Cars

Bentley right at home in Boston

Bill Griffith for the Boston Globe

The Bentley name long has been associated with Boston; however, it’s usually been more for the university with that name than for the majestic motorcars.

After all, Bentley’s Pyms Lane, Crewe, Cheshire, England address is as legendary in automotive history as the name of founder W. O. Bentley, the company’s five Le Mans victories between 1924-30, and the enduring mystique about the marque.

So it may be a surprise to learn that Copley Place is the company’s “second” home, with a 29-person office managing sales and marketing for the Americas headed by president and COO Christophe Georges.

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The US has traditionally ranked as the world’s number one region in global Bentley sales, having been surpassed only by China in the first half of this year. Los Angeles, Florida, and New York are the key American markets.

“Boston is a wonderful location for us,” says operations director Kim Airey. “It has a European feel and it’s only a five-hour flight to England and the factory. Some even complain that’s too short to get a proper sleep on the plane.”

Things always have been interesting at Bentley but especially so since its purchase by Volkswagen (in 1998) and ensuing split with Rolls- Royce.

Most important, the company has followed W. O. Bentley’s original mission statement: “To make a good car, a fast car, and the best in its class.”

What’s the difference between a Rolls and Bentley owner? “Our owners drive their cars, their owners are driven in their cars,” says Graeme Russell, head of Bentley communications.

After the VW acquisition, Bentley rode a wave of success with its return to Le Mans where Bentley won its class in 2001 and 2002 and took the overall victory in 2003.

Sales peaked at 10,014 in 2007, dropped to 4,616 in 2009 during the worldwide recession, rebounded to 7,003 in 2011, and look to be exceeding that number in 2012.

“VW gave us the time and resources to continue to develop new product during the downturn and to be able to bring [the cars] to market as things got brighter,” says Airey.

The recent models include a redesigned Continental GT coupe plus a four-door version (Flying Spur) and the GTC convertible. In November of 2010, the Mulsanne flagship sedan came to market, and now the company is introducing V-8 engine options for its Continental GT and GTC that promise to be more fuel efficient while performing virtually as well as the traditional turbocharged 12-cylinder engines.

Airey and the entire Bentley staff take great pleasure in showing a 2011 video of Finnish rally champion Juha Kankkunen driving a Continental convertible 205.48 miles per hour to break his own speed record on ice on the frozen Baltic Sea.

“The car was a stock model that was driven over the roads from Helsinki to the Baltic Sea,” says Airey, “and basically the only modifications were some cardboard baffles in the air vents so the engine would stay at optimum operating temperatures, slight modification in the wheel wells so ice wouldn’t accumulate, and parachutes just in case.”

After studded tires proved to accumulate too much ice, the record was set on standard Pirelli winter tires.

“Our new chairman, Mr. Wolfgang Dürheimer, witnessed the record and said he’d never experienced a world record in his years at Porsche and here he had one at Bentley after only 14 days on the job,” says Airey.

Bentley’s knurled knobs and mesh grill are carryovers from the marque’s racing tradition. The knob was used on early Blower (supercharger) controls, and the mesh grille was developed to protect the radiator from stones thrown up during races.

But the real attraction of Bentley is the customer experience with ultra-luxury and custom ordering. While there are only a finite number of potential Bentley buyers, they have almost unlimited choices among 100-plus colors (and unlimited custom colormatching), 29 leathers, 11 woods and custom inlays, engraving, and embroidery.

Asked to explain the difference between, for example, a BMW 7-Series and a Bentley, Airey responds, “A Bentley is not a commodity. It’s about super luxury for a customer who knows what he wants. Our customer knows the difference. Our favorite customers are those who come to the factory at Crewe to view their car being built.”

Unfortunately, customers in the biggest market don’t tend to make time for that trip.

“Buyers in China tend to want their car immediately,” says Russell. As a result, Bentley has been producing limited editions (one per dealership) to have cars in stock in China.

Of course, once built, Bentleys have a long life.

It’s estimated that 80 percent of all Bentleys built since orders were first taken in 1920 are still drivable, though many are in museums and private collections. But there’s one place where there isn’t a Bentley: the Boston office.

“No room in an office building” , laments Airey.

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