Bentley Boosts Bid for Ultra-Lux Crown

2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur by TCC Team (4/29/2005)
The Flying B takes wing.

The ultra-luxury end of the automotive market was long an exclusive club, with few manufacturers competing for a limited, extraordinarily affluent clientele. But in recent years, there’s been an explosion of offerings, including new brand names, such as DaimlerChrysler’s Maybach and Volkswagen’s reborn Bugatti.

So far, with relatively rare exception, the market has responded with a yawn. Maybach and the segment’s icon, Rolls-Royce, have fallen far short of sales expectations with new models. The notable exception has been Bentley, Rolls’ longtime sibling and now a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG.

Demand for the new Bentley Continental GT, a $150,000 luxury sports coupe, has been so strong that the automaker is struggling under the weight of a ten-month backlog. It will soon expand production from its home plant in Crewe, England, to Dresden, Germany, sharing the same assembly line with VW’s slow-selling Phaeton sedan.

Last year, Bentley sales — which include older models, such as the Arnage — topped 6000, an all-time record. And with the expansion of production capacity and the addition of the new GT spin-off, the four-door Continental Flying Spur, sales are likely to nudge 8000 this year. That’s getting close to the longer-term target of 10,000 cars a year.

“We could easily do 50,000” by moving down-market, much like the high-line British marque, Aston Martin, is doing, Bentley CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen suggested during an interview at the launch of the Flying Spur. But, he was quick to add, “It is not a question of how many we could make, but how many we will choose to make.”

Balancing the checkbooks

There’s a delicate balance at work here, Bentley officials caution, between volume and exclusivity. So far, the Continental GT seems to be riding the line quite successfully. It has become a must-have among those who can literally afford to drive anything they want, including the likes of basketball legend Michael Jordan, who calls his GT his favorite car.

The sporty coupe’s chrome, crosshatch grille has become something of an icon among bling babies, appearing in rap videos and on red carpets. That’s not exactly the tea and crumpets set one traditionally associates with British luxury cars, but Adrian Hallmark, the board member in charge of sales, is happy to take their money.

“I don’t have to love every customer or appreciate what they do,” he said with a broad grin. “We try not to sell to despots and terrorists, but other than that, I can’t choose our customers.”

Perhaps the most telling indication of Bentley’s current appeal is the fact that look-alike grilles are one of the year’s hot aftermarket item. They conveniently bolt onto another hot product, the decidedly more downmarket Chrysler 300 sedan.

With the success of the Continental GT, and the warm early reviews given the Flying Spur, it might be easy for Bentley to abandon its older, more traditional models. But even though it’s selling less than 1000 copies of the Arnage each year, the sedan remains, at $220,000, a highly profitably part of the portfolio, according to Hallmark. And it draws a distinctly different sort of customer than the GT or Flying Spur, somebody looking for what might be called the ultimate statement of success.

Unvanishing act

There was a time, back in the 1980s, when the Bentley brand all but vanished. It was the neglected stepsister to better-known Rolls-Royce. Then, in 1988, the British maker brought out the Bentley Turbo R, a twin-turbo-powered monster that harkened back to the brand’s early days in racing. Within five years, sales had shifted overwhelmingly in Bentley’s favor.

In 1998, a bitter bidding war was resolved with Rolls being sold to BMW, and Bentley going to VW. While Rolls moved off to an all-new headquarters near Southampton, Bentley remained in its ancestral home, VW pumping in several hundred million dollars to modernize the Crewe plant.

The factory still produces no more than 160 to 180 cars a week, and despite the moving assembly line, a sizable amount of work is still done by hand. That’s an essential part of the strategy, explained Hallmark. For one thing, it holds down investment costs. It also permits tremendous flexibility. “We are able to change our production fast,” at least by the traditional standards of the ultra-luxury market, where it was typical to go a decade or more between new products.

Pipeline filled

Indeed, Bentley has several additional models in the pipeline. There’s the new Drophead, a convertible version of the Arnage. And a convertible spin-off of the GT is also in development, though it has not yet been given final approval. The bookkeepers in Wolfsburg, VW’s corporate headquarters, are keeping a tight lid on Bentley’s spending, Hallmark acknowledged. Though it is now operating in the black, it has a big initial investment to pay back. So each new product has to be backed with a solid and convincing business case.

Hallmark believes his team has developed one for the GT convertible, but he cautioned that “If we don’t get (approval) for the cabriolet by the end of this year, it would probably come too late in the lifecycle.”

In ultra-luxury terms, Bentley has become an almost mass-market brand, which is why Paefgen does not want to ramp up production much more. If anything, he intends to emphasize another element of Bentley’s “DNA.”

“We’re moving more and more in the bespoke direction,” he said, “where every car will be more and more unique for the individual.”

There’s lots of talk about mass customization in the auto industry, but nowhere is it more likely to take hold than in this stratospheric side of the market. With the GT, the automaker already offers buyers a choice of 16 different leathers, 27 paints, and more than a half-dozen woods, with more coming.

“We’re developing techniques to do very low volumes at reasonable costs,” Paefgen added.

Track return?

There’s another part of the Bentley program still under study. The automaker’s early success was driven, in large part, by the success founder W.O. and his legendary “Bentley Boys” had on the track. The marque still holds the record for total wins on the grueling Le Mans circuit. Newly independent, Bentley scored an impressive return at Le Mans, but then pulled the plug on the expensive program.

“If there’s anything Bentley stands for,” said Paefgen, “it’s racing and performance.” Packing 552 hp under the hood of the new Flying Spur certainly underscores that point, but don’t be surprised to see the maker return to the track, as well. Exactly what and when has not been decided, but it’s likely to happen even before a new GT cabriolet would reach the market.

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