Bentley has a long history of making automotive history with their cars, and there's another one on the way that will follow that tradition when it arrives in dealers later next year. More about that in a moment, but first - what else - a short history lesson.
Bentley gained early fame as a racing car and the new model draws its name from one of the most famous corners in auto racing - Mulsanne - part of the Circuit de la Sarthe where the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans is held. But Bentley is also justly lauded for a unique blend of performance and luxury, and the new Mulsanne draws its inspiration from Bentley founder W.O. Bentley's 8-liter sedan, the transportation of choice for the barons of commerce and industry who transformed America in the early 1900's. Not only does the new version (the original Mulsanne models were produced from 1980 to 1992) aim to be the pinnacle of British motoring - and priced to match - but it also heralds a new level of performance, as signified by the re-introduction of the famed Bentley "Flying B" emblem that distinguished the company's Le Mans race cars in the early years.
The new Mulsanne, with the prototype making its debut at the Pebble Beach Concours in August and the production version unveiled to the world press at the recent Frankfurt Auto Show, is characterized by Bentley Motors Chairman and Chief Executive, Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen as "A thoroughly modern flagship that captures the essence of the Bentley marque. It is elegant yet distinctly sporting in character, delivering effortless performance while within its sumptuous cabin, advanced technology sits discreetly with handcrafted luxury."
Takes a lot of car to live up to billing like that - but the Mulsanne is every bit of it, from the 6.75-liter V-8 engine that delivers 505 horsepower to the rear wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission (with, for the first time in on a flagship Bentley, steering wheel-mounted gearshift), to the optional Naim audio system that delivers concert hall sound via 20 custom-built speakers and a 2,200-watt amplifier. Additional technologies include a multimedia system with 40 GB hard disc drive, satellite navigation, audio/video, personal data, telephone and Bluetooth connectivity. The upper dashboard houses an 8-inch multimedia screen, positioned unobtrusively behind an electrically operated veneered door, while below sits a stylish, leather-lined storage drawer for your MP3-player.
The personalized keyless entry system - activated by simply touching the sculpted stainless-steel door handles - automatically sets radio stations, phone book, seat (including ventilation and massage modes, both front and rear), steering column and seatbelt settings and even the electrically operated rear-seat blinds for side and rear windows.
While horsepower and technology are integral to the Bentley gestalt, it would be a sterile exercise indeed without the world-class luxury of the interior; the steering wheel that takes 15 man-hours to hand-stitch, the switches (made of glass!) so sensuously to the touch, the wood so rich and polished that you feel surrounded by jewelry. And the scent! Riches and fame await the Cyrano who creates a woman's perfume with the allure of a Bentley interior.
In keeping with the Bentley ethic of providing their customers with a world of infinite choice when commissioning their cars, decisions to be made about your Mulsanne including 114 paint colors, 24 interior colors and either picture frame or contemporary cross-banding marquetry for the wooded acreage inside. Nor do the choices end there; through the bespoke world of Bentley Mulliner, all things - done in good taste - are possible.
"Over 170 hours - almost half the entire build process - goes into crafting the interior of the new Mulsanne," says Robin Page, Bentley's head of Interior Design. "At Crewe, Bentley's way of working is the opposite of mass production - we start where others stop."
Luxury does not start and stop with wool carpets, wood and polished stainless steel; what is luxurious in the garage (or on the showroom floor) is one thing, luxury on the road another and the very essence of kinetic luxury is inherent in the V-8 engine's 752 lb/ft of torque, delivered 1800 rpm; which, translated means that with a mere tap of the accelerator you are immediately rewarded with that characteristic deep, muffled V-8 burble and phenomenal acceleration. And the new Drive Dynamics Control system, operated by a rotary switch mounted next to the gearshift selector, can be used to select from three standard modes of the air suspension system - Bentley, Sport and Comfort - offering precise calibration of suspension and steering control systems. A fourth mode, 'Custom', allows the driver to select bespoke settings via the multimedia system to 'tune' the Mulsanne to a preferred driving style.
And just how well does all this come together into a truly memorable vehicle? Well, someone who knows paid $550,000 during an auction at Pebble Beach to purchase 'Chassis Number One.' Flipping is a fool's game in this day and age, so one can only assume that a genuine lover of grand transport - someone with a sense of history in motion - thought a 75% premium on the probable MSRP was worth it.