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Monday 25th February 2013


BENTLEY BOYS HIT VEGAS

"It could be a Chrysler, it could be a Hyundai..." PH tries to educate Americans about Bentley


I've just driven the new Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible from San Francisco over two days and as Las Vegas rose into view from the Nevada desert, I struggled to conceive of a more appropriate car for the journey; there are more evocative cars, certainly, but in terms of skill set I reckon the fastest version of the new open Conti would be hard to beat.

Out of the city and out of the GT's comfort zone
Out of the city and out of the GT's comfort zone
You can read about what the world's fastest four-seater cabrio is like to drive here but we thought it interesting to use this opportunity to consider the rise of Bentley since the Volkswagen takeover, particularly in light of North America's emergence as its core market. How has the marque changed in that time, how is the brand perceived in the US and what, if anything, has been lost?

Soon after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge we're heading towards Sacramento. We stop a little way short of the Californian capital in a town called Davis for a brief coffee stop, whereupon a local sets about photographing the Thunder Grey Conti with some enthusiasm. "It's a Bentley, right?" says Alan. "I know Bentley is a rival to Rolls Royce - kind of the opposite. I wouldn't say there's an equivalent American brand. Our cars tend to be about muscle rather than real handling." Real handling? Everything's relative...

There's no unease about conspicuous consumption
There's no unease about conspicuous consumption
Brits abroad
Beyond Sacramento, we peel off the interstate and onto the US 50 to head into the El Dorado National Forest and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With the big W12 working hard between corners our progress towards tranquil Lake Tahoe mirrors Bentley's progress in the US luxury market place. With an SUV on the way and the 4.0-litre eight-cylinder version expected to appeal to V8-loving Americans, the marque looks for all the world like maintaining its US charge.

After lunch beside the ice cold lake, we continue onwards towards the grassy plains of eastern California. It looks to me like a vision of wild western cinema, but my attention is soon diverted to a curious garage in the small town of Bishop. Outside Sierra German Autos decay dozens of European motors; various Beetles, countless VW Campers, a shamefully ruined 635i and even a P38A Range Rover. An unfamiliar dune buggy, minus the running gear, sits almost completely engulfed by a dry, brown bush. A pair of race-prepared Mk1 Golfs sit blocked in by oil drums, but I instead find myself mourning the Mercedes W126 380 SE alongside.

European hulks roast in the desert sun
European hulks roast in the desert sun
Having pulled in to nose around, a young mechanic called Seth wanders over to check out the Bentley. "I used to flash these on the dyno," he says. "If you look at the tranny, it's covered in VW stamps! It's still a pretty rad looking car. I don't think there's an equivalent US manufacturer."

Just a posh VW?
Although Seth's clearly an expert, there a very definite understanding of what Bentley stands for in California. Nobody can suggest a direct American equivalent; Bentley fills a niche in the US that no homegrown manufacturer caters for, and that has almost certainly been central to the marque's Stateside success.

We press onwards to our overnight halt. The following morning, with just the hottest place on Earth separating us from our final destination, we waste no time in getting back on the road. Heading into Death Valley (which in mid-February doesn't reach 20 degrees Celsius, never mind the 56.7 peak recorded in 1913) has me reeling with excitement. After passing through a smaller valley at Panamint Springs, the CA 190 rises to 5,000ft above sea level as it crests a ridge.

Admit it, you'd be tempted to test that 200mph claim
Admit it, you'd be tempted to test that 200mph claim
From there, the view over Death Valley unfolds to reveal a sparse, arid, unwelcoming environment, but one that's stunning to behold. The arrow straight road tumbles down the mountainside. It disappears into the heat haze or behind small crests so that just when you think you're approaching its end, more and more asphalt rolls out ahead. Road signs count down from 5,000ft all the way to sea level, then a low of 190ft below at Furnace Creek.

Is that a Hyundai?
It's here that I get chatting to Aaron, the driver of a beaten old pickup truck. "Is that a Bentley? I'd guess it's getting on for $80,000." I correct his wayward estimate. "$250,000? I'd never have guessed that. I could never afford a car like that. It looks okay, but kinda like most new cars. It could be a Chrysler, it could be a Hyundai..."

Roof down even in the snow - the PH way
Roof down even in the snow - the PH way
Bentley has made great strides both in the US and global markets since the Volkswagen buyout with genuinely desirable product. Having sold 414 cars in 1998, it shifted 8,510 in 2012 with a pre-recession peak of 10,014. A remarkable turn around, but as Aaron proves, Bentley will never please all of the people, all of the time.

 

 

 













   

 

Author: Dan Prosser