamental questions about the future of products like the Arnage T and other current Bentley products, however. They are “the beacon that will keep (the brand’s) image of exclusivity and craftsmanship,” declares Alasdair Stewart, head of Bentley operations in the U.S., which accounts for 45 percent of sales.

But is there really a place for such products? Bentley officials insist so, but they admit that vehicles like the Arnage will likely have to go through significant upgrades to justify their lofty price tags.

They’ll certainly be facing a lot more competition in the years to come. BMW is expected to show off a new Rolls-Royce early next year, and it is rumored to be not only more modern in design, but loaded with far more up-to-date technology. Then there’s the Maybach. While Bentley is inching down towards Mercedes’ niche, DaimlerChrysler is launching an all-new brand of super-luxury vehicles aimed at the Bentley/Rolls-Royce segment of the market. So Bentley will likely need to make significant investments in the next generation Arnage and its other top-line models. Otherwise, it could find its traditional market withering away, even as it hopes to expand into a new, lower price-point.

Ultimately, outgoing VW Chairman Ferdinand Piëch has suggested Bentley could reach volumes of 9000 vehicles a year with the addition of products like the GT Coupe. That would still make it one of the world’s most elite brands, but there will be plenty of challenges getting there.

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