Reclaiming Bentley

Bentley’s Global Mulsanne Drive is a back-roads tour of England’s historic countryside from behind the wheel of Bentley’s Grand-Tourer flagship, the Mulsanne (pronounced Mul-saan). Dossier was invited to take part by our friends at Syndicate Media, along with several other journalists from comparably successful but definitively independent, niche publications. The unreasonably extravagant itinerary included tea at the former weekend retreat of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, lodging at the Hartwell House, where Louis XVIII took up shelter as the exiled King of France, and a track-day at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, where we were provoked by Bentley’s wild-eyed engineers to beat the fuck out of their cars. On the track, the journalists’ collective efforts were, at best, below average, for which we were suitably mocked by our playfully unimpressed hosts. That being said, our reticence to push the Mulsanne as hard as we were being encouraged to is easy to understand. First of all, none of us were motorsports journalists. It seemed, in fact, that the immediate status of most of our legal driving privileges were either suspiciously unknown, or in some varied state of revocation. I was only remotely qualified having been a licensed amateur motorcycle racer nearly 10 years ago. Then, of course, there’s was the car, or, more specifically, our debilitating fear of wrecking it.

Perhaps, however, we needn’t have been so concerned. After all, these maniacs named their flagship, a $500,000 handcrafted car, after the deadliest straight in motorsports history, the Circuit de la Sarth’s Mulsanne Straight. Circuit de la Sarth is the home of the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race, the world’s oldest, and certainly most dangerous, active sports car endurance race. Unlike more familiar (read: American) road racing events, where the goal is to complete a specified number of laps in the shortest amount of time, an endurance race like Le Mans rewards the driver who has completed the most laps of a designated circuit within a specific period of time. An endurance race is meant to test the durability of both car and driver. Today, ACO regulations require each car to have at least three drivers sharing driving responsibilities. Originally, there were no rules on the number of drivers of a car (originally, there was not even a rule requiring seatbelts). That said, two drivers per car was still more often the rule than the exception. Otherwise, a single driver at Le Mans would have been expected to cover distances in excess of 3000 miles, at an average speed of 130 mph, in 24 hours, in the middle of the summer and without air conditioning. Oddly, in 1955, Daimler-Benz is believed to have hired Pierre Levegh to do just that. Levegh’s courting and subsequent employ was likely the result of his maniacally committed performance in the 1952 Le Mans, where, after driving for 23 hours straight, he very nearly won the race. The reckless strategy in the 1955 race yielded unfortunate, but just, results. Although the Mercedes-Benz factory team was assigned a second driver, after about seven hours of straight racing, a fully committed Pierre Levegh collided with another car at about 150 mph. The resulting accident killed him, along with 83 of the event’s spectators. Individuals fortunate enough to have been mercifully decapitated by the car’s hood didn’t have to endure the fiery-wrath of white-hot molten magnesium-alloy searing the skin off of their bodies. Some died less extraordinarily, simply crushed under the hot weight of various car parts that made their way into the stands. Because the straight is responsible for more than half of the circuit’s 21 driver fatalities, the ACO had the original six kilometer straight reduced to two kilometers. However, before they did, this long and frenzied section of the circuit served to very effectively highlight the strengths and character of W.O. Bentley’s cars, which are heavy, fast, and sturdy.

The Mulsanne embodies this same spirit, and clearly benefits from the marque’s racing heritage. Starting at approximately $330,000 (although out the door it is said to be closer to $500,000), the heroically elegant Grand-Tourer features an eight-speed gearbox that seamlessly transmits oodles of power from a very sophisticated  6 3/4-litre, twin-turbocharged, 505 horsepower V8 to the rear wheels of the car. To put this into some perspective, a supercharged Corvette ZR1, designed to do little more than go fast, also produces about 505 horsepower at the rear wheel, which helps propel it to a top speed of 205 MPH. The Mulsanne, because it’s been designed to do be a bit more, is heavier than the ZR1, resulting in a slightly lesser, but still very impressive, top speed of 187 mph.

