Tank À Grande Vitesse
The Bentley Turbo R not only rescued the storied brand from oblivion, but served as the inspiration for modern luxury motoring - for better or worse.
In this day and age, a luxury car needs to be many things at once: imposing, yet practical; powerful, yet comfortable; exotic, yet dependable. Whereas in the olden days, a special kind of motor car could get away with fulfilling just the odd criterion, it is now expected to be a jack of all trades.
The belief that such a wide range of abilities and qualities can be attainable has its root in the 1980s, when one of the most prestigious, yet almost forgotten marques was due a revival of - for lack of a more original term - epic proportions.
At the beginning of the decade that would give us neo-conservatism, the peace movement and Bill Cosby’s patterned sweatshirts, sales of its Bentley branded models amounted to no more than three percent of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ complete production output. Despite development costs for what was essentially a different grille and badge option for Rolls-Royce’s Silver Shadow model (and its derivatives) obviously being moderate, the raison d’être the bewinged B was put into question.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the Bentley variants played an insignificant role during the development process of the successor model to Rolls-Royce’s pivotal Silver Shadow saloon. The task at hand was to replace the car that had saved the company a decade earlier with a slightly more contemporary spin on the same concept.
Mind you, there were other factors limiting the deviation from the Shadow’s formula as well, such as the necessity to base the new car on its predecessor’s basic chassis, which would inevitably lead to similar proportions.
Much as the new Rolls-Royce model range (internally dubbed SZ series) followed in the Shadow’s footsteps as far as its conception was concerned, it most certainly differed from that car in terms of form language. Whereas the Shadow had masterfully translated traditional, romantic Rolls-Royce styling cues onto a canvas of much more common proportions (what with it being a significantly smaller car than its predecessors), the SZ models opted for a much more clinical, rational approach.
This was hardly a surprise, as man in charge of the SZ’s form actually was not a stylist, but Austrian-born engineer, Fritz Feller. Feller eschewed the lush aesthetics that had been nourished by former Rolls-Royce chief designer, John Blatchley, and replaced them with a technical, sober design that was in keeping with the austere Zeitgeist of the 1970s.
Upon the SZ Rolls-Royces’ unveiling in 1980, Feller was quoted as having been influenced by the W116-generation of Mercedes-Benz’ S-class, but his saloons’ design is actually more blunt, more simplistic than what his colleagues at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim were creating at the time. Feller’s Royces actually betray more obvious traces of certain Italian designs of the period, such as Paolo Martin’s sublime Fiat 130 Coupé - not to mention that designer's Rolls-Royce Camargue, of course. But even the extremely sober, half Italianate, half Teutonic shapes of certain VW and Audi models bear some resemblance to the SZ Royces - although Feller himself preferred to speak of a ‘dustsheet look’.
This absence of visual lushness certainly rendered the traditional Rolls-Royce Parthenon grille even more of a stand-out feature than on the Shadow (for which it had actually been dramatically reduced in size). It could even be argued that it became a bit of a visual oddity among all that clean, unadorned sobriety - which actually sums up the SZ model’s compromised stance.
So removing that most traditional, decadent cypher of automotive decadence - Spirit of Ecstasy and all - from the front of this contemporary, almost plain body therefore only appears logical. Which goes some way of explaining why the SZ models may not have been particularly compelling Rolls-Royces, but utterly convincing Bentleys.
There are few cases of moribund brands rising from the ashes thanks to just a single smash hit model - even VW’s Golf I was aided by Scirocco and Passat models in swift succession. Yet in Bentley’s case, it truly was only the turbocharged SZ variants (named Mulsanne and Turbo R) that instantly lent a marque that had become an utter irrelevance new meaning.
What should have been but a stop-gap model hence became the formula for automotive luxury. Combining traditional luxury with more than ‘adequate’ power (which, in the Turbo R’s case, equals about 300 hp and 600 Nm) still is the line of approach for each and every purveyor of motoring of the highest order - and not just Bentley. Stateliness is welcome, but performance is a must.
Today’s clientele of the rich and/or famous obviously isn’t all that bothered with discretion - ‘if you got it flaunt it!’ seems to be the motto of footballers and internet millionaires alike, many of which have taken a particular liking to Bentley’s current offerings. But it wasn’t always thus.
Whereas Rolls-Royce ownership had become the domain of rather flamboyant characters, once the brand’s ‘mediatisation’ had taken effect, Bentley maintained an aristocratic, dignified flair for much longer. The Flying B was, in a word, the ‘classy’ choice.
With the likes of Jimmy Savile in the UK, Rudolph Moshammer in Germany or Liberace in the US helping to cement Rolls-Royces’ status as showy, slightly vulgar devices, Bentleys became the motor car of choice for those who could afford The Best Car in the World, but preferred not to shout about it.
Devoid of that feudal chrome grille and all the baggage that entails, Fritz Feller’s demure shapes - finessed by his successor, Graham Hull - gain an altogether different quality. Dependent upon the colour chosen, the Bentley Turbo R gains an aristocratic brutishness that sets it apart from its Rolls-Royce brethren to a much larger degree than the relatively minor visual changes would suggest. Even its rather crude original alloy wheel design could not deter from this (albeit the final Turbo RT’s ghastly wheels and wing mirrors eventually did).
Hardly changed at all from the original Rolls-Royce design— and all the better for it - was the Turbo R’s cabin, however. An orgy of the craftsmanship and quality materials, the Bentley’s interior should satisfy anyone but the most unashamed of philistines. The wood inlay, the heavy stainless steel knobs and ashtrays, the waxen, yet supple Connolly hide - even the stitching (nowadays the epitome of false aspirational interior design) betray the depth of the Bentley’s artisanship. The quality of the cabin therefore cannot be measured by the usual parameters. A Fiat Ritmo’s cabin may be the more daring stylistic device, a Jaguar may offer similar flair at a fraction of the cost. But neither offers even remotely the same kind of honesty and excellence in their materials and craftsmanship.
That the Bentley Turbo R’s cabin only differs in details from a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow’s is neither a disadvantage, nor a coincidence. Whereas that car’s exterior was deemed outdated by the powers that be at Crewe back in the day, its cabin was considered so essential to the appeal not just of a single model, but the entire brand, that only as little as possible was changed during the transition from Shadow to Spirit/Spur. This foresight - courtesy of chief designer Feller, his deputy Hull and managing director, David Plastow - must be commended.
If the engine is at the core of any Ferrari, the cabin is the heart of any proper Bentley. Its only rivals in this regard are Louis XIV tables or Art Deco drinks cabinets.
Add to the Turbo R’s list of qualities its convincing every-day capabilities - comfort, space, waftability, power -, and it becomes clear that there is no more rounded a luxury vehicle than this discreet, refined brute of a motor car.
Of course, the Bentley Turbo R’s formula has since been muddled with, duplicated and ultimately corrupted. For an awful lot of today’s owners, a Bentley is not about sedate power and handcrafted quality anymore, but a means of gross exhibitionism of the highest order - the exact opposite of the Turbo R, in a sense.
That Bentleys remain the perfect Knightsbridge cars is therefore not so much because that spot of The Big Smoke remains the habitat of gentlemen in double-breasted blazers in a hurry to quickly get a hamper at Harvey Nichols, before setting off for a weekend in the Cotswolds.
Unfortunately, Knightsbridge has changed. As has the new breed of well-off automotive enthusiasts (who are unlikely to care about either discretion or Louis XIV tables).
To this current set, a Bentley Turbo R would be just some blocky old wheels. Good luck to them. There's a good reason the Turbo R's blunt, discreet charms elude them.
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