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.

The German conquest stuck in the craw of merry old England; it was every bit as unpleasant as watching Pierce Brosnan mucking about in a Beemer in the last three Bond flicks. But the sale promises to have its advantages, too. Although RR&B has a deserved reputation for durability -- more than 60 percent of all Rolls-Royces ever made are still "roadworthy" -- the company has had its share of glitches, particularly in its electrical systems. Anglophiles boast that a Rolls-Royce never breaks down -- it simply "fails to proceed." But after it's failed to proceed five or six times, one begins to welcome an infusion of German technology.

The divorce also serves to highlight the differences between Bentley and Rolls. One of Volkswagen's first moves after buying the company was to curb the practice of putting BMW engines in Bentleys. Deep's car, the Arnage Red Label, has a much bigger, brawnier, made-in-England power plant than the punier Green Label. The new design is much more closely aligned with the Bentley tradition -- and has nearly double the torque of a comparably priced Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph.

The nuances that separate a Rolls from a Bentley may be lost on most American consumers. But to someone about to plunk down the equivalent of a respectable house mortgage for the right image, they matter. Consider the connotations.

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?

The Rolls is old money, snooty button-down chauffeurs and fussy white-haired gents asking each other if they have any Grey Poupon. The Bentley is new money, self-made millionaires who like to drive fast -- but without all the fireworks and open-throttle howling of a Ferrari.

The Rolls is about oil barons, Dom Perignon and the cliche-ridden boardroom backstabbing of Dynasty. The Bentley is about corporate raiders, peppered vodka and the intricate, cutthroat competition of Survivor.

A few years ago, when Giancarlo Parretti, the Italian swindler who fleeced the Credit Lyonnais of Paris, came to Hollywood to take over MGM, he arrived at the studio in a Rolls-Royce. When O.J. Simpson decided to hit the McDonald's drive-through on the night his ex-wife was murdered, he took the Bentley -- and Kato Kaelin, of course.

The Rolls is in-your-face affluence. The Bentley is a coded message about silent power -- style as well as money.

The Bentley is James Bond, as Fleming first imagined him: virile, nimble, coolly fatalistic, impeccably equipped.

The Rolls? That's Goldfinger's car.

Mr. Deep Pockets does not drive his Arnage every day. Like most Bentley owners, he has several other cars, including a Mercedes. But for certain excursions, the Bentley is indispensable -- lunch at The Palm, for example.

"The most important place to take it is The Palm," Deep explains, "so they can park it next to Steve Farber's dinky Porsche."

Deep is such a regular at The Palm that the management has promised to put his caricature on the wall, right up there with Denver's other big wheels. Today he is joined at his table by two old friends, a former prosecutor and an attorney whose high-profile divorce cases include the dissolution of a certain supermodel's third marriage. Both of them are nattering on about the Bentley.

"What's the deal?" the divorce attorney demands. "Are you going to keep that car?"

"I'm never going to sell it," Deep says. "Not unless they make a faster, better one."

"Why do you have it at all?"

"To impress people. I'm a very shallow person."

"Does it work?" asks the former prosecutor.

"Everyone at the club hates me," Deep says.

"So it's already paying dividends," says the divorce attorney.

Deep launches into a story about beating a doctor at golf. The sawbones did not accept defeat graciously, especially when he saw Deep stowing his clubs in a Bentley. He threatened to ram the car with his BMW. "Guy's a sore loser," Deep says.

From his catbird seat near the front of the restaurant, Deep can see the procession of dark-suited diners being escorted to their usual tables. Some nod casually in his direction, a few stroll over to exchange gibes. Deep takes it all in, all these 17th Street legal eagles tucking into prime rib sandwiches and pasta carbonara, maybe some ahi or ono or mahi-mahi on the side. He is as much at home here as any of them, and that is part of what the Bentley is all about.

"When I first got out of law school," he says, "I couldn't get an interview with these big law firms. They didn't think I was their kind of material. They didn't like me."

They still may not like him, but they respect his work. The Bentley won't change anyone's opinion of Deep, but it's one way he keeps score. One-upmanship is a powerful force in the luxury-car market, and the snob appeal of a Bentley is multifaceted. Most people don't have one and don't even know what it is, yet among those in the know, the car draws envious scowls -- which, of course, Deep savors, as much as the perplexity of the uninitiated. Deep was finally prompted to buy his Arnage when he went to a party in Greenwood Village and saw not one, but two of them parked in the driveway -- proof positive that it isn't just fourteen-year-old girls begging for nose rings who feel the tug of peer pressure.

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