The year 1980 was an extraordinary, historic, and humbling annus horribilis for Bentley. The company did not sell a single car in North America. There is little wonder that the marque performed so poorly. The then-current Bentley T II was the automotive equivalent of a neglected stepchild. Only its radiator shell and badge distinguished it from a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II. An indifferent parent company did not even bother removing the Rolls name and logo from the Bentley’s instruments and rocker covers. If one purchased a Bentley and had a change of heart, he could have a Rolls-Royce radiator retrofitted for $500.
With Rolls-Royce outselling Bentley 10 to one—and blessed as the luxury wheels of choice for conspicuous consumers, older vulgarians, the newly rich, rock and movie stars, their gurus and therapists, most of Carnaby Street, and all of Beverly Hills—there was little point in marketing an obviously plainer-Jane Bentley.
However, Rolls-Royce managers predicted a fresh mix of car buyers eventually would emerge: a more senior, stouter population of traditionalists unshakable in their reverence for the loftiness of Rolls; and a new group of wealthy, sporty, and young entrepreneurs who shopped on Jermyn Street, read Le Carré, had rediscovered gin martinis, and sensed substance in the past. Crewe therefore decided to divide its brands and cultivate broad model differences. Rolls would remain large and luxurious, silent and snooty. Bentley, however, would mine its racing heritage of the 1920s and ’30s and offer high performance and turbocharging, mildly menacing styling, and all the handling graces of grand touring.
First born, and bearing a noticeable family resemblance to the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, was the Mulsanne sedan, which took its name from the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, the 24-hour enduro that Bentley had dominated in the ’20s. Then, in 1982, came the car that brought Bentley out of intensive care. The 3-ton Mulsanne Turbo had a top speed of 135 mph and took only 7 seconds to accelerate from zero to 60 mph. Most important, the Mulsanne Turbo’s styling, by Austrian Fritz Feller, represented a gentle yet distinctive break from Rolls’ lines.
In short order, other Bentleys arrived. In 1984, the mesh-grilled and relatively inexpensive Bentley Eight was introduced to entice first-time buyers. The Bentley Continental, an elegant and expensive and thoroughly seductive two-door, followed. Then came the Mulsanne S and Turbo R saloons and eventually the Continental R, which was back-ordered for two years before the first cars were delivered. By 1991, Crewe was selling as many Bentleys as Rolls-Royces. However, that year’s global recession stalled sales and ended the dramatic turnaround.
When Volkswagen acquired Bentley and Rolls-Royce in 1998, it announced that it would invest more than $1.5 billion in bolstering Bentley, and courteously donated the Rolls name and rights to that Palladian radiator to BMW.
To generate publicity, elevate the corporate image, and ultimately increase sales, Bentley returned to its old arena at Le Mans and committed three seasons to campaigning an Audi-engined Bentley EXP Speed 8. The team finished first and second in 2003. That was the final year of racing and the debut year for the 550 hp, 190 mph Bentley Continental GT, which became the world’s fastest four-seater and had a relatively skimpy price of $150,000.
The Continental GT has become Bentley’s life-support machine, praised unanimously by critics and honored as Robb Report’s2004 Car of the Year. Bentley sold 6,000 cars worldwide in 2004, and most of those were Continentals. Indeed, Continental sales exceeded the company’s forecast by 60 percent. Rolls-Royce, virtually a one-car company since bonding with BMW, sold fewer than 800 Phantoms last year, while Bentley’s total sales for 2005 were about 8,000. Now it is Bentley that is outselling Rolls-Royce 10 to one.