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