Wide of the Marque

If the recent demise of the Bentley Mulsanne proves anything, it is that engineering expertise and bespoke craftsmanship alone do not make an ultimate luxury car.

(c) topspeed

As lapses in the exercise of due diligence go, the 1998 acquisition of Rolls-Royce Motors by the Volkswagen Group takes some beating. The maker of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars had been hived off from the eponymous aero engine manufacturer in 1973, following its rescue and nationalisation by the UK government two years earlier. Rolls-Royce Motors was then purchased by UK engineering group Vickers in 1980.

Vickers’ core business was in defence and marine engineering and its new trophy asset became more of a liability as the costs of keeping pace at the pinnacle of automotive engineering grew ever greater. During the late 1990’s BMW supplied engines and other technology to Rolls-Royce Motors. When Vickers put the company on the block, the Bavarians appeared to be the most obvious and likely buyers.

BMW bid £340m for the company but was upstaged by a £430m bid from Volkswagen, which duly took the prize. However, in its haste to win, Volkswagen had overlooked the fact that the rights to use the Rolls-Royce name had been retained by the aero engine company and had only been licenced to Vickers. BMW spotted an opportunity and purchased the rights to the name and RR logo for a bargain £40m.

This left Volkswagen owning the Rolls-Royce and Bentley manufacturing facilities, the Parthenon grille and Spirit of Ecstasy, but the marque name was owned by a rival that was embittered by losing the big prize. Worse for Volkswagen, BMW could withdraw engine supply with just a year’s notice, insufficient time to re-engineer the Bentley Arnage to accept a different engine, even if one were readily available.

A compromise was agreed, allowing Volkswagen to continue the manufacture of both existing Rolls-Royce and Bentley models for four years until 2002. BMW would use this time productively to design and engineer a totally new Rolls-Royce, the Phantom, and build a factory at Goodwood to be the new home for the marque.

Volkswagen, while licking its wounds, publicly proclaimed that it was always more interested in the bigger-selling Bentley marque and set about designing the Continental coupé and convertible and Flying Spur saloon, using much of the same hardware that would underpin the VW Phaeton. The coupé was launched in 2003, the saloon and convertible followed in 2005 and 2006 respectively. These models were all well received and brought a whole new generation of younger customers to the marque, not least because of their (relatively) more affordable prices.

Volkswagen also re-engineered the Arnage to accept a heavily modified version of the venerable Rolls-Royce 6.75 litre V8 engine. That model, with further updates, would stay in production until 2009. Corporate pride being what it is, Volkswagen was not willing to cede the kudos of producing the ultimate luxury car to its Bavarian rival, so set about designing what would become the Mulsanne.

The Mulsanne was unveiled at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August 2009. It was presented as the first unique Bentley in eighty years, sharing nothing with either its erstwhile sibling Rolls-Royce, or new parent Volkswagen. At launch there was talk of coupé and convertible versions to challenge similar derivatives of the successful Phantom VII, but neither would ever make production.

The Mulsanne was, in absolute terms, a very large car, with a wheelbase of 3,266mm (129”) and overall length of 5,575mm (220”) in standard form. The 2016 extended wheelbase version added another 250mm (10”) to those figures, making it exactly the same size as the standard Phantom. The LWB Phantom was a further 250mm (10”) longer again.

While the Phantom was an overtly formal design, aimed explicitly at owners who would always occupy the rear seats, the Mulsanne’s designers went for a more informal and rakish look, reprising the style that had served Bentley well on its highly successful Continental models. Unfortunately, the style did not scale up well and the Mulsanne, with its Coke-bottle waistline, had more than a whiff of 1970’s American automobile design to it.

Another controversial design feature was the huge circular headlamps positioned either side of the grille and inboard of the supplementary lights. This was meant to invoke the spirit of the Bentley Boys and their successful racing cars of the 1920’s, but this reference was lost on many observers, who thought the Mulsanne simply looked ungainly and odd. Despite its rather undistinguished appearance, there was no doubting the high quality of execution from an engineering or craftsmanship perspective.

(c) motor authority

Car Magazine’s Ben Oliver tested the Mulsanne in June 2010. Oliver noted that the Mulsanne was closer in size and price (from £220,000) to the smaller Rolls-Royce Ghost than the Phantom, although it weighed almost as much as the latter, being steel rather than aluminium bodied. He thought the front end looked rather doleful and the car lacked both modernity and the presence of a Rolls-Royce. The interior was generally of high quality, although he criticised the profusion of black plastic switches on the centre console.

Performance from the once again heavily revised twin-turbo V8 via an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission was excellent and the Mulsanne handled with amazing agility for such a large car. Refinement was not, however, a match for the Ghost, never mind the Phantom. Overall, the Mulsanne lacked the charm of the old Arnage and the presence of the Ghost, hence it received a disappointing three-star rating.

