While Rover sank (it was warned, twice, in this column), another car was launched, in Venice. An amphibian? No, a Bentley.
Perhaps because it rarely advertises, Bentley’s car launches are like no other. Each is divided into three- to four-day segments designed for different audiences. The basis is driving and learning about the car, with an emphasis on culture and surroundings for the lifestyle journalists, on the business case for the financial press, on engineering for the hard-core motoring press and on who-knows-what? for the dealer network. It was Cape Town for the flagship Arnage T, Spain for the Continental GT coupe and, this month, the Grand Canal for the Continental Flying Spur, the four-door version of the GT.
We drove on the mainland, slummed it at night in the Gritti Palace, enjoyed exclusive guided tours, lunched in rural grandeur with a young count (who must be in need of a wife) and dined with a beautiful countess in her palazzo. Is it corrupting to be pampered so? Perish the thought. Merely seductive.
And seduced we were — but by the car. Designed alongside its coupe sibling, the Flying Spur shares with it 62 per cent of components, including 11 cows (which contributed their hides) and the compact, six-litre W12 cylinder engine. This powers it to 195mph and 0–60 in 4.9 seconds, making it the fastest four-door car in the world. The lines are similar to the GT, but the extra foot of length and subtle but telling differences — the horizontal extension of the mid-line, for example, smoothing out the haunches — make it a more elegant, less brutally powerful-looking beast. For crash-test reasons (the Flying Spur is 90kg heavier, therefore needs more front protection), the front bumper protrudes slightly, which further softens the line, while the rear bumper funnels air from the underbody diffuser. Like its sister, it’s an unassertive, discreet, yet very solid presence, with a rear that I think more successful than the GT’s. If it’s true that the mark of a well-dressed man is that it takes ten minutes to realise how well dressed he is, then this is the automotive equivalent; a quiet triumph for Brazilian designer, Raul Pires.
The interior is again similar to the GT, but with far more room in the back. In fact, it’s bigger inside than the Arnage. We tested it with Martin Johnsons, front and rear, and they found ample leg and head room. It’s a four- or five-seater, depending on whether you want the rear console. The only danger is that rear passengers can adjust the front passenger seat as well as their own; children will love that.
Increased length and weight meant that suspension and transmission have been modified, with the former lowering automatically at above 155mph. Like the GT, it’s four-wheel-drive and has larger brakes than any other production car. Busy public roads meant that we couldn’t really put it through its paces, but be assured that it’s stable and quiet dawdling along at a 140mph and that the 56:44 front-rear weight distribution means plenty of turn-in and grip when you corner. This car will do far more than most drivers are capable of asking of it.
It costs £115,000. In 2003 Bentley’s market research indicated that there were approaching 100,000 people a year who bought cars costing £60,000–£100,000, with a further 3,400 prepared to spend £100,000–£150,000, and 3,000 happy to shell out £150,000–£250,000. Yet in 2004 11,986 people bought cars in the £100,000–£150,000 range, of whom just under half were GT buyers. That car nearly doubled its anticipated sales and there’s still a waiting list. Where did they all come from? About 25 per cent were either dissatisfied or bored Mercedes owners, but most were buyers new to Bentley, aged under 50, who for years could well have afforded a car like the GT but couldn’t find one until Bentley made it. To an extent, therefore, this and the Flying Spur are cars that create their own markets.
The Volkswagen Audi Group has proved an imaginative and understanding owner of Bentley. Its boldness in investing half a billion and in giving chairman Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen his head is paying off. Dr Paefgen, who formerly ran Audi, knows the Bentley tradition inside out and is as happy discussing push-rods as he is the prose of Thomas Mann or his own private passion, his 1956 Morris Minor. Let’s hope that losses elsewhere in the vast VAG empire won’t prevent him from building two more market-creating cars — drophead versions of the GT coupe and the Arnage.
Their importance would be not only in any profit they make, but also in their influence on Bentley sales in future decades. Consciously or not, people will buy the new Flying Spur partly because of the inheritance of its iconic inspiration, the 1952 R-Type Continental and the 1957 Flying Spur. In the same way, those two putative dropheads would drip-feed into the great tradition for years to come and give future buyers reason for doing something expensive and different. But, unless they put paddles on it, there’ll still be no parking at the Gritti Palace.