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.
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.
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.
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.