1999 Bentley Arnage

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By 

Los Angeles Times

For every dream there is a machine, and every machine has its maker.

Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars Ltd. of Crewe, England, has been one such noble creator for three years short of a century. The company is also the single, signal source of twin automotive pedigrees that reach beyond obtainable dreams to barely attainable fantasies.

These great cars are the stuff of British queens and Saudi princes, old sultans and new dictators, lords of manors and bosses of drug cartels. Not exactly the folks who live next door in Irvine.

Rollers and Bentleys are so expensive, so impractical, so much the global symbol of ultimate wealth and power, that even billionaires have been unable to step from one without looking back at their dignified wheels. Which makes it appear they rented it from Budget.

Meanwhile, back in the 'burbs, we mortals must be satisfied with crumbs of cradle-to-grave coddling: arriving in a Rolls-Royce for a high school prom, leaving the church after your wedding, being on time for your own funeral.

Now all this fun and decadence seems threatened.

During the summer, German upstarts Volkswagen and BMW came bopping along and snagged Bentley and Rolls-Royce from beneath the elevated noses of romantics and loyalists whose opposition was less about money, more about foreigners mucking about with a British dowager older than the Queen Mum. Despite the upheaval--with contracts still crisp and smarter sales teams signing up for Berlitz German--Rolls and Bentley managed to make three new dream machines in the first seven months of this year.

And the $230,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, the $215,000 Bentley Arnage and, most recently, the $330,000 Bentley Continental SC actually transcend mere dream machines. These are the first and the last of the few.

Silver Seraph is the first Rolls-Royce to be fitted with a BMW engine. It's also the last of the Croesus cars to be built at Crewe before BMW moves production someplace else. Arnage is the first Bentley to be baptized with an engine from BMW. All three are the last sedans and coupes designed with Rolls and Bentley still beneath British ownership.

Add tiny production numbers to the mix, and you have a trio of collectible cars worthy of a place in your investment portfolio. Right next to the Pfizer Inc. stock you bought five years ago. Which might be needed if you plan on thumbing out $800K for three cars.

We--to apply the royal prerogative--have driven these ermine triplets. We--as Queen Victoria once sniffed--were not totally amused. And it has nothing to do with the GG factor, or the number of times you mumble "golly-gee" when reminded of the price. Because when deep pockets go in search of the finest that money can buy, obviously money isn't the issue.

Nor were we intimidated by all that luxury, only deeply appreciative of the painstaking care that speaks to hand-craftsmen still polishing woods and stitching rich leathers with the reverence of their f athers.

Truth is, we feel uncomfortable at the helm of anything weighing just under 3 tons and moving at 142 mph. Or, when surrounded by nervous traffic, wondering if your width will fit that space ahead. And, frankly, we've always been sensitive to sneers from folk in Saturns and Mazdas who view such chariots and presume your vulgarity.

The true wonder of a Rolls or a Bentley, however, is high-tolerance engineering producing mighty power that barely whispers. Despite their weight, a perfectly tuned chassis and precise suspension geometry keep these huge cars on even wheels, no matter the maneuvering.

Sure, they represent decadence within extravagance. But they also carry the legacies of Charles and Louis Tiffany, Thomas Chippendale, Abraham-Louis Breguet and three other blokes: Charles Rolls, Henry Royce and W.O. Bentley.

The Silver Seraph--a somewhat pretentious reference to a celestial being said to hover above God's throne--is powered by a 5.4-literV-12 develop ing 322 horsepower. That muscle shoves this incredible hulk from zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds. Or as quick as a Jaguar XJ8 that weighs many hundredweights less.

The Seraph has been lightened by several hundred pounds and shortened by an inch. The traditional squared radiator has been softened and the famed Flying Lady shrunk. Styling is a design-in-the-round, which means eyes don't stumble over angles and edges but are coaxed around the corners by rounder ends, a rounder roof line and rounder headlights and taillights.

