Bentley builds on proud automotive history

‘The world’s fastest lorries.”

Hardly even a backhanded compliment, but when delivered with a tinge of bitter jealousy by Ettore Bugatti, the insult becomes praise. His racing cars were delicate, and beautiful — and they lost.

Instead, the Bentley Boys of the Roaring Twenties hoofed it to victory at the challenging LeMans, racking up four straight wins between 1927 and 1930. Driving home the point, a memorable performance in 1929 saw the racing-green warhorses coming first, second, third, and fourth for good measure.

Not satisfied with merely beating up other cars on the racetrack, Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato took up racing trains. In 1930, he managed to pilot his Bentley Speed Six, top, from Cannes to London before the express train reached Calais.

Not satisfied with merely beating up other cars on the racetrack, Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato took up racing trains. In 1930, he managed to pilot his Bentley Speed Six, top, from Cannes to London before the express train reached Calais.

The “Boys” themselves were as broad and burly as their cars. Woolf Barnato, who would later finance the company and become its first chairman, was the heir to a vast South African diamond empire. He was also a crack shot, a top-level cricket player, a brave WWI field artillery officer, deadly on the tennis court, and a heavyweight boxer.

The rest of the crew included wealthy playboys, a pearl fishing magnate, a genuine Baron, aviators, engineers — all manner of gentlemen possessed of means and obsessed with speed. Barnato was clearly the ringleader, winning LeMans all three times he entered it, and taking up racing trains from Cannes to Calais when he got bored of that.

In contrast to this rumbustious derring-do, the modern face of Bentley is coiffed, cultured, and charming. Christophe Georges has been the president and chief operating officer of Bentley since 2007, and has served as an executive of the company for a decade and a half. Currently, he is presiding over its rebirth.

“We cannot forget the beauty of what we did in the past,” he says, speaking to me in Bentley’s showroom in downtown Vancouver, “Our story is very important.”

There is another message too. “Passion,” Georges explains, “Is not only for the racetrack.”

The fastest Bentley ever built, the new GT Speed has a whopping 626hp.

The fastest Bentley ever built, the new GT Speed has a whopping 626hp.

The history of the company created by W.O. Bentley in the effort to “Build a good car, a fast car, the best in its class,” has not always been smooth sailing. Far from it; even in those early days of golden victory, the stock market crash and the Great Depression were waiting just around the corner. Rolls-Royce would soon snap the company up, and put an end to the racing days.

Georges came to Bentley from Rover. Born in France, he chuckles when queried if there’s anything he finds special about British marques. “Both British companies,” he points out, “were bought by German ones.”

After a messy split from Rolls-Royce with BMW retaining Rolls and Bentley finding a new home in the sprawling Volkswagen Auto Group, the work was on to revive the brand in a more modern image. As it happens, Georges’ business card notes that Bentley’s North American headquarters are located on Ferdinand Porsche Drive.

Nearly half a million British pounds were spent on updates and renovations to the factory in Crewe, with the local workforce tripled, and more work provided by local suppliers. With Aston-Martin still wiping egg off its face from a huge recall involving accelerator arms supplied by a Chinese factory, Georges notes that most of the outsourcing for Bentley is under tight control. “We purchased some of the smaller suppliers,” he says, “Or took shares in their companies.”

With a twin-turbo V8 co-developed with Audi, Bentley's new Continental has responsive power combined with a new efficiency.

With a twin-turbo V8 co-developed with Audi, Bentley’s new Continental has responsive power combined with a new efficiency.

Such is the purchasing power of the Volkswagen group, but as important are the resources it provides. The platform on which the current Continental rests is tied to that of the VW Phaeton, and the new twin-turbo V8 was co-developed with Audi.

