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.

Watkin says that Denver's Bentley buyers are often younger than the profile; Mr. Deep Pockets, for example, is in his mid-forties. Some may not yet be as wealthy as the typical Bentley owner, either, but once they've made up their minds, they want their Arnage now. A few of the buyers at the Stewart's dealership are interested in making some kind of leasing arrangement because of the tax advantages, but most simply write a check for the full amount.

The Arnage sales brochure does a marvelous job of making the purchase sound like an absolute bargain. After all, you're getting "the world's most exhilarating saloon car," with its famous "all-steel monocoque construction with high torsional rigidity," not to mention those nifty badges and the honeycombed matrix grill up front, so evocative of the racing machines of the 1920s. The car possesses "an agility that belies its size," "a commanding presence on the road," and an exhaust system that's "tuneful and charismatic under full throttle, yet subdued around town." And don't forget the Park Distance Control system, a kind of sonar device that alerts the driver to "obstacles" when parking, and the video screen that pops up on the dash, Bond-like, whenever the driver feels like using the global positioning satellite receiver to track his exact location, complete with "voice commands providing audible instructions."

Watkin says most buyers are drawn to the look and power of the Arnage, not the high-tech, whiz-bang stuff. The other principal attractions include "the leather, the wood, the air conditioning and the fact that nobody else has got one," he says. "I think the gadgets help, but I don't think they're a major selling point. You can get gadgets on your Lexus, but you don't get eight cowhides. You don't get the blue piping, custom-built seats, the degree of variation these cars have. It takes 150 hours just to finish the woodwork."

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?

A player who doesn't want the model on the showroom floor can choose to customize a wealth of details on his personal Arnage, to be delivered in six months. Paint, leather and trim are all variable. Not happy with a walnut dashboard? How about maple, oak or aluminum? Want the switches veneered? How about electric blinds in the rear, a fridge, and a special steel plaque mounted inside the car attesting to who owns it?

If the options list still doesn't suit, you can move up to one of the Bentley's two-door models. (In the luxury market, the two-door jobs cost more, not less, than four-door sedans.) The Bentley Continental SC, with a slightly different engine from the Arnage, goes for a cool $300,000. The Azure, a convertible popular with female buyers, boasts a design by Ferrari stylist Pininfarina and lists at $340,000.

Do the purchasers of such cars ever suffer buyer's remorse? Likely not; there aren't a lot of used Bentleys for sale in the classifieds (although Stewart's currently has a couple of pre-owned models, including a 1997 Continental T, black exterior with oatmeal and tangier hides, a maple dash and a red starter button, priced to move at $225,000). The closest Mr. Deep Pockets has come to second thoughts was the first time he took his Arnage to The Palm; he emerged to find it sitting in a puddle of coolant, thanks to a careless O-ring installation at the plant. It was a minor but inexcusable slip, and Deep was livid. When you pay a quarter-million for a car, it ought to be perfect, right?

Watkin understands the sentiment. "We deal with highly successful people," he says. "They don't want excuses for why something is not working. They don't accept mistakes in their business, and they don't want them from us."

The unfortunate incident was resolved quickly. Deep's Arnage was rushed into intensive care, and Stewart's supplied him with another Bentley until the problem could be fixed. To his amusement, Deep was treated as a bit of a patient himself.

"They sent me a basket of fruit," he says, "and called me every day to see how I was doing."

Psychologist Harvey Milkman teaches at Metropolitan State College of Denver and has written extensively on the links between addictions, brain chemistry and thrill-seeking behavior. He considers a huge, expensive car like the Bentley to be "one of the ultimate symbols of dominance," a human expression of the kind of chest-beating that goes on in the primate world all the time.

To Milkman, the quest for the "perfect" car has to do with the psychic and physiological rewards of dominance -- manifested by the elevated levels of seratonin one finds in the brains of leaders of the pack. Buying a car that only a handful of people recognize as a trend-setter ups the ante, he says: "It's an image of covert power. You don't need to impress the proletariat any more, you want to impress a smaller circle. It's also an attempt to achieve ecstasy. But the ecstasy never lasts."

No, it doesn't. My own brush with rapture comes on a moonless weeknight, in the widest stretches of I-25 as it courses through the southeast suburbs, and then on the streets of Greenwood Village. Mr. Deep Pockets relinquishes the helm of his Arnage, and for fifteen minutes or so, it's all mine.

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