The Mulsanne was also a victim of circumstances beyond Bentley’s control. It was launched in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis when many of its intended customers would have been nursing huge losses. The Rolls-Royce Ghost, launched at the same time, was £50,000 cheaper and, arguably, more expensive looking with greater presence, thanks to its similarity to the Phantom.

The Mulsanne was updated in 2013 and again in 2016 with improved power and refinement and updated technology. More sound insulation resulted in a claimed 25dB reduction in interior noise at speed. A modest facelift made little difference to its appearance.

(c) caradvice

Over a decade on sale, there has been an embarrassing profusion of special edition models in an attempt to stimulate interest in the slow-selling Mulsanne. Diamond Jubilee, Exclusive Interior, Le Mans, Shaheen, Seasons Collector’s, Birkin, 95, Blue Train and W.O. are some of the rather tacky suffixes the car has had to bear. In 2019, fewer than 500 examples of the Mulsanne were sold globally, which is less than half the number of annual sales between 2011 and 2013

In January 2020, Bentley announced that the Mulsanne would be discontinued – as of last week, production officially ceased. No replacement is currently planned, although there has been talk of a super-luxury extended wheelbase version of the Bentayga SUV as a new flagship for the marque. For now, the 2017 Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII reigns supreme as the ultimate luxury saloon.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

23 thoughts on “Wide of the Marque”

  1. As the last bespoke, largely hand built Bentley, the Mulsanne certainly represents something of a missed opportunity. Clearly it became a better car over the course of its production run, but could never quite shake off that somewhat confused identity.

    Take a look at that rear three quarter view above. It is nearly great, but ultimately unsatisfying. Here is a Bentley unshackled by the need to also serve as a Rolls Royce or a Volkswagen, fronted by that enormous grille and unashamed celebration of the combustion engine. Air rushes in, made into explosions, and then leaves… via a pair of cheap looking chrome bumper embellishments that could come from a lower order Audi?

    The ‘coke bottle’ swell around the hips is lovely, but those wheels… jeez. And of course the nose always did look awkward – a Bentley should never look awkward.

    1. Thank you Daniel; excellent as always. I agree with Jacomo, but despite the unfortunate detail failures, the Mulsanne still managed to look like a car – rather than an overgrown Tonka toy that has been stamped on by a four-year old in the midst of a temper tantrum. Truly the end of an era.

  2. The Mulsanne is one of those cars I’ve always wanted to like more than I possibly could. I must assume it’s the lofty aspirations that make its falling short of them so unforgivable.

    Perplexingly, VAG had previously done a fine job at nurturing the Arnage – I personally would certainly prefer one of the later, facelifted examples of the breed to the earliest, clearly compromised models. But when given a clean sheet on which to evolve the theme, the designers (mainly ex-VAG people on the exterior side, but mostly Bentley/RR-trained personnel on the interior side) seem to have been overwhelmed by this amount of freedom.

    1. Good morning Christopher. Yes, Bentley/VW made an excellent job of facelifting the Arnage in 2004(?) The cleaner front end with the larger twin headlamps and without the separate sidelight/indicator units on the corner of the front wings was much more assertive:

      Looking through photos of the Arnage, I’m surprised by how high a proportion were fitted with rather naff looking alloy wheels, many apeing spilt-rim designs with a ring of fake bolt holes around their perimeter. Money doesn’t buy good taste, apparently.

    2. As I learned in the autobiography by RR/Bentley’s former chief designer, Graham Hull (which I read so you don’t have to), he advocated a front design similar to the Arnage facelift’s early on. But this was rejected for cost reasons, as Vickers refused any differences in sheetmetal between the Royce and Bentley derivatives.

  3. Surely many wealthy 70-year-olds would buy a car clearly referencing the 1930 Le Mans models.
    For that you need a slimmer rad shell, then those big headlamps.
    And no waist.

    1. Hi Vic. In case anyone is wondering about the reference point for those headlights, here’s an example, the 1930 Bentley Speed Six Le Mans Tourer:

  4. perhaps if the headlights had been larger,
    and crowded the grille. the rear end, in that
    photo, is an entirely wasted opportunity.

  5. The Mulsanne’s frontal aspect always put me in mind of Tex Avery’s cartoon character, Droopy, and while I’m fairly confident that it wasn’t on Bentley designer’s mood boards when the Mulsanne was being created, it does beg the question of exactly what was?

    The Mulsanne ought to have been the quintessential Bentley of the modern era, uncompromised as it was by either shared platforms or inherited powertrains, but unfortunately the creative pooch was comprehensively screwed. What a towering waste…

  6. I think the problem was the slightly smaller Flying Spur, not much less of a car for a lot less money. For the punters being interested in such, the Flying Spur sold between two and five times the number of Mulsannes.

    1. I think I’d have a Ghost in preference to either, and I’m rather taken with this colour:

      Not garish, but more interesting than the usual greyscale palate.

