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.

Yet Deep's affection for his Bentley isn't simply a matter of self-promotion. If he just wanted to impress people, he could have bought a Rolls-Royce Corniche, a much splashier and more expensive car than the Arnage. But he has dreamed of owning a Bentley ever since he read the Bond books as a kid, he says, and now that the car has come into its own again, why not? He considers it his gift to himself for years of toil in the courtroom, the grim defeats making the victories sweeter.

Ask the vaguely un-American question of whether so much free-floating cash might be put to better use, and Deep frowns as if faced with the task of explaining to a child the truth about Santa Claus. He already gives a great deal to charities and worthwhile causes, he notes. But does that he mean he should resign himself to being a pedestrian, Nader? What makes him any more prodigal than the buyers of Navigators and Vipers, except that he has more money and taste? What self-respecting, hardworking millionaire would deny himself his passion?

"When you love something the way I love cars," he explains, "you want to get the ultimate."

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?

Deep finishes his lunch, checks his messages on his cell phone and heads outside. The Bentley is parked up front, no Porsche in sight. The valet approaches Deep with the air of a professional courtier.

"I kept your key in a special pocket," he confides.

"Good man," Deep says. He reaches for his wallet, then stops, realizing that he's already tipped the fellow.

As a child growing up in Wales, Jonathan Watkin became fascinated with the English notion of what a luxury car should be. Every time he went to London, he saw one Rolls-Royce after another; they were everywhere, it seemed.

Later, in his early twenties, he shared an apartment with a friend who worked in a Rolls plant. The two would carpool in models fresh off the assembly line -- shiny, well-sealed capsules of elegance with twenty miles or so on the odometer. "That's what got me started," Watkin remembers. "When I made some money, I knew I had to have one."

Watkin found a way to have more than one. He married an American, moved to Denver and started a limousine service that offered Bentleys and Rolls-Royces for weddings and other special occasions. In time, though, he discovered that he preferred the Bentley to the Rolls. He wanted the power, the rocket-ship oomph of a Bentley. And he didn't want the inescapable Rolls hood ornament.

"I was absolutely typical," Watkin says now. "I didn't want the flying lady in front of me. Not on a new car. On an old car, fine. Everyone appreciates a classic. But it makes a different statement as a brand-new car."

Watkin sold the limousine company, and now he sells Bentleys for a living. Like Watkin himself, many of his customers start out ogling a Rolls, but then do their homework and end up opting for the "B" badge. Although the car has been available in Denver for 25 years, demand has taken off in the past couple of years -- a sign, perhaps, that this boom is different from previous ones.

"Back in the oil boom days, conspicuous consumption was just fine," Watkin says. "They were selling Rolls-Royces here right, left and center. Now people have learned a bit. They're not quite as determined to throw it in the face of those who aren't making it. That's why they buy a Bentley. It's subtler. It's faster. And, of course, there's more certainty about the company's future at this point."

With his Brit accent and extensive knowledge of Bentleys, Watkin may be the ideal guide to acclimate new buyers to the notion of shooting the works on a car their buddies have never heard of. It's a delicate and often lengthy courtship. Aside from the rare sheikh or Internet pirate on a shopping spree, impulse buys are not common in the world of ultra-luxury cars. Prospects must be cultivated over a period of months, not weeks, before the moment of decision arrives. Even so, Watkin says, local demand for the Arnage Red Label is outpacing supply.

"We've had a phenomenal response. These are difficult to get hold of now," he says, gesturing at the lone Arnage in the Stewart's showroom. "Production is at capacity. Getting people interested in them is no problem. The problem is, you've got to find out who is a serious player and get $220,000 out of them."

Watkin has his own informal method of qualifying prospects before tossing them the keys for a test drive. In many cases, the customers are already known to the dealership by reputation or because of a previous Ferrari purchase. Sometimes there are visual clues -- a man's wristwatch, say, or a woman's shoes -- that help determine whether a walk-in is true Bentley material or a Yugo owner out for a fantasy spin.

According to company research, the average Bentley owner is 53 years old and has a personal portfolio worth around $18 million; he's male, a CEO or business owner with four or five other cars in the garage -- one of them likely a Mercedes. Only a small percentage of them employ chauffeurs. By contrast, a Rolls-Royce owner tends to be older and is more likely to hire someone else to do the driving.

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