Add liberal use of chrome--even side mirrors have silvered backs--and the Seraph, certainly going away, looks very much like a Lincoln Town Car. Still, this remains a majestic and very exclusive environment that all should taste once before we shuffle off.

So, dream on.

Bentley's Arnage is a luscious overlay of the Seraph, especially the sheet metal, its dimensions, door count and interior appointments.

However, in a massive effort to clearly separate the brands, seers at Crewe have exhumed Bentley's racing glories, a performance heritage of the '20s and '30s that stretched from Indianapolis to Brooklands.

Hence a former model called Brooklands, plus a front air dam, serious wheels and a steel mesh grille for the Arnage--named after a brake-burning right-hand turn at Le Mans, the circuit Bentley cars owned from 1927 to '30. Such mining of the past certainly extends to the engine room, where a new V-8 by Bentley-BMW-Cosworth has twin turbochargers puffing out 350 horsepower.

The steering wheel is smaller and fatter, in keeping with endurance race cars. The shifter is short, molded to the fist, and mounted on the center console. Instruments are analog with black numerals on beige backgrounds, just the way they were in classic times. The Arnage is quicker to 60 mph than the Silver Seraph and by almost a full second; runs out at 150 mph compared with a piddling 140 mph for its cousin; and this sporting Bentley rides and handles rather like an up-market Corvette.

When Bentley introduced its Arnage to Southern California, inauguration was at Willow Springs International Raceway. Big tires on 17-inch wheels, plus a double-wishbone suspension, stuck the car to the track and permitted dramatic entrances and exits to all turns. Tires chirped when you booted it. This car had more power than the relatively short circuit could use, and somewhere out back there was the burbling and rumbling exhaust drone of a car having fun.

Exactly like an up-market Corvette.

We simply don't know who was thinking what when Bentley conceived the Continental SC, which stands for Sedanca Coupe. A spokesman said that a car with removable glass panels over the front seats offers "a combination of open-air motoring and the comfort of a closed cabin." Or this could be Volkswagen's way of saying its knowledge of classic cars isn't confined to old Beetles.

Whatever. We are left with a perfectly wonderful Bentley Continental with a big hole in its roof. Everything else about the SC--its 6.7-liter, turbocharged V-8 producing 400 horsepower, shortened wheelbase and suspension tuned for fast touring--is yesterday's equipment. Only a fixed moon roof over the rear seats, and removable smoked-glass panels reminiscent of the Porsche Targa and the Pontiac Firebird T-Top, signify anything new.

Bentley has done a smooth job with the concept, although fresh-air fiends will quickly learn that driving with panels off and windows down is a configuration best suited to low speeds and perfect days. Then there's barely a quiver of air reaching the rear seats. At speed, with October in the air, you'll be deaf in one ear about three minutes before your forehead freezes.

Removed panels are stored in the trunk. Remounting is also a manual operation, although a power toggle on the center console will latch and lock the glassware. It is all a bit of a wrestle, and maybe too much heavy lifting forwealthy senior s within the ca r's buyer profile.

They might be forced into following Rolls-Royce owners' manuals from the '30s, and directions for fixing a puncture.

They begin: "Instruct your man . . . "

1999 Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph
1999 Bentley Arnage
1998 Bentley Continental SC

The Good: Rolls-Royce and Bentley are the only cars designed to be legends crafted for royalty, purchased by rockers and coveted by villains--and historically the stuff of which all our luxury dreams are made. This is museum quality on the move. Also standouts of unhurried, elegant hand-craftsmanship in an era of planned obsolescence and instant gratification.

The Bad: Silver Seraph and Arnage are a little too weighty, a few feet too long, and several inches too broad for really entertaining motoring. And the Bentley SC plumbs its racing and Regency heritage much too deeply.

The Ugly: All three priced beyond . . . well, our wildest dreams.


    Expert Reviews 1 of 2

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