The trip was amazing, but when first approached to cover it, I was unsure that it would be. Certainly this is the sort of thing that makes my parents proud, but my parents are a couple of mentally-ill, semi-retired, Long Island Jews who now reside in Boca Raton, Florida. For those who may be unfamiliar with the wealthy city in Palm Beach county, it’s a place where nouveau-riche Long Islanders go to retire. The women look like Oompa Loompas, if Oompa Loompas were whores, and their husbands, who have likely achieved their white collar lifestyle via blue collar work (e.g., carwash owners, toilet paper salesmen), are short-sighted and cocksure. Having achieved some demented mutation of the American dream, the sense of entitlement exhibited by these ne’er-do-wells is grotesque. Accordingly, their endorsement, along with any aggreable, non-hostile exchange between myself and anyone from Boca Raton, feels shamefully collusive.

Beyond that, as a PhD student, my research explored the impact of marginalization upon adolescent antisocial behavior. Today, I’m the co-founder and executive director of Worth Motorcycle Company, a not-for-profit motorcycle shop based out of Brooklyn. Worth’s mission is to teach at-risk youth and young offenders the art of vintage motorcycle restoration. I’m including this only in an attempt to offset how insane I must sound right now to anyone who’s not me. That’s not completely true. I also suspect that my perspective concerning this truly amazing, once in a life-time experience, might be viewed as ungrateful, petty, and/or immature. I am indeed all of these things, but my intent here is only to illustrate why I might be so tortured by an opportunity to race Bentleys. Right now, I’m expected to herald the launch of an iniative ostensible designed to teach poor black kids how to restore old bikes. Tea at the Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England is just not something I think I’m designed to do. Accordingly, the feature I first proposed after being invited on the trip was entitled, Marginalized Majority, The Current State of Capitalism in America: Why Few are Still Permitted to Thrive Amidst the Efforts of Many. Clearly, this was never going to be the story, but what would be? These things do not move me in the way they seem to move most others. I don’t work for money because it compels me to behave like a dirty old sow. In fact, I could say with near absolute certainty that I’ve worked harder to reject the pitfalls of a life fueled by earning money than I’ve worked on just about anything else. This is likely to be the only thing my girlfriend and I will ever agree on.

With all that said, the trip was amazing. Every aspect of it was meticulously curated by our hosts. I, accordingly, had no ideas for a story. Clearly, I was a fraud. I was unfit and had no right to be there. One could almost guarantee that the ensuing nonsense I was likely to produce would only fall short. Maybe there will be some good pictures. I plugged in the camera and longed to be whatever it is that I claim I am. The pictures were okay. Reviewing them shifted my focus to the moments they captured. There were several interactions between myself and the other journalists which I truly enjoyed. They were personable, and engaging. What they were not, though – seemingly at least – was familiar with the sort of decadent opulence our generous hosts had offered up. The recruitment of this eclectic group of young journalists was indeed curious. Bentley could have coordinated some innocuous press event where all the same journalists, from all of the same media outlets, drove the same car, down the same roads. It wouldn’t have mattered, really. The Mulsanne is a $500,000 Bentley that people will buy because it’s a $500,000 Bentley. So why were we here? Did the event’s meticulous curation extend to us? This seems reasonable enough, but why? There’s nothing at all reasonable about this car. Unreasonable, yes, certainly, but I suddenly no longer thought it was awful. Nor would it ever represent some sort of sociocultural shortcoming again. However, maybe here I could attempt to clarify what I mean by making a distinction between unreasonable and awful.

The Mulsanne is not awful. It is, however, terrifically, and unashamedly unreasonable. Committing to build a hand-crafted flag-ship is not without consequence. The logic is economically unsound and unnecessarily invites justifiable resistance. But any non-normative or deviant behavior will almost certainly encourage similar responses, to varying degrees. While conformity, compliance, and cooperation have definite value, no one worth discussing this with would suggest that there isn’t a value in doing things differently. Bentley has unquestionably committed to doing things differently, and accordingly, their actions warrant response. Interestingly however, the impact of these decisions will most certainly affect Bentley’s bottom line, something I expected them to be a bit more protective of. Manufacturing hand-crafted automobiles from within the exploitive confines of a capital- driven culture, where most of what we buy has been designed to be discarded, should hinder an organization’s ability to compete with those who mass produce. Accordingly, one might characterize Bentley similarly to an artisanal cheese shop which carries small batch products that are locally and responsible farmed. Words like “craftsmanship,” “traditional,” and “artisian” would be more appropriate to associate with the brand than their more commonly publicized reputation as an accessory for corporate lackeys and emotionally bankrupt starlets. Unfortunately, their reputation as an irresponsibe accessory for emotionally bankrupt starlets is more commonly publicized. Their dirty is not compelling, and it’s confused the image of the car.