    2. The metallic brown is pleasing – it´s a nice enough car though getting into the category where you find 300 g hamburgers (excessive). Does this really do much more than a Volvo S90 can? I don´t have a problem with costly cars but I want the cost to be doing something substantial. I´d much rather the car was 10% smaller but made in a way different from any other car is. All those panels and pressings are as you´d find on a Mondeo or 508 or A4. The sole area where this car is finished a super-costly way is the chrome DLO trim. I expect it´s stuck on with black self-adhesive foam tabs just like everyone else´s are these days.

  7. Here´s another example of the subtle loss of apparent quality: the Arnage looks as if it is made quite unlike any other series-production car. Put it next to a Benz or Audi from the same period and the Arnage stands apart for its visible signs of craftsmanship. If you do the same thing with a Mulsanne and put it next to a Mondeo or Insignia you won´t see a lot of signs that one car costs five times the others. That´s a credit to Ford and Opel for their work (not often recognised) but also a sign Bentley did not have control over the last millimetric subtle quality that justifies the huge price difference. Like Christopher, I´d take an Arnage over the newer Bentleys. It´s a lovely car that dodges the excessive hauteur of the newer ones and also looks to be made beautifully.
    The headlamps of the Mulsanne are a stand-out example of dodgy judgement. I don´t believe that this car was assessed in honesty in the design clinics. A strong designer would have said “to hell with the clinics” and revised the car. From all other angles it is quite nice; the front is a horror.
    I went over to Rolls Royce to see what they were offering. The range is bigger than Alfa Romeo´s range and possibly outsells them. The copy accompanying the lovely photos is not appropriate for the brand and the leggy model standing in front of the Black Badge version … well, extreme kitsch. It´s always nice to look at a pretty human but this image was shatteringly dumb. RR-BDSM anyone?

    1. Richard,
      before the gentleman in the leather jacket took over, Rolls-Royce under BMW did its utmost to ensure new models possessed the flair of a handbuilt product. So for the Ghost, for example, designers studied how hand built panels would camber, to try and replicate this effect on the small RR saloon. I don’t know for certain, but rather doubt Bentley designers went to such lengths in order to add that special something – certainly as far as exteriors are concerned.

    2. Is that a scene from the 2019 movie “Cyber Wave Five-Fifty”? Or is it an out-take from the second last James Bond movie? I am pretty sure that it could be the character Kirk Mordant, played by Erik Delsey.

      That snippet on the camber was interesting. Despite my best efforts I am at a loss to identify where in the geometry this elusive quality of older cars lies. I can sense it and the whole car (Arnage and older Jaguars) have it in spades. It is absent in the Mulsanne. Even the large Roller (Wraith) hasn´t got it. I am tempted to say it´s an inadvertent result of an analogue process from clay model data points to the form of the dies. It could be in the types of flanges found at the panel edges and the panel gaps´ character. It is also in the paint.

      Mazda and Opel have amazing paintwork and Ford has upped its game very conspicuously on the new range. The Vignale editions seem to be made of deep pools of fresh, wet paint frozen in space with holes cut out for the lamps, vents and windows.

    3. Coincidentally, there was an interesting documentary on the TV a couple of nights ago following the build of a single Bentley Continental Coupé. What struck me was that it was still a production line process. Every task needed to be executed in a fixed time (nine minutes, IIRC) to keep the line moving, albeit slowly. There was no question of a task taking as much time as the carftsman needed. The end result is, of course, perfect but somehow lacks a human touch and individualism, even where the result is very slightly imperfect.

      I remember someone once explaining to me that Waterford Crystal could be cut more precisely and ‘perfectly’ by a robot than any human being, but it’s the human input that makes it so special.

    4. I have one other idea about the man in the leather jacket.
      When I lived in Cologne I saw a Porsche Design Pipe in the tobacconist I used to go to. Who, precisely, wanted a go-faster, technical pipe for several hundred euros? I eventually invented a persona for this product. He has two cars: a new Porsche 911 and a W116 S-class (in black) and he lives in a 1970s architect-design house on the Rhine. The photo of Mr Mordant below would represent him very well indeed if I needed to cast this character for a film.

  8. The press images for the Black Badge Wraith are, er, remarkable. I must say, the world really has moved on when Rolls thinks that sort of association is not just appropriate, but desirable, for its latest drug-dealer special. It puts me rather in mind of this:

  9. I didn’t get what they were aiming for with the headlamps / front, either.

    Here’s Dirk Van Braeckel, Bentley’s Design Director at the time, telling us how nice it is.

  10. Graham Hull’s small, youthful, and underfunded pre-VAG styling team at Crewe have done pretty well in the two decades which followed:

    Simon Loasby – Head of Hyundai Styling Group, Hyundai Motors Korea
    Robin Page – Head of Styling, Volvo Cars
    Darren Day – Head of Interior Design, Bentley Motors
    Crispin Marshfield – Exterior Design Manager, Bentley Motors

    1. Indeed.

      Van Braekel, in contrast, was last mentioned as being in charge of Audi’s racing division. And Raul Pires, the exterior designer van Braekel had brought along to Crewe to design the Continental GT’s exterior, has probably been dispatched to VAG’s lunar design studio.

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