This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The rooftop party at the London Hotel in West Hollywood had the trappings of an old-school Hollywood premiere, including synchronized swimmers cavorting in the pool beneath a movie screen with the legend: "Speak Your Mind … With a Whisper." The drumbeating was not for the next Baz Luhrmann epic but for the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur, a stem-to-stern update of the carmaker's luxury four-door sedan that Bentley hopes will consolidate the demographic-expanding success that started a decade ago with the Spur's two-door stablemate, the $176,000 Continental GT coupe.
With its sensuous lines and high-performance mojo, the GT was a game-changer for Bentley when it was introduced in 2003: U.S. sales rose tenfold after its introduction. Along with the similarly styled Flying Spur, the GT upended the super-premium auto segment, making Bentley for the first time a plausible choice for younger Hollywood and music stars while purging the brand's image as a purveyor of boxy British land yachts.
Starting at $200,500, the new 2014 four-door Flying Spur -- with a beefed-up twin turbo W-12 engine, spine-straightening acceleration and 200 mph top speed -- is meant to further Bentley's reputation for technologically advanced, aesthetically fetching driving machines, especially among Southern California's marble-floored-garage demographic. (Fifteen percent of the 2,237 Bentleys registered in the U.S. last year are in Los Angeles, according to buying guide Edmunds.com.)
"The GT did away with the traditional gray-haired, wealthy-guy image and brought in the younger demographic and women drivers" -- such as Jennifer Love Hewitt and Cindy Crawford -- says Noah Lehmann-Haupt, owner of Gotham Dream Cars, which specializes in rentals of Bentleys, Jaguars and other exotic vehicles. Adds multiple GT owner Michael Blakey, president of Electra Star Management (Billy Bob Thornton, Jimmy Connors): "It's a sporty, powerful and very capable vehicle -- they really hit the mark with that car. It didn't give you the feeling you were sitting in someone's living room on a sofa." (It says something about the brand that both Paris Hilton and Queen Elizabeth own Bentleys.)
But Bentley's grab for the demographic high ground with sleek, performance-driven cars has not gone unnoticed by its former partner and rival. Since its purchase by BMW in 1998, Rolls-Royce has strived to make the brand relevant to buyers more aesthetically ambitious than the hapless Arthur Bach, the millionaire prat played by Dudley Moore in the 1981 movie Arthur.
"BMW had nothing more luxurious than a 7-series until they purchased Rolls-Royce," says Matt Hardigree, editor in chief of the Jalopnik automotive website. "They decided to honor the company's history building a car you're driven in. They made their first vehicle, the Phantom, a massive luxo-barge that would appeal to a new generation of global elites."
Since then, rap moguls from Suge Knight to Dr. Dre -- recently seen emerging from a Rolls Drophead ($450,000), the model also favored by David Beckham -- have embraced newer, brashly styled "Rollers" as aspirational totems. Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez have been spotted driving the Ghost sedan ($250,000); Formula 1 heiress Petra Ecclestone received a virginal-white Ghost as a wedding present -- then repainted it shocking pink, perhaps in rich-girl solidarity with Hilton and Nicki Minaj, who own pink Bentleys.
Even so, Rolls-Royce registrations in the U.S. last year (slightly more than 800) were less than half those of Bentley, with 19 percent of them concentrated in the L.A. area. This year, though, Rolls is hoping for its own brand-expanding car. At the Geneva Auto Show in March, the company shot directly across Bentley's bow with the unveiling of the Wraith, a superfast, super-expensive ($295,000) coupe built on the Ghost's platform with a silhouette reminiscent of the Bentley GT.
The Wraith's sporty pretensions -- when seen in the context of the new Flying Spur's four-door indulgence -- have the effect of flipping expectations for each brand. The Wraith's sweeping fastback design, says Hardigree, "screams that this car isn't just for passengers. This car is meant to be enjoyed in every seat. The suicide doors" -- which open in the opposite direction of standard car doors -- "are also a bold statement from an extremely conservative brand." The new Flying Spur, on the other hand, "has qualities that make you want to drive it and be driven in it," says Edmunds.com editor in chief Scott Oldham. "That kind of car attracts the Harvey Weinsteins and the Diddys."
Unsurprisingly, Bentley and Rolls-Royce each claim victory in this brand-defining car-off.
"We already created a distinct two-door coupe," says Bentley Motors president and COO Christophe Georges, alluding to the ubiquitous Continental GT -- and by proxy, the Wraith -- without stooping to mentioning the latter by name. The new four-door Flying Spur, Georges adds, "is an extremely luxurious car without being flashy -- not ostentatious, nor a vulgar representation of taste."
Lobbing right back is David Archibald, president of Rolls-Royce North America. "Rolls-Royce must never enter the mass luxury business like other cars in the category have" -- "other cars" presumably nose-wrinkling code for the Bentley Flying Spur. "The Wraith is a bespoke, luxury car tailored to its owner -- our cars will always be a precious drop in the automotive ocean." (Rolls sold 3,575 cars worldwide last year; by comparison, Mercedes-Benz sold 1.3 million.)
Following their splashy debuts, both cars go on sale in the fourth quarter of 2013. In many respects, they are evenly matched: the Flying Spur is Bentley's fastest car; the Wraith is the speediest Rolls. The Wraith's $295,000 sticker, nearly a $100,000 premium over the Flying Spur and equivalent to about 40,000 jars of Grey Poupon -- bestows some rarefied goodies, notably an eight-speed transmission that gathers data from its GPS unit and automatically selects gears based on the terrain ahead.
In the meantime, there is the matter of what, exactly, makes up the typical Rolls and Bentley owner, and by extension, which carmaker is more secure in its grasp on demographics present and future. "Both Bentley and Rolls-Royce want to grow their sales, which means embracing customers who don't have stories about the Blitz," says Hardigree. "You see