I wanted to help the storied marque reclaim its identity, its wild spirit, from the throes of these wonky, brand deflating associations. From the car being named after that deranged section of track, to the well-documented exploits of its founder, W.O. Bentley, the evidence is compelling. This car deserves better than its association with Paris Hilton. Bentley Motors has six victories at Le Mans, and their founder wanted that heritage, that unreasonably committed Bentley culture, to be experienced, and valued, by Bentley owners. Fortunately, the back-roads tour through the English countryside in Bentley’s new Mulsanne, equipped with the Executive Interior Specification, was designed to achieve just that.

As our Bentley motorcade traveled through the rolling green hills of Northwestern England, I wondered if I’d like Walter Bentley. He was crazy, so probably yes. Not quite an engineer, nor a true designer, he was instead a true visionary. He was ill-suited for  most things unrelated to motor development and design. He wasn’t especially liked by his peers. He didn’t care to be. He was a bit clumsy too, both physically and emotionally, because again, he couldn’t bother to be otherwise. Financially, he was amazingly irresponsible, and likely for the same reasons. W.O. liked things that went fast, and because he didn’t do anything other than what he wanted to do, that’s what he did: he went fast.

As a boy he was fascinated by locamotives. This prompted him to drop out of college for an apprenticeship with Great Northern Railway at 16. Soon after, he took up motorcycle racing where he was competitive, placing in a number of endurance trials. Then came Bentley Motors Limited, where their first car, the Bentley 3 Litre, after being in production for about 2 years places fourth in the first 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race. Their fourth place effort was followed by a first place victory the year after.

He wasn’t good at things he didn’t care about mostly because he didn’t do them. W.O. spent a great deal of time meticulously testing cars and running endurance type races  in order to highlight Bentley’s strengths: size, weight, and speed. He did this because he liked doing it. He compulsively tested the cars without any care or concern for how his research and development got funded. W.O. Bentley, however, spent nearly no time at all running the organization’s day to day affairs because he didn’t want to. His self-indulgence and one dimensional management style resulted in the company’s receivership in 1931, allowing rival luxuray vehical manufacture, Rolls-Royce, to not only purchase the company with his name on it, but to eventually cut his salary in half, and then prevent him from participating in the vehicle’s design. Ultimately, he was forbidden from entering the premisis, but because he was still obligated  to work, Rolls-Royce had essentially reduced Bentley Motor’s namesake to a hype-man as he traveled about, talking about Bentley Motors, hoping to further generate interest in his cars, which he no longer had any true affiliation with. Rolls-Royce now owned their competition, which meant there was none.

That’s who W.O. Bentley was and it’s what Bentleys have always been.The Bentley legacy includes an unreasonable committment to perfectly crafted cars, which quite comfortably, of course, went rip-fucking fast. W.O.’s manical compulsion to manifest his vision, with complete disregard for anything that stood between him and it, was both his undoing and is now the brand’s enduring appeal. W.O. Bentley couldn’t do anything other than create the cars that he did in the way that he did. His individuality could not be managed, never mind quantified in some bookkeeper’s ledger. It seems as if he couldn’t be managed anywhere, not creatively, financially, emotionally, or romantically. But isn’t that what a Bentley is: a financially unreasonable, emotionally naive, and utterly romantic thing? Its refined finish is the result of W.O.’s almost juvenile dedication to perfection, and I feel pretty awesome to have been given a chance to drive one in the way that he built them to be driven.

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  1. By Dossier Journal » Reclaiming Bentley » Speedys on October 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    [...] post: Dossier Journal » Reclaiming Bentley Tags: bentley, designed, didn, emotionally, endurance, fast, journalists, motor, mulsanne, [...]

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