The idea of the pairing? To make the point that the Mulsanne is the first all-new model to be designed purely by Bentley, rather than Rolls-Royce, since the 8 Litre. And that, as with the 8 Litre, the Mulsanne is the flagship model: bespoke, luxurious but (crucially) sporting, too.
Now clearly there’s no comparing the two cars; but it’s not just marketing speak when the Bentley designers and engineers say that they used the 8 Litre as inspiration for the new model. While others flock to the Mulsanne, I take a closer look at the 8 Litre, the second one built, and recently the subject of a gentle restoration by Bentley’s own craftsmen at the Crewe factory.
It’s a wonderful thing, this Mulliner-bodied beauty. Indecently long, but not as wide as many of the 8 Litres, apparently at the request of WO himself. Inside, it’s all legroom and luxury, the seating noticeably more opulent in the rear, with touches of simple genius that set aside the 8 Litre as something special. From the quick-release front passenger seat slider, to enable easier access for the driver (hindered on the offside by gearlever and handbrake), to the neat rear blind pull, the satisfyingly solid sunroof slider clamp and the wipers that traverse smoothly back and forth on a horizontal slider bar, the 8 Litre oozes quality. And that’s before we get onto the gorgeous tool kit...
Bentley’s engineering director Ulrich Eichhorn, a man whose enthusiasm for cars of all eras and take-no-prisoners driving could easily have outdone even those of the original Bentley Boys, can’t keep his hands off the 8 Litre. We both agree that there’s nothing out of the ordinary in the overall layout of the car – beam axles and cart springs are typical of the period – but the way that it’s engineered sets it apart both in durability and driveability.
Four valves per cylinder and overhead camshaft were a Bentley trademark, and the quality of the bearings, of the materials, of the lubrication, means that when we head off in pursuit of the super-fast Mulsannes, the 8 Litre rides the bumpy roads with surprising aplomb. Once we’re through the inevitable heaviness of the steering at low speeds and the trickiness of negotiating through the crash ’box, the 8 Litre seems to settle and quieten to a 70mph cruise which feels so competent that it honestly (honestly!) wouldn’t seem a bad idea to carry on from our Firth of Forth base past Edinburgh and all the way to London in the most spirited fashion.
And that, of course, was exactly the point of the 8 Litre, and exactly the point of a Bentley. Where Rolls-Royce sometimes struggled, the formidably competent Germans now in charge at Crewe have pinned exactly the meaning of the Bentley brand: innovative, solid engineering and craftsmanship to build the greatest car in the world, a machine that is equally at home being driven hard as it is at wafting.
Which brings us to the Mulsanne. Bentley’s flagship model has, for 12 years, been the Arnage, a dinosaur in car terms, but one that rose above its roots to deliver a fantastically satisfying, characterful experience. But it couldn’t carry on, and the Mulsanne has the difficult task of keeping traditional Arnage customers while appealing to a new line of potential Bentley buyers – some perhaps moving up from the company-saving Continental GT.
To do this, the Mulsanne had to make a massive leap not just in terms of luxury and performance but also in efficiency, as well as competing for the ‘best car in the world’ tag with not only the existing Rolls-Royce Phantom but also the new Ghost. Like Rolls-Royce, Bentley has really gone for it: the Mulsanne starts afresh, even to the point of being made in a brand-new building that’s taken the place of the old factory stores at the Crewe plant. Robots have infiltrated this sacred place, to do the jobs that robots are best at doing – monotonous but crucial spot-welding of the all-new chassis, for example – while the wonderfully complex shape of the front wings, their curves echoing those of the S2, are produced by the aviation technology of superforming aluminium. Yet just metres away from the mesmerising robots are craftsmen hand-brazing and finishing the bodywork. In the next building, an entire new ‘centre of excellence’ has been formed for the crafting of the interior, which takes no fewer than 170 hours per car.
Does any of this matter to the customer? Well, Bentley is going to make sure it does, by offering new factory tours on which prospective purchasers can see for themselves why a Bentley is different from a mass-produced car.
Sat inside the Mulsanne, it seems at first that this is simply a particularly good example of a typical wood ’n’ leather fest. The details delight, though, starting with the much-vaunted ‘ring of wood’ that wraps through the cabin, right behind the rear seats. With doors open you notice that this wonderful mirrored veneer is unusually mounted on hunking great chunks of perfectly formed wooden substrate and, if you’ve ticked it on the options list, there’s the best bit of marquetry in the veneer ever seen in production car history.
The chrome isn’t chrome, it’s perfectly polished stainless steel (for a less brash shine), the leather is traditionally tanned (for that smell which has so long been missing from car interiors), the buttons and switches are glass-faced and the Naim in-car entertainment system is, for now, the most powerful known in the production car world, at 2200W.
It feels good, really good – a long way beyond anything that the Crewe factory has ever previously produced. As good as the Rolls-Royces? Close thing: my personal feeling is that the Ghost and Phantom take a narrow victory on style for their uncluttered dashboards and consoles.
