These are contentious times for Bentley, as the company edges into German hands. But with the launch of the new Arnage, Andrew Frankel insists the future looks bright.
Photogaphy by Andrew Yeadon
So it is the Bentley Arnage. After weeks of being able to describe the first Bentley since 1931 with something other than a modified Rolls powerplant as ‘Bentley’s new four-door saloon’ we now have a name to hang upon it.
Arnage. This is the first of several slices of good news concerning this new Bentley. It was, I suppose, not a difficult name to have guessed, given the last new Bentley saloon was named Mulsanne. Working your way around the Le Mans circuit, it’s not difficult to see why ‘Ford Chicane’ and ‘Porsche Curves’ were ruled out while ‘Indianapolis’ clearly struck the wrong chord. Which left just Tertre Rouge, the Esses and Amage. The board has faced tougher choices than this in the recent past.
Chief among them was approving the sale of the company to BMW, but that’s not what we’re here at Le Mans to discuss. Say what you like about the sale, speculate until you’re blue in the face about the future… the fact remains that we have no idea what fate, if any, BMW has planned for Crewe, though the fact that it has a unique product (unlike that other once British marque that also rests under the wing of the Munich marque), must offer some reassurance.
We’re here, instead, to drive the Arnage, to put it in its proper historical perspective and do that most peculiar thing; drive around a race track as fast as possible in a four-seat Bentley.
But however peculiar this may seem these days, such a venture is not unprecedented, even in recent times. The last official outing of this nature took place in Hungary in 1986. Bentley was launching the ‘R version of the Mulsanne Turbo, the eponymous letter standing for ‘roadholding’ in tacit acknowledgement of one of the Mulsanne’s more evident shortcomings. Sadly I missed the event, held at the Hungaroring, the tightest Grand Prix track outside the Principality of Monaco, but it has passed into motoring journalism legend. Witnesses still widen their eyes at the memory of the understeer, fall quiet recalling the genocide that befell the ranks of Avon Turbospeeds that day.
Today’s outing promises to be rather more successful. But before committing the Arnage to such torture, there is something I must do. It involves another four-seat Bentley. Like the Arnage, its engine displaces precisely 4398cc, has eight sparking plugs, four valves for every cylinder and breathes through forced induction. Yet, for all this, they are separated by just a breath less than 70 years.
For at my disposal sits the first of the 50 supercharged 4¼-litre Bentleys. Built in 1929 and used as the factory demonstrator it possesses a rare originality and, if it did not actually race at Le Mans, its specification varies little from those that did. To drive such a car in such a place… you can see the opportunity was not to be passed.
Vintage Bentleys have acquired an almost entirely undeserved reputation of being somewhat piggish to drive. A central accelerator pedal may not be to everyone’s taste, but the last two I have driven, this Blower included, have been modified to feature a conventional layout. As for the gearbox, a modicum of thought and a splash of mechanical sympathy is all that’s required to exchange cogs smoothly and, usually, silently.
To be honest, it doesn’t feel that fast; a normally aspirated but race-prepared 4½ is a much swifter device today. Instead it feels as it is: authentic. The heavy supercharger slung between the dumb-irons makes it understeer if you enter a corner on a trailing throttle while the tall, thin road tyres makes sure that adhesion is something to be sought, not presumed. The trick is always to use the engine’s mighty torque. Ease onto the throttle as soon as you wish to change direction and the Bentley becomes an entirely different proposition: one that goes where it’s pointed and, once aimed into a curve, is almost impossible to upset, no matter how hard you pour on the power. There is a definite technique to be learned but the investment is repaid many times over. Thundering past the pits, under the Dunlop bridge, over the hill and down towards Tertre Rouge, I thought I’d found heaven.
No one, least of all the people from Bentley, is suggesting the Arnage is the Blower Incarnate. The Blower may never have won an important race but that does not call into question its purpose. The Arnage works to a rather different brief If you talk to the people from Bentley today they talk longingly about a return to motor racing and refuse to say never. Graham Morris, the enigmatic Chief Executive of Rolls-Royce, and therefore Bentley, is well aware, for instance, that Jaguar has been dining out on its 1988 Le Mans victory for a decade. But he insists, rightly, that any return to racing would have to be a properly funded attempt with victory the first and only goal. When we spoke, neither he nor I knew the identity of Bentley’s new owners. Now, with BMW’s Deutschmarks, such a programme is at least possible.
So now it is time to climb aboard the Arnage. What struck me most about the car is how much better it looks than its sister, Rolls-Royce’s Silver Seraph. They may share the same bodies but, in their execution, the best decisions went almost entirely the way of the Bentley. Where the Rolls looks curiously disjointed to me, as if the front and back do not belong to each other, the Bentley looks tight and cohesive, a sight made better by dark colours. The secret, it would seem, is in the detailing.
