Few tears fell in anyone’s gin when Bentley discontinued its Azure convertible in 2003. No obituary appeared in the Times of London. No questions were raised in the Commons. It even seemed the circumspect thing to do, this dumping of a ponderous, hugely expensive car patently outdated for its era and unchanged beyond a grille revision since its introduction at the Geneva Salon eight years earlier. Only 1,300 Azures were built during that span, hardly enough over too few years to forge undying owner loyalties.
When the Bentley Continental R was rendered extinct at exactly the same time, the double discards were seen as a logical, even wise step in Volkswagen’s long-term business plan for the 84-year-old Bentley Motors. That plan was to lighten, downsize, and seriously down-price its cars (long described as Blenheim Palaces on wheels). “We had to depart from the halcyon, sentimental way of making a car that would last for 15 years before we changed the headlight rim,” says Adrian Hallmark, director of Bentley sales and marketing. “That was keeping us on the poverty track—brand rich but product poor.”
Last year’s arrival of—and instant adulation for—the lighter, smaller, and less pricey Continental GT coupe only confirmed the wisdom of Volkswagen. Sales figures for the car in 2004 were more than four times the number of all Bentleys sold the previous year. Therefore, went the common logic, unless Volkswagen had bratwurst for brains, it would only slightly reconfigure the Continental GT, remove the lid, and reissue it as the world’s fastest, most powerful convertible. Yet with no great fanfare and having held plans tight to their waistcoats for more than a year, Bentley officials have instead unveiled the Bentley Arnage DHC.
DHC stands for drophead coupe, which is Anglo-Saxon autospeak for convertible and a term in disuse since it was attached to the Alvises, Aston Martins, and Jaguar XKs of a half-century ago. It also implies a sturdier retractable top that, when viewed from without and within, appears more like a permanent roof than a canvas toupee.
Yet presume no boring retrospective here, no great strip-mining of the past to compensate for a lack of imagination and forward thinking. Before some headline writer cops the phrase, know that the Arnage drophead coupe is simply drop-dead gorgeous—a smooth, perfectly proportioned, thoroughly large open wedge that shares the same platform, powertrain, and wheelbase with the 2005 Arnage. But it is 2.4 inches longer and a smidgen higher than the Arnage, with an elegant, regal profile created by a windshield displaying a rake as severe as a shark’s dorsal fin. This is yet another example of man borrowing from nature, where such a shape, following the creator’s purpose, is hydrodynamically, ergo aerodynamically, perfect. It is visually pleasing as well.
Because of the drastic sloping, the roofline appears lower than it is as it flows smoothly to the rear with ne’er a fabric wrinkle or bulging brace to be seen. The top raises and retracts in 25 seconds, slightly slower but without the staccato jerks and goose-stepping of the mechanisms that are used by the competition. After all, this is a Bentley, and royalty is not in the habit of moving smartly.
Seats and their mountings—with the rear armchairs arranged in a semicircle to emulate the sleeper seats in an airliner’s first-class section—are set shallower, which allows hats to stay on and hairdos to remain intact at speed with the top down. The front end is all modern Arnage, with four wide-eyed headlights and fewer lips and ledges for a cleaner, contemporary look.
In meteorite blue-gray with a leather interior of Cotswold cream and light, burr walnut woodwork, the DHC is absolutely British, which translates to totally impressive and thoroughly understated. Stitching is mostly by hand, and the brightwork is heavily polished stainless steel because chromium plating is, well, a little cheap. Absent is any trace of interference by Volkswagen or any shadow of Wolfsburg.
True to its bloodline, the DHC will be propelled by a twin-turbo, 6.7-liter, 450 hp, monster V-8 that is good for 645 ft lbs of tug, which represents a torque factor close to the QM2’s. Such numbers promise traditional Bentley power that flows in a smooth, enormous rush without kicking a driver in the kidneys. Unfortunately, our late November sneak preview of the convertible did not include an opportunity to drive it. The development team at Bentley Motors in Crewe in the British Midlands was too busy preparing this one-off for the 2005 show circuit. The seats had not been installed yet, and the dashboard had not been fastened to the frame. Workers frowned when asked to pause so we could see the convertible-top mechanism at work. We were left, then, to presume that its performance will be on a par with the Arnage T’s. This would include a top speed of 170 mph and acceleration from rest to 60 mph in about six seconds, which, as the Brits like to say, is bloody brilliant for a car that will certainly weigh only ounces short of three tons.
Although Bentley executives continue to use the terms “concept car” and “show car” in public discussions of the Arnage DHC, they are saying in private that, unless public reaction is one of absolute horror and a thousand thumbs down, the car will “ease into production in the spring of ’06,” with a price tag around $250,000.
While the old Azure convertible was designed by Sergio Pininfarina, the new Arnage DHC was drawn in Crewe by Dirk van Braeckel, the deft Belgian who gave us the Continental GT. All work was done in darkest secrecy at Pilot Hall, a heavily secure area located behind many closed doors and combination locks deep within the Crewe factory. In keeping with Bentley’s penchant for names that reflect foreign locales—Java, Azure, Mulsanne, Corniche—the DHC was code-named Project Panama. Off-site discussions, even chats over executive dinners, were prohibited. One 30-year Bentley employee had no inkling of what was stirring and evolving in the skunk works. How could he, for even during the obligatory test-drives, when a secret project such as this is most vulnerable to exposure, the DHC was dressed beneath the body panels and behind the radiator of a Mercedes S-Class.
Sure enough, an automotive paparazzo caught up with the wolfish DHC as it prowled through Cheshire in lamb’s clothing. Bentley officials learned later that the photographer was unable to sell a single image. Apparently no magazine believed his pitch that this was a new Mercedes.
Bentley Motors, www.bentleymotors.com