“We have 1,000 engineers (at the factory in Crewe),” Georges says, “making sure that a Bentley remains a Bentley.”
Aside from basic electronics, the cars continue to be handmade, with hand-rubbed lacquer on the paint and mirror-matched interior trim. Whereas VW’s machines in Wolfsburg could produce any number of Golfs in the time it takes to make a single Bentley, the latter remains the handiwork of craftsmen.

Not that these machines have lost much in the way of ferocity over the years. Bentley’s main rivals are Aston Martin or Rolls-Royce, and the recently released Continental GT Speed puts both on notice. With a twin-turbo 6.0L W-12 engine huffing out 626 hp to all four wheels, it is both genteel and brutal in equal measure. The top speed is beyond 330 km/h.

“World’s fastest” indeed, and then there’s that lorry: Recent plans to bring a seven-seater SUV into the range have not filled the hearts of Bentley purists with joy, but they’ll likely fill the garages of current Bentley owners. As the head of a small company with a demanding clientele, part of the reason for Georges’ visit is the chance to meet with customers and listen to what they want to see in future product.

The SUV, which will include available plug-in hybrid functionality, is one such request, and can be expected in early 2016. While it will share a body with the Audi Q7, it will still be assembled in Crewe, expanding the factory and adding a further 1,000 staff to the plant. The basic skeleton will come from Hungary, where the Audi Q7 is made, but assembly and detail work will be completed in Britain.

Bentley GT3 on the track.

Bentley GT3 on the track.

The addition of an SUV to the lineup will doubtless swell sales, catching the momentum of a wave that’s re-cresting after the financial crisis of 2007. Bentley’s sales are up globally, once again surpassing 10,000 machines built worldwide.

It’s been a lean few years, but Canada seems to have been relatively insulated from the effects, rebounding more quickly than the rest of the world. Vancouver is an especially robust market: Where worldwide Bentley sales are up by 17 per cent or so, demand in Vancouver has swelled by nearly a third.

Christian Dubois, regional director of operations for the Western branch of the Dilwari dealership group, is justifiably confident about the new Bentley store opening in just a few months. As one of the newest stores in North America, it’ll be the only one to comply with Bentley’s new corporate standards, with 4,200 square feet of freshly renovated space ready to receive the company’s latest products.

This currently includes the newest version of the Flying Spur, now more differentiated from the Continental coupe. No longer merely a longer, more capacious version of the two-door Conti, the new Spur is smoother and more refined, but retains stupendous power and acceleration.

It’ll likely have pride of place in the new Burrard Street showroom, where the expanding Dilwari group will also house their Aston Martin showcase. Once again this year, the dealership will be participating in Vancouver’s supercar show held at the Van Dusen gardens, and is committed to enhancing the Bentley ownership experience with driving and lifestyle events through the year.

Most excitingly, for those who cast their eye back to Bentley’s historic racetrack sparring matches, the company has once again returned to its racing roots. The Bentley GT3 hits the track at the FIA Blancpain series early this year, powered by a twin-turbo V8 and ready again to take on more svelte machinery with a blend of British pluck and engineering sourced from Germany.

According to Georges, well-heeled drivers with lead soles in their shoes should soon be capable of engaging Bentley’s racing team in a crusade for racetrack victory. Bentley took victory again at the 2003 LeMans, but does not as yet have immediate plans to return to its old campaigning grounds.

Beyond the modern, some time ago your humble author came across a squadron of prewar Bentleys parked in Salt Lake City, Utah. Not more than a week later, I stumbled across them again, headed up Capilano road to check out the North Shore and our famous suspension bridge.

The cars had been all over, flown out from the UK, and driven from Los Angeles to Vancouver via a circuitous route. The drivers were clearly adventurers of the best sort and their cars, while elderly, were as jaunty and sporty as if they’d just been fettled by old W.O. himself.

Recapturing this century-old magic may not be possible in an age of satellite navigation and computer-controlled combustion. Even so, the modern Bentley stands ready and idling, poised and posh, a polished pugilist, the best of British married to the house of Hanover. Tally ho.

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