How Bentley Blew Past Rolls Royce

Returned to its roots

The long road of the automotive industry is littered with the wrecks of many a brand that broke down along the way—not just the truly awful ones that never should have left the assembly line (the Yugo, the Suzuki X-90), but also the once proud and sturdy makes (Packard, Oldsmobile) that simply fell prey to changing tastes and the shinier chrome of their competitors. Few realize just how close Bentley came to making that list. Fortunately, the proud British nameplate is still with us—a feat for which the two ads here serve as unique snapshots. “The ads underscore the difference between the old Bentley and what it’s become today,” said veteran auto correspondent Paul Eisenstein, publisher of The Detroit Bureau. “In the 1960s ad, Bentley was a stepchild of Rolls-Royce, essentially a nonexistent brand. What you see in the new ad is Bentley the performance brand—which is a return to its roots.”

Those roots go all the way back to 1919 when Bentley Motors roared onto the scene with some of the fastest roadsters in the world. The car’s 3 Litre engine took the checkered flag at Le Mans in 1924 and prompted writer Ian Fleming to drop his character named James Bond into a gray Bentley convertible. But the coming of the Depression forced Bentley to hitch a ride with Rolls-Royce—and that’s where its troubles began. Under Rolls’ ownership, Bentley began downshifting into its eventual role as unloved sibling. Take the 1964 ad here, which is 95 percent a plug for Rolls and 5 percent for Bentley. Looking for a difference between the two cars? There really isn’t one—save for the design of the grille and Bentley’s $300-cheaper price tag. The streamlined-bathtub body style didn’t exactly scream “sports car,” either.

Then a small miracle happened. In 1985, Bentley came out with the Turbo R. If the body still felt like a Rolls clone, the engine didn’t. Packing a 6.75 liter V8 under the hood, the Turbo R could do 0-to-60 in about eight seconds (and hit 135 mph a few seconds later). It also saved Bentley in the process. “One of the reasons Bentley became so valuable to Volkswagen [which bought it in 1998] is that they’d proven there was still an interest in the brand—maybe more interest than in Rolls,” said Eisenstein. Put another way: Bentley rescued itself not just with an engine but by circling back to the brand’s original personality.

Judging from the 2013 ad for the Continental GT, the brand has held to that course. Gone is the boxy styling of Rolls (which became part of BMW) and back is the swagger of wealth and speed that first drew the eye—and the cash—of rich-lad motorists in the 1920s. “Bentley has clicked with buyers who’ve said, ‘Oh, this car is more about performance and excitement,’” Eisenstein said. “Today, for young, cool buyers, all of a sudden Rolls-Royce is in the curious position of playing second fiddle.”

Bentley, meanwhile, is back where it started 94 years ago—in the passing lane.