Big Wheels

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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.

We cruise and coast, dawdle and soar. Mostly we float, with nary a bump or clunk to suggest a possible physical relationship between the big silver car and the road below. It's a bit unnerving, almost as if my grandmother's 1951 Cadillac had been rejuvenated, bred with a hovercraft, and spawned a very fancy, very mobile living room set. It's also immensely satisfying, like piloting your own very quiet, spacious and responsive 747 through a cloudless, untroubled sky.

Whether the Arnage is $120,000 more satisfying than a top-of-the-line Mercedes, or $225,000 more satisfying than a Toyota Camry -- or $242,000 more satisfying than the decaying hulk of my '93 Sable, for that matter -- is another thing. The experts can duke it out, along with questions about elevated seratonin and gas-guzzling excess, squandered resources and the destruction of the environment. For those who seek victory by collecting the best toys, this is the toy of the moment.

But only of the moment. Volkswagen has announced plans to introduce a line of more modestly priced "baby" Bentleys, for millionaires on a budget. The new models will still run into six figures, but at the lower end -- Aston Martin territory, basically. The heftier Bentleys such as the Arnage will continue to be available, but they may be overshadowed by VW's other new luxury line. The company has bought the rights to the Bugatti name and will start offering "the car of kings" for sale in three years.

The 1929 Bugatti Royale Type 41 is the largest sedan in automobile history. Marketed to Europe's dwindling ranks of royalty, only six of the monsters were ever built. Volkswagen will manufacture its own version of the car at a chateau in France, where wealthy buyers may visit to follow the manufacturing process. Fifty will be made each year. Expected list price: $1.125 million each.

Mr. Deep Pockets can hardly wait. "I don't know if I'd want one," he says, "but I'd sure like to take one for a drive."


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