Revisiting the juggernaut that saved Bentley from disaster
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You will likely never have heard of Hans-Joachim Rotherpieler, but if you want an idea of just how bad things were at Bentley at the time Volkswagen bought it in 1998, he provides a rare and useful insight.
He was the man VW parachuted into Crewe to look after quality and production. I once asked him for his impressions after his first factory tour, and his words did not need interpretation: “I thought we should close the place down.”
Of course I could be writing this piece about the 1982 Bentley Mulsanne Turbo, the first Bentley in years to be anything other than a badge-engineered Rolls-Royce. That car turned around Bentley's fortunes so dramatically that by the time VW stepped forward, the firm was outselling Rolls by ten to one.
But sales were still miniscule, quality still variable and the cars more charming than competitive in the marketplace. Volkswagen’s vision for the company was not simply to make better what it already had but to bring the prospect of Bentley ownership to a wider audience than ever before.
So it did three things: it rebuilt the Crewe factory essentially from scratch, it commissioned a racing programme with a successful three-year strategy to win Le Mans in order to get Bentley back in the public eye, and it designed the Continental GT.
Smoke still comes out of the ears of Bentley executives when it’s suggested the Continental GT is just a VW Phaeton in eveningwear. Though there were some elements of their respective architectures were common to both, they shared not one significant dimension. Under the bonnet was placed a 6.0-litre, twin-turbo, 12-cylinder engine with 552bhp – far more power than any Bentley in history – and the car was clothed in bodywork that, if not conventionally pretty, was certainly handsome and exuded purpose.
Inside, those who predicted a raid on the Volkswagen parts bin soon had their fears put to rest. The wood and leather were fully up to Bentley standards and the interior design probably the brand’s best yet.
So here was a state-of-the-art Bentley, capable of 200mph, more powerful and better built than any in history, yet the company didn’t want more money for it: it wanted less. Much, much less. When sales began in 2004, a 450bhp Arnage cost £170,000 and the 552bhp Continental GT 'just' £112,750.
Having barely sold 1,000 cars in 2003, in 2004 Bentley sold more than 6,500 cars. By 2007, by which time the vanilla GT had been joined by sister products the convertible GTC and Flying Spur saloon, Bentley production topped 10,000. This figure was too high for its traditional home at Crewe to handle and a few Flying Spurs had to be built at VW’s Phaeton factory in Dresden.
The financial crisis hit hard, sales more than halving in 2009, but by 2013 were back above 10,000 where they have stayed ever since. With sales of the next-generation Continental GT due to start in Spring 2018, Bently is hoping that this powerful machine will help propel the company to even greater prominence.
But however good it is, it is unlikely to command the same affection in Crewe as the original Continental GT, the car that finally realised the potential that had always been locked away within the Bentley brand.
- Telegraph UK