““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
With the Arnage growing long in the tooth, Bentley unveiled its new three-ton flagship for an appreciative audience at Pebble Beach in August 2009. The Mulsanne retains a hallmark 6¾-liter V8 and the heft that make a grand Bentley, but this new car and its engine have finally shed the old Crewe carapace and undergone the transformation they needed to keep the winged B in the running against some formidable machinery, all V12-powered: the Rolls-Royce Ghost (fewer $, the most hp), Maybach 57 (more $, more hp) and Rolls-Royce Phantom (more $, fewer hp). What the Mulsanne might lack in hp it makes up for in spades with a massive 752 ft-lb of torque at just 1750 rpm–quite possibly enough propulsive persuasion to corrugate the Earth’s crust, and all delivered in an environment that contains enough fine wood and leather to remind you of an exclusive London club.
In production from 1998 to 2009, the Arnage was the last gasp of the old factory in Crewe, which had turned out the cars for which the combined Rolls-Royce and Bentley were famous but had grown old and creaky by the time Vickers sold the brands in 1998. They went their separate ways with new German parents–VW for Bentley and BMW for Rolls. VW subsequently invested in a deep modernization for the Crewe factory, and the current Continental, Flying Spur and Mulsanne are evidence of money well spent.
For this magazine, a plan to combine driving the Mulsanne with experiencing firsthand the vaunted Bentley heritage eventually came together, thanks to both the car builder and Roger Noble. When Roger, Northeast sales director for Bombardier Aerospace, is not selling Learjets, Challengers and Global Expresses, he and his brother Bob are tinkering with and driving the Noble family’s four vintage Bentleys and a kid-brother 1959 model. Roger was kind enough to invite me to ride shotgun with him in their 1928 Bentley 4½-liter during a drive in New Hampshire last year that was organized by the New England Region of the International Bentley Drivers Club. It was time to break out the goggles and leather helmet–the latter anointed with Rolls-Royce Merlin oil from the belly of a two-seat Spitfire after a flight in 1990.
Let’s push aside all the misty-eyed nostalgia for a moment. These old Bentleys are dashing, all right, but the motoring experience they provide bears almost zero resemblance to time spent in a Mulsanne–no surprise, considering they are separated by the most breakneck century of technological advances in history. The enduring trait both generations exhibit is massive engine displacement measured to the fraction rather than the decimal point: the Nobles’ 4½ produces about 100 hp and is modest in the context of the blower and 8-liter Bentleys, but both the old cars and the Mulsanne spurn downshifting and dole out seemingly limitless propulsion from impossibly low revs.
The 1928 car gives its driver an unrelenting workout. “You steer old Alfas and Ferraris with your fingers and Bugattis with maybe a flick of the wrist. But with these old Bentleys you use your whole upper body and shoulders to steer and turn,” noted Roger, recalling Ettore Bugatti’s observation during Bentley’s dominance of the Le Mans 24-hour event in the late 1920s that “W. O. Bentley builds the fastest lorries in the world.”
Anticipation can lessen the physical workload of driving an old Bentley to some extent–swing wide before turns to increase the radius, for example–but these priceless classics are relentlessly demanding when in motion. The driver has to be acutely tuned in to the raw mechanical pulse of the car, nailing downshift revs and timing gearshifts by ear and feel and coaxing the power from the cylinders to the rear wheels through a transmission with no synchromesh and, if faithfully original, a leather clutch. The Mulsanne has an eight-speed ZF automatic with paddle shifters, well calibrated to grab onto all that low-end torque and not let go. The old Bentley is incessantly noisy, a symphony of wind, gear-whine glissando and a bass line of deep engine growl from cylinders each displacing about a liter. A glance behind our 4½ shows Bob and Betty Sue Reed keeping pace in their 1929 Speed Six.
At rest, the old Bentleys exude the aroma of old leather and a long life of crude combustion; the new car tickles the olfactory with the scent of virgin wool and flawlessly hand-stitched leather. How quiet is the Mulsanne? So silent that the noise of the climate-control fan and breeze from the stainless-steel bullseye vents (polished so deeply a bug could swim in their luster) is prominent in a steady cruise. So quiet that at 70 mph the $7,415, 2,200-watt, 14-speaker Naim audio system can still reveal intricacies never before heard in well-known recordings. Virtually all the car’s brightware inside and out is polished stainless steel and the Naim amp is the most powerful fitted to any production car; more than 170 hours–almost half the build time for the whole vehicle–goes into crafting the Mulsanne’s interior.
Step on the gas, however, and a Bentley burble and growl break the silence to announce the effortless jetlike surge of thrust that comes with more than 750 lb-ft of torque just a few hundred rpm beyond idle.
Among the many improvements to the “totally revised” 6¾-liter V8 in the Mulsanne are two firsts for the “ultra-luxury” sector: cam phasing and variable displacement, which shuts down four of the eight cylinders when the vehicle has settled into a low-workload cruise. Typically in a car like the Mulsanne, cruising on the level at 70 mph leaves about 95 percent of the engine’s potential power untapped.
How obtrusive is the semi-shutdown in the Mulsanne? Until I read more deeply into the literature a couple of days into the loan of the car, I was unaware that the engine had variable displacement, so smooth was the snuffing and relighting process. Despite its 6¾-liter gulp and three-ton bulk, the mighty Mulsanne averaged 15.7 mpg over the 966 miles I drove the car. Bentley says that compared with its 6¾-liter forebears, the new engine has reduced reciprocating mass and internal friction for swifter response and that overall it is 15 percent better on fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
The Mulsanne conceals its heft. You know it’s there because your eyeballs see it before you settle into the leather and wool, the long bonnet confirms it once you’re seated, but once under way the car has a sprightliness belying its hulking dimensions. There’s no sway or wallow, no marshmallow float.
The Mulsanne succeeds in delivering exactly the surprise one would hope for from the flagship Bentley sedan. Seemingly regardless of the setting chosen for the adjustable steering response and air suspension (Bentley, Sport, Comfort or Custom), the car feels taut and poised far beyond what one would expect of three tons of steel (the monocoque body structure, polished-stainless brightware, including the front grille and winged B badge), glass, rubber, aluminum (the bonnet/hood, doors, side impact beams and superformed front wings/fenders), leather (17 hides) and wood and overall gravitas. All this for a few dollars shy of $325,000–modest in the context of vintage (pre-1931 merger with R-R) Bentleys, which currently fetch from the mid-six figures to eight figures.