The Blower Bentley—possibly the most iconic car ever created by the British carmaker—was once derided by Ettore Bugatti as “…the world’s fastest truck.” The Blower, all supercharged 4,500 horses of it, was maddeningly fast for 1927, but was, in fact (Bugatti’s slur notwithstanding), a strikingly good-looking car. The Blower in supercharged guise, of which roughly 60 were made, is so rare, that buying one today would be dearer than buying Bentley’s entire 2016 line-up.
And that includes the Bentayga—Bentley’s very first SUV to hit the road (which still doesn’t deserve Bugatti’s epithet)—that the marque claims is the fastest SUV ever with a top whack of no less than 300kmph. While your writer did not attempt to establish the veracity of that claim, the Bentayga is a remarkable debut by a manufacturer that has never made an SUV before (see box). For Bentley, which has traditionally been considered a notch below Rolls Royce in the luxury sweepstakes, the Bentayga represents a stunning return to the top.
Bentley’s genesis is steeped in typical British sporting tradition, rather than luxury. In 1919, W.O. Bentley, a racing enthusiast and aero-engines manufacturer, struck by the novel idea of using aluminium (instead of cast-iron) for engine pistons to reduce weight and create automobiles, created the first car bearing his name. The ‘three-litre,’ the first Bentley to receive critical acclaim for its durability acquitted itself well in the well-known Brooklands Races and even inspired a bunch of wealthy racing enthusiasts who famously came to be known as the ‘Bentley Boys.’ The crowning glory and the final mark of approval to the three-litre’s calibre came when John Duff and Frank Clement won that ultimate test of car and driver—the Le Mans in 1924. It was to be the first of five victories at that race for Bentley: the ‘Bentley Boys,’ piloted subsequent models including the iconic 4.5-litre (which was also Ian Fleming’s original ride for James Bond), and Speed Six to consecutive wins from 1927 to 1930. Bentley’s star was in its ascendancy with other models like the Blower No. 1 and the 8-litre becoming immensely popular with enthusiasts. But perhaps nothing captured public imagination like a real-world race which pit a Bentley against the ‘Blue Train,’ all the way from Cannes to London. William Barnato, one of the Bentley Boys, and then-owner of Bentley, drove his 6.5-litre Speed Six on public highways and inspite of a channel crossing in a ferry, won. That was to be the last of Bentley’s sporting achievements for half a century. Popularity aside, Bentley’s struggling finances led it being surreptitiously acquired by arch-rival Rolls Royce in 1931.
The Bentley most evocative of the 1950s remains the gorgeous R-type Continental—the first Bentley to carry the Continental branding which was to become, and remains to the day, Bentley’s most enduring franchise. The straight-six engine ‘fastback,’ like other Bentleys of the time had custom bodywork—the most sought after specimens were built by the legendary H.J. Mulliner. Hugely popular in the vintage car market, mint-condition R-type Continentals regularly fetch anywhere between half- a-million to two million dollars today.
The Bentley Mulsanne, named after the straight at Le Mans, was launched in 1980 and reprised Bentley’s sporting heritage which was further reinforced by the renaming of the Bentley Corniche to the ‘Continental.’ The ascension continued when the first ‘original’ Bentley after 1954—the Continental debuted in 1991. The Hunaudieres concept car debuted in Geneva in 1999 and led to the new Continental. In 2001, Bentley returned to Le Mans after 70 years and five years later the 2006 Bentley Azure became the born-again Bentley’s flagship luxury sedan.
Another Bentley series that enjoyed a dream run during the 2000s was the Arnage, which outsold its Rolls Royce equivalent—the Silver Seraph—till its discontinuation in 2009. The Arnage, powered by a BMW V8, was, for a short period the fastest and most powerful four-door saloon on the roads despite weighing a leviathan 2.5 tonnes.
Today, the Bentley Continental lineup has expanded from one very fast sedan to seven even faster sedans and convertibles, including one flex-fuel vehicle. Each has the 6-litre W12 engine, but the Continental Supersports, as part of Bentley’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint company-wide, can run on either gasoline or biofuels. With the introduction of the Bentley Mulsanne in the summer of 2009, though, Bentley was back on firm ground with a long, luxurious sedan. Perhaps nothing exemplifies Bentley’s ethos as the fact, that even today, all its cars, without exception, are still manufactured at the same factory in Crewe, where the first large production facility was first set up in 1938.
Bentleys continue to stand out on account of the number of man-hours and detail involved in their production. Even though Volkswagen’s ownership has infused modern manufacturing techniques in the production, these cars are still largely hand-built and Bentley goes to incredible lengths to source the best materials. For a Mulsanne, for example, the company sources 17 full bull hides for the upholstery. These bulls are sourced from specific locations where they are not exposed to either barbed wire or insect bites. Bentley’s attention to detail, from source of materials to finish product is second to none.
Sticker price is just a number for Bentley owners as the cars often end up costing twice as much on account of individual customisation which cover every conceivable detail. Back in the day, Ralph Lauren reportedly asked for ‘Black Chrome’ on his car, which Bentley had to invent since it didn’t exist. And then there’s Queen Elizabeth who requested that her state limousine’s doors include part of the Bentley’s roof so that she can stand upright before exiting the car.
Bentley has also unequivocally stolen the mantle for the most popular car in the A-grade celebrity set whether it’s rich Arab princes, top business magnates, Hollywood celebrities or American rappers. The list is endless and includes the likes of rap stars Jay Z and Ludacris, who often rap about their GTs, ex-Spice girl Melanie B, and soccer star David Beckham. Paris Hilton’s Bentley is all pink—the heiress apparently splashed out an additional ₹1.33 crore to transform her Bentley into a Barbie dream car back in 2008. Kim Kardashian drives around in a black Bentley Continental GT with monogrammed seats.
Closer to home, the sporty Continental GT appears to be most popular with Bollywood actors: Amitabh Bachchan prefers it to all the other rides in his garage while the two Khans—Aamir and Shah Rukh—are regularly seen at the wheel of their own bespoke versions of the car. Even Virender Sehwag, who likes to keep a low profile, couldn’t resist the allure of a fully loaded Flying Spur.
At the end of the day, decadent luxury apart, Bentley’s second coming has everything to do with its heritage—the sporting one. Today’s Bentleys, whether it’s the unabashedly quick Continental GT, or the more nuanced Flying Spur, and the Mulsanne, are considered ‘cooler,’ than Rolls Royce on account of their racing credentials. Luxury and racing performance have traditionally been, and largely continue to be, mutually exclusive. Unless you’re behind the wheel of a Bentley that is.
Its no small measure of the Bentayga’s sporting pedigree that your fascination with its superlative creature comforts (think Arab sheikh level of decadence) is immediately distracted by the grunt (soundless) and heave of this two-tonne-plus land cruise ship once you step on the gas. To the point that you almost wish that the Bentayga was less refined. 100kmph comes up in just about four seconds, and it takes less than that to come to standstill. Beyond the scope of this piece to elaborate on the interiors: suffice to say that the lovely wood trim, leather and metal give the passengers a country club living room feel that is just on a different level from mainstream luxury SUVs. The kit is cutting edge, including an eight-inch infotainment screen, a 21-channel Naim audio system—at 1920 watts the most powerful available in any production SUV and all the VW—sourced tech that the parent company has ever created. Get carried away with the customisation options (that would need a catalogue to list out) and you could spend an additional crore in a jiffy.
Engine: 6,000cc; 12-cylinder; twin turbo-charged
Power: 600 bhp
Torque: 900 Nm@1350rpm
Price: ₹3.8 Cr onward