Big Wheels

Spending $250,000 on a car may not make you happy. But among Denver's rich and famous, it's one way of keeping score.

In pursuit of the good life, Mr. Deep Pockets takes the highway.

The big silver automobile cruises through the thinning evening traffic with hardly a whisper of effort. The soundtrack from Local Hero plays softly on the CD system. Mr. Deep Pockets turns up the volume, as if to fill the cavernous quiet inside the car.

He seeks out the middle lane, which seems to be moving faster tonight than the fast lane. Heads turn as we sail by. There's no shortage of new cars decked out in millennial silver on the road, but this one stands out like a Stradivarius at a flea market. From a distance, it looks like one of those retro, custom-kit jobs, low and sporty. Closer up, you can see it's not so much low as wide...Lordy, it's huge...with the squat, powerful, sumo-like presence associated with high-end luxury cars. British, to be sure, yet it lacks the distinctive barred grill and seraphic hood ornament of a Rolls-Royce. Instead, the hood and trunk bear a small badge -- a winged brass "B" embedded in red enamel.

What would make an otherwise sane person sink a quarter of a million dollars into a car?
John Johnston
What would make an otherwise sane person sink a quarter of a million dollars into a car?

Perhaps only a true connoisseur would recognize Deep's car for what it is: a Bentley Arnage Red Label, new to the market this year. Turbocharged 6.75-liter V8. Four hundred horsepower. An astonishing 619 pound-feet of torque -- a miraculous degree of thrust for a three-ton car, the most of any four-door sedan in the world. List price, nicely equipped, $217,195. Add luxury tax, gas-guzzler tax, sales tax and a tip for the shag boy, and the out-the-door ticket comes to around $245,000.

A slow-moving, half-smashed pickup truck, a garbage scow on four wheels, drifts into our lane. Deep pulls into the passing lane and blows past. It's as if the truck stopped abruptly in its tracks; the Bentley doesn't seem to have speeded up at all. There is no hesitation when the turbocharger kicks in, no lurching burst of speed, no sudden drop. Instead, there is only a smooth, steady sensation of motion, like plummeting down a well-polished slide -- what the insufferably smug Arnage sales brochure calls "a feeling of ceaseless acceleration from any engine speed, a tide of torque that appears to swell, but never subside."

The Arnage can ride the tide from zero to sixty in 5.9 seconds. But speed and power are only part of its appeal. The car boasts a Connolly leather interior, 550 square feet of premium cowhide available in a choice of 23 colors. It gleams with all the craftmanship that goes into the world's slowest-moving auto production line, including painstakingly polished walnut veneers and elaborate soundproofing. There are individual climate controls for each passenger and gadgets worthy of James Bond, perhaps the most celebrated Bentley owner.

And then there is the priceless response Mr. Deep Pockets gets as he steers the Arnage off the highway and into the parking lot of Cool River, the upscale sports-bar-steakhouse-pool-hall in the Denver Tech Center that has become the place to be seen in the southeast suburbs these days.

Departing patrons gawk, trying to place the newcomer in their lexicon of luxury. A beaming valet hustles to be the one to open Deep's door.

"You know who I am?" Deep asks.

"Yes, sir," the valet replies.

"Good. Park it up front."

Lots of people know Deep. I have known him for years, through various personal and professional connections. An ambitious and work-obsessed attorney, he has made his fortune in class-action litigation against powerful and arrogant Fortune 500 corporations, hence the nickname Mr. Deep Pockets -- Deep, for short. In exchange for anonymity, he has agreed to let me ride along, to try to fathom the particular statement a Bentley makes in Denver's increasingly visible culture of raging affluence. He might even let me drive.

What would make an otherwise sane person, no matter how rich, sink a quarter of a million dollars into a car? The matter is more complicated than it appears, for Mr. Deep Pockets is not the only well-known Denverite to fall under the spell of the Arnage. Perhaps the most telling sign of the city's current surge in conspicuous consumption isn't the increase in million-dollar homes, the boys at Sacre Bleu or the $900-a-seat luxury boxes available at the new Broncos stadium, but the arrival of the Bentley in the tonier valet parking lots -- the places where the elite meet to compete.

Last year, Stewart's Ferrari of Denver, the exclusive Bentley dealership in Colorado, sold a total of eight Bentleys. This year it expects to sell twelve. Peddlers of Ford Excursions or even Mercedes SUVs don't have much to worry about, but the local uptick is part of a tremendous leap in the sales of Bentleys nationwide. An automaker most Americans know little or nothing about, that produces barely 1,600 vehicles a year, all priced between $200,000 and $350,000, has become the darling of drivers to whom price is no object.

Employees at Stewart's decline to discuss their customers beyond broad generalities. "Some of them are high-profile people," acknowledges Bentley sales manager Jonathan Watkin. "They're not frightened to show they're successful."

Valets around town say they've sighted three or four local celebrities driving Bentleys, including Janet Elway and diamond magnate Tom Shane, who reportedly had the "B" badge removed in a futile bid for nondescriptness. Badged or not, the cars lack the instant-recognition factor of a Rolls-Royce, even though the two makes have been manufactured side by side for almost seventy years. Indeed, the Bentley delivers a more sophisticated and yet less ostentatious "message" than a Rolls, one that's oddly fitting in these green and wild times.

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