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Bentley Arnage Red Label | The Brave Pill

The car that saved the 6.75-litre V8 from early retirement, but will running it delay yours too?

By Mike Duff / Saturday, January 25, 2020

The alligator stopped evolving about eight million years ago, having parked itself on predator apex and achieved the ability to eat anything that took its fancy. Much the same could be said for Bentley's venerable pushrod 6.75-litre V8, a powerplant that has lived nearly as long in car terms. The first use of the L-Series was as long ago as 1959 and, although it has gained turbochargers and increasingly boosty power outputs through seven decades of production, the version fitted to the soon-to-retire Mulsanne is still more similar to the original than it is different. That's the sort of innings that should win a standing ovation on the way back to the pavilion.

But while the nostalgic and deep-pocketed can celebrate the V8's long life with the hugely expensive Mulsanne 6.75 Edition by Mulliner, this week's Pill is offering a much cheaper way to experience the considerable charms of this almighty powerplant, in the form of the car that saved it from a much earlier bath. Granted, there are more risks in a £14,000 Arnage Red Label than a Mulsanne with a full manufacturer warranty. But anyone trying to make an either-or decision between the pair can regard the quarter million difference in price as a healthy contingency fund.

The Mulsanne has aged particularly well, probably because it was never very modern in the first place, and holds the almost unique distinction of having been made deliberately more old-fashioned soon after launch. Introduced in 1998 it was intended to be a new chapter for Bentley, featuring not only a more curvaceous design than the styled-by-ruler Brooklands/Turbo R that preceded it, but also an entirely new powerplant for the 21st century: a twin-turbocharged 4.4-litre BMW M62. This featured such modern innovations as overhead camshafts and 32 Valves, and even dispatched drive through a five-speed autobox. It was, the company proudly boasted, a huge step forwards compared to the already ancient L-Series.

Potential buyers disagreed strongly, with many reckoning the Bavarian unit lacked torque, character and - worst of all - the kind of breeding that the sort of chaps who said "chap" a lot expected their Bentleys to have. Early Arnage sales were disappointing and, in a move that was tied up with VW's acquisition of Bentley and BMW's purchase of Rolls, the decision was taken to bring the L-Series back. Something made possible because tiny numbers were still being produced for the Continental R Coupe.

After enough work had been done to get it through emissions tests, the pushrod V8 was relaunched in the Arnage Red Label in late 1999 - the BMW V8 continuing as the girly Green Label, which pretty much nobody bought from that point onwards. The Red Label was true alligator: much less advanced, but also much more awesome. The new-old engine made 400hp, but accompanied this with a truly ridiculous 616lb-ft of torque, a quantity that strained both the allegorical imaginations of reviewers trying to find things to compare it to - no stump was left unpulled - as well as the ability of any transmission to digest it. So the snazzy new five-speed 'box was ditched as well, replaced by the Turbo R's four-speed GM auto.

The Red Label was short on technical sophistication in much the same way that a sledgehammer is. The pushrod V8 was a stonking 270kg heavier than the all-alloy BMW unit, which had an obvious effect on the already not-especially sharp handling. But caveman thrills were still considerable, the huge performance delivered without much effort. Peak torque arrived at just 2,200rpm, and maximum power was at a barely sweating 4,000rpm. For perspective the short-lived Bentayga Diesel produced similar figures, but actually revved higher. The Arnage had performance to shorten straights in fine style, although corners were more of a challenge given the Newtonian forces involved in persuading the Red Label's 2.6-tonne mass to change direction.

It was also good at attracting attention. In 2001 I had been dispatched to Le Mans to do a story about Bentley's return to the 24 Hour race. The idea was to do an interview with works driver Andy Wallace - then, as now, one of the nicest blokes to ever pedal a racecar - who would lap the circuit (slowly) in a Red Label while talking about the considerably greater challenge of piloting the EXP Speed 8 around at 200mph plus. All went well until the photographer suggested we divert to take a few pictures outside the bars in Arnage which, on the Friday before the race, were already filled with well-lubricated fans. The sight of the Arnage drew a crowd, and the realisation it was being piloted by a factory driver in his overalls created a loud, inebriated mob - which wouldn't move out of the way until it had been shown something spectacular. Wallace obliged with a 616lb-ft burnout that was loud and smoky enough to attract police attention and a very stern telling off in French.

Few Arnage owners are likely to stoop to such childish antics, but the car's gentleman thug image has always seen it appeal to a mixed demographic. Some Red Labels have been cherished like family heirlooms and pretty much laid down in the wine cellar, getting everything they need the moment they require it. Others have been run on far tighter budgets by those keener to project an image than pay for it. You definitely want to be buying a car from the first of these groups, as the costs of getting a poorly maintained Arnage back into fettle are scarier than watching Das Boot on a leaky submarine with the lights out. Servicing is punishingly expensive, with even the basic 10,000-miler likely to be north of £700 from a specialist, with the full 60,000-mile "D" service involving brake lines and hydraulic hoses and a two grand invoice. On top of that, the Arnage has a predictable appetite for both tyres and brake components, with new front discs and pads running to around £1,000. Oh, then there's 12mpg, don't forget about that.

The dealer selling our Pill boasts it has a "full and documented" service history with nine stamps in the book and, barring condensation inside the near-side headlight glass, it looks to be in good fettle - with the proviso (to save the need to squint at the pictures) that at least one of the tyres is of the budget persuasion. Rear privacy glass won't be for all, but is presumably a removable tint, and the magnolia hide and walnut interior enticingly fresh in the pictures. The published MOT history suggests both continuous, steady use - a very good sign for a car like this - but also what seems to have been an electrical strike that lead to a test failure with non-functioning headlights back in August. It went on to pass, but after a seven week gap that suggests the issue was a non-trivial one. Yet beyond that, there's nothing in the record to give pause to the sort of stout-hearted adventurers who will be attracted to a car like this.

Cheaper examples of the Arnage are also looking like enticing value at the moment, even with the considerable risk of further expense factored in: asking prices are getting close to overlapping with those of the much less sophisticated Turbo R and are still well under the entry point for even the leggiest examples of the W12 Continental and Flying Spur. The 6.75-litre V8 is one of those engines likely to be remembered in reverential awe as the world turns green and sensible, and an Arnage Red Label is likely to remain one of the best ways to experience its considerable charms.

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