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.

Inside Cool River's vast, dark-paneled saloon, the service is attentive. Maybe it's the crackerjack staff, maybe it's Mr. Deep Pockets and his reputation as a generous tipper. Maybe it's the car. In any case, Deep has hardly unwrapped his cigar (a genuine Bolivar from Havana, $450 a box in Canada, accept no substitutes) when a waitress is at his elbow, offering a light.

When the first match fails, she fires up the entire pack. Deep laughs and ignites his stogie from the proffered blaze, drawing glances from the stockbrokers shooting nine-ball, the developers murmuring into cell phones, the white guy at the bar in the Kangol hat, trying to do the Samuel L. Jackson thing. Deep pays for the drinks with Mr. Franklin, collects his change and tosses Mr. Jackson -- Andrew, not Samuel L. -- to the little pyromaniac as a tip.

Deep puffs contentedly on his Bolivar.

"They're not frightened to show they're successful."
John Johnston
"They're not frightened to show they're successful."
When I made some money, I knew I had to have one."
John Johnston
When I made some money, I knew I had to have one."

"This is what happens," he says, "when you drive a Bentley."

He had a small but comfortable flat off the King's Road, an elderly Scottish housekeeper -- a treasure called May -- and a 1930 4.5-litre Bentley coupe, supercharged, which he kept expertly tuned so that he could do a hundred when he wanted to.

On these things he spent all his money, and it was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.

-- Ian Fleming, Moonraker

The Bentley mystique owes something to auto-racing lore and a great deal more to the parent company's efforts to market its "lineage" -- which, like all British mythmaking, turns out to be part history, part fancy. Curiously, one of the car's greatest enthusiasts is a fictional spy whom most people associate with an entirely different set of wheels.

Company founder Walter Owen Bentley developed his namesake car as a racing machine. During the 1920s, Bentleys dominated the 24-hour race at Le Mans; over a span of seven years, the "Bentley Boys" finished first five times, a record that wasn't equaled until the 1950s (by Jaguar) and not surpassed until the 1960s (Ferrari). W.O. Bentley knew how to build fast cars, but alas, he had no gift for selling them. In 1931 the company fell into receivership and was taken over by Rolls-Royce, setting up a tangled sibling rivalry that persists to this day.

Shortly before the change of ownership, a young journalist named Ian Fleming covered the 1930 race at Le Mans and watched the Bentley team carry the day. He never forgot it. Two decades later, he put his creation, James Bond, behind the wheel of a 1930 Bentley, figuring that Agent 007 would settle for nothing less than the most elegant muscle car on the road. The choice of model year was significant; Fleming didn't like what happened to Bentleys once Charles Rolls and Henry Royce got their hands on the franchise. Bond lamented that they'd become "sedate town carriages."

When Bond's vintage coupe succumbed to the carnage of his spy missions, Fleming outfitted him with a later model, a 1953 Mark VI. But halfway through the series, Bond got stuck with a tricked-up Aston Martin DB3 from the motor pool, which became a DB5 in the fabulous film version of Goldfinger. Thanks to the power of the movies, the specially outfitted Aston Martin soon became known as the Bond car. A Bentley makes a brief appearance in From Russia With Love, as well as in the off-brand 007 films Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, but they have none of the pizzazz of the DB5 or the earlier Bentleys of the novels.

But then, the Bentley didn't have much cachet in post-war England, let alone in America. Back in the 1930s, "the car was way ahead of its time -- very fast and quiet," notes Bentley dealer Watkin. "It was known as the 'silent sports car.' But from the end of the war until 1985, Bentleys were basically debadged Rolls-Royces. There were a few differences, a few special cars, but they were pretty much the same."

Then management had an inspiration. Why not take that big old Bentley engine and bolt a turbocharger to it? "That upped the horsepower considerably," Watkin says. "The spirit of Bentley came back to life."

At first available only in Europe, the souped-up Bentley was an immediate success. Other refinements followed, and the brand began to establish its own identity again. Twenty years ago Bentleys accounted for less than 5 percent of the sales of Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars Inc. Now they're responsible for more than half of the company's revenues.

Today, though, neither car is an entirely British product. In recent years, RR&B has embarked on a fruitful collaboration with other European manufacturers; when the Arnage Green Label was introduced in 1998, for example, it came with a BMW engine. The deals led to merger talks and a fierce bidding war for RR&B between BMW and Volkswagen. Volkswagen won the war in 1998 but wound up agreeing to divide the spoils. The result is that Bentleys will continue to be manufactured by Volkswagen at the existing plant in Crewe, England, but in 2003 the Rolls operation will be divested, taken over by BMW and moved elsewhere.

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