By Bill Griffith, NEMPA
Even to NEMPA it was a surprise when Bentley Motors adopted Boston as its second home in 2010, and installed a sales and marketing office at Copley Place under president and COO Christophe Georges. But the US–especially southern California, Florida and New York–has traditionally been Bentley’s best market, only surpassed by China in the first half of 2012.
“Boston is a wonderful location for us,” operations director Kim Airey told NEMPA members at a dinner on June 4. “It has a European feel and it’s only a five-hour flight to England and the factory. Some of us even complain that’s too short to get a proper sleep on the plane.”
Things have been especially interesting at Bentley since it became part of the Volkswagen Group in 1998. Among many other changes, this meant splitting from longtime stable-mate Rolls-Royce. (“Our owners drive their cars, Rolls-Royce owners are driven in their cars,” pointed out Graeme Russell, head of Bentley communications.)
“VW gave us the time and resources to continue to develop new product during the downturn, and then bring them to market as things got brighter,” said Airey. With fresh investment, Bentley returned to Le Mans, winning its class in 2001 and 2002 and then the overall victory in 2003. As well, the new Continental GT spurred sales to record levels, peaking at 10,014 in 2007. The numbers dropped to 4,616 during the global recession, rebounded to 7,003 in 2011, and are on track to grow again in 2012.
Current models include a redesigned Continental GT coupe plus a four-door version called the Flying Spur as well as the GTC convertible; all are AWD. The flagship Mulsanne sedan arrived in November 2010. The company has just introduced V-8 engines that are more fuel-efficient but give up none of the performance of the traditional 12-cylinders. The newest Bentley is expected to be the EXP 9 Falcon ultra-luxury SUV that’s now moving from the drawing board to production.
Last year, Finnish rally champion Juha Kankkunen set the world ice speed record of 205.48 miles per hour in a Bentley Continental on the frozen Baltic Sea-a convertible, no less. “The car was a stock model that was driven over the roads from Helsinki to the Baltic,” said Airey. “The only modifications were some cardboard baffles in the air vents so the engine would stay at operating temperature, slight modification in the wheel wells so ice wouldn’t accumulate, and parachutes just in case [of fish-tailing].” Studded tires picked up too much ice, so the record was set on standard Pirelli winter tires.
“Our new chairman, Wolfgang Dürheimer, said he’d never experienced a world record in his years at Porsche, and here he had one at Bentley after only 14 days on the job,” said Airey.
Racing has been central to Bentley development, and today’s models proudly recall the marque’s competition heritage. Knurled knobs echo the supercharger controls on the famous “Blower Bentleys” of the late 1920s; the wire-mesh grille was developed to protect the radiator from stones thrown up during races; and Bentleys still pack tremendous power under the hood-bonnet, that is.
To speed and durability, Bentley has added a unique, ultra-luxury customer experience. The number of potential Bentley buyers may be finite, but these fortunate few have almost unlimited choices in colors, leather, wood, inlay and embroidery. Airey explained, “A Bentley is not a commodity. It’s about super-luxury for a customer who knows what he or she wants. Our customer knows the difference.
“Our favorite clients are those who come to the factory at Crewe to watch their car being built,” he said. Considering that a steering wheel alone takes some 15 hours to hand-craft, few buyers stick around to watch the entire process. And some customers have no patience at all. “Buyers in China tend to want their car immediately,” said Russell. As a result, Bentley has been producing limited-edition cars, one per dealership, in order to have them in stock in China.
It is estimated that 80 percent of all Bentleys built since 1920 are still drivable, although many of the early examples now are in museums and private collections. Sadly, there’s at least one important place where there are no Bentleys: the Boston office. “No room in the building,” lamented Airey.