The Mulsanne, for me, wins on exterior looks. The way the light catches the sharp lines of the front wings and what design director Dirk van Braeckel refers to as ‘the longest styling line in history’ (the crease that runs from front to rear and back again along the base of the doors) helps shrink what’s actually a very large machine – 150mm longer even than the Arnage, though still smaller than the Phantom.
There are plenty of classic Bentley cues: the large headlights and smaller driving lamps (always a company trademark), the three-pronged effect within those projector/LED lights (like the pre-war ‘Tripod’ lights), the ‘floating’ ovals in the rear lights (Continental S2), the subtle rear haunches (S1, S2 and S3), the bluff front and long rear (T-series on) and the horseshoe shape in the bootlid (MkVI).
‘We’re very conscious of our heritage,’ says Dirk, ‘but we understand the past not to repeat it but to build on it and to stay faithful to Bentley’s values.’
Bentley values? Once again we can hark back to the 8 Litre and its solidity of feel, the smoothness of its massive straight-six engine that simply shoves the car to what were unfeasibly high speeds in the 1930s. A good 120mph was possible and, although we’re not going to push WO’s 8 Litre that hard, what’s still obvious is that there’s no drama or violence to the acceleration, just a wonderful surge forward on a great wave of torque.The introduction of the Rolls-Royce and Bentley V8 back in 1959 re-established that great characteristic and, even through the uncertainty of the Bentley brand’s direction throughout the 1970s and ’80s, that engine just kept on being developed for more power and more torque, famously gaining a turbo in the 1980s.
The news that the Mulsanne would be powered by yet another iteration of that same V8, still overhead-valve and just two valves per cylinder, was greeted with some surprise and derision. Would not the car have been better off with one of the many VW Group units – V8, V10, W12, W16 – rather than a new take on a 51-year-old design?
Perhaps not. Where the 6.75-litre V8, now featuring much-lightened rotating parts, wins is in that Bentley ‘surge’ again, the perfectly flat torque ‘curve’ that reaches its peak of 752lb ft at 1750rpm and sticks there right to the redline. Curiously, some of the features that were once thought of as compromises to enable the fledgling V8 to fit into narrow engine bays designed for straight-sixes have turned into advantages: short exhaust port tracts and wedge combustion chambers instead of the hemispherical chambers made fashionable in the early 1960s now work to, respectively, heat the catalytic converters more quickly (because less heat is absorbed into the cylinder head) and to provide the squish and swirl that improves efficiency.
Four valves per cylinder would undoubtedly have helped power above, say, 4000rpm, but we’ll learn soon that 4000rpm isn’t really what you’re looking for in the Mulsanne. And, although it smacks of clutching at straws, there is of course much less friction involved in turning one camshaft rather than the four of a DOHC V8.
But there are also disadvantages. Bentley has improved efficiency by providing variable cam phasing, retarding the camshaft timing at low revs and advancing it further up the scale. What it couldn’t do is alter the overlap between exhaust closing and inlet opening, which is relatively easy with a DOHC design. Instead, the V8 has a different trick, shutting off four cylinders (two and three on one bank, one and four on the other) when loads are low – in other words, when gently cruising. There was never an occasion when any of us detected the shutdown, or the regular restart (every two minutes or so) necessary to keep the cats warm. All this has improved fuel efficiency and emissions by 15%.
So, all very nice. Does it work in the way it should work? (And I don’t know about you, but I think a Bentley should be a great driver’s car, as well as providing passengers with the best possible comfort. Not an easy combination.) You start by pootling away, doing that great big-engined luxury car trick of driving on little more than idle speed, the gentle burble of the exhaust calmly modulating as the new ZF gearbox begins a gentle progression through its eight (yes, eight) ratios.
And, then, of course, you boot it. The bonnet rises just as the Arnage bonnet would, and this great beast of a car launches forward in the most indecently fast manner as the scenery begins to disappear into a blur. Yet still this engine, this five-decades-old engine, is woofling like it’s done nothing more than dispatch a milk float and you wonder if the rear passengers have noticed how fast you’re now travelling. You glance in the rear view mirror and, no, they actually haven’t – although they’re not leaning forward in their multi-adjustable seats any more.
Sweep through the bends, traverse carelessly over potholes, the Mulsanne is unfussed, and those damned passengers don’t seem too worried, either; this is partly due to the electronically controlled air-suspension (best to choose the Bentley setting, rather than Comfort or Sport, unless you’ve got round to tailoring the Custom set-up) and partly because the yaw centre is set directly under the rear seat, meaning passengers aren’t swung around.
It’s good, really good. Drive it hard and it’s great fun, but I guarantee that after the initial novelty you’ll merely drive it fast, making rapid progress for mile after mile after mile rather than scaring the world with full use of the performance. I would love to say I’d choose the 8 Litre just as readily for a long journey, but of course I wouldn’t really; I’d choose the 8 Litre to remind me just how special a car can make you feel, and how great engineering can never be overlooked, regardless of the march of technology.