On the inside of this entirely new car, there is so much that has changed it is a little too easy to forget those values which remain intact. There is more room for the driver and, crucially, markedly more space for those travelling in the back. Now there is no need to specify a long wheelbase simply to accommodate four people in adequate comfort; which is as well for, as yet, no such wheelbase exists. The driving environment has been cleaned up too and presents its information and controls more simply and effectively. Sadly, however, a little soul has been lost here. The traditional rotary dials for the air-conditioning being replaced by items scavenged from BMW’s parts bin and look as wildly out of place in a Bentley cabin as the similarly sourced cruise control buttons on the steering wheel.
Delightfully, however, the driving position remains as imperious as ever. You would need a Range Rover for a better view over the traffic and an armchair by the fire before you’ll find a more comfortable vantage point.
The car starts with a twist of the key, not the press of a button which, in this book, is a trick missed. Even so, BMW’s Cosworth-modified twin-turbo V8 spins sweetly and discreetly into life. The rev-counter imparts the news that this engine will spin to 6000rpm which is likely to startle any Bentley driver. The very first Bentley revved to around 3500rpm and it took the thick end of 80 years to add another 1000rpm to that figure. Now, a further 1500rpm has been added overnight.
Fans should not take fright at this. The 4.4-litre motor has been tuned more for torque than power so that while its 350bhp may sound merely adequate for a car of overtly sporting pretension weighing over 2300kg, it comes with the reassurance of 413lb ft of torque way down at 2500rpm. The result is a perfectly judged engine for a contemporary Bentley and one which interacts with its five-speed automatic gearbox with deft precision.
There is little shame in the knowledge that, in terms of all-out acceleration, the Arnage is probably just a little slower than the car it replaces, the Turbo RT. Bentley says it will still deliver you to 60mph in 6.2sec which, for a four-door saloon, should prove sufficient. Certainly the rate at which it gathered speed down the Mulsanne Straight bordered on the prodigious and its top speed of 150mph should not be seriously doubted. It is, for almost all potential clients, fast enough and for those for whom still more is required, the Continental coupe remains available with in excess of 400bhp.
So far, there has been little that’s truly startling about the Arnage. The interior clean-up was inevitable, the surging power of BMW’s motor pleasant but in no way surprising. Where this Bentley departs from any predictable plot is in its chassis behaviour. Anyone who has travelled in any Crewe saloon of recent times will know the common faults inherent within their structure. The cause was a lack of body rigidity, the effect a view of the open road akin to a galleon’s view of the open ocean. They heaved over crests, creaked over bumps and, with varying degrees of success, wallowed through the comers. Bentleys were invariably better than Rollses, but even so I can think of no car which so readily proved the diametrically opposed interests of ride and handling. Any improvement in one came at the instant and obvious expense of the other.
No longer. If I say the Bentley Arnage strikes a ride and handling balance that, for its own purposes, approaches the excellence of Motor Sport’s Jaguar XJ11 chassis, then I intend only high praise. While the lighter Jaguar is more agile, and ultimately capable of generating rather more adhesion, I think that in ten-ns of pure body control on undulating roads it is the Bentley, if any, which comes off best. Humps and dips which would have had a Turbo R struggling to maintain its ride height seem no longer to exist and while this trick is not new to Bentley (the awesomely well tied down Continental T does no less), this time it has not been achieved with military secondary tide quality. On the contrary, it rides with smoothness we always hoped for but too rarely received from the Silent Sportscar.
Of course, the role of sportscar is not one the Arnage was ever meant to perform; but it plays the part of the sporting saloon with conviction. In all areas of behaviour in which the Turbo R was found to be lacking, the Arnage proves implausibly capable. Its steering, for instance, is boldly heavy and admirably precise, though almost inevitably lacking the feel that has now been exorcised from, so far as I can judge, every large car on sale.
More impressive still, is the removal of the understeer that was becoming as much part of the Bentley furniture as the winged ‘B’. I think it unlikely that too many Arnage owners are going to spend much time with the traction control switched off, hoping for an opportunity to boot it sideways but I can report, if only for the sake of the form book, that it responds to such treatment with considerable grace, oxidising its rear Michelins with the best of them. In more normal circumstances it simply feels a world more composed and, crucially for such a car, economical with road space.
It is rare that any new car outperforms all reasonable expectations, and this is not a compliment that I would feel inclined to pay the Amage’s sister, the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. While doubtless an improvement on the Spirit it succeeds, its V12 engine is no match at all for the Bentley’s V8, and it looks markedly less appealing, while its chassis makes a poorer match for a Rolls than the Arnage’s does for a Bentley.
The Arnage, on the other hand, is a dramatically better car than you could reasonably hope, given particularly that its development budget would be unlikely to fill the Mercedes-Benz petty cash tin. Unlike the Seraph, which is merely more capable, the Arnage is more charming too and, critically, better at being a Bentley. Before the sell-off-to BMW, plans at Crewe were for the marques to continue to diversify and I can see no good reason why its new board members in Munich would choose to interfere with the strategy. My judgement is that the future for Bentley is brighter now than at any time since before the war, which, given that it has just produced its best car since that time, is both fitting and just. The debt owed by fans of the marque to those who spent the last 20 years bringing the marque from rebadged Silver Shadow to this point is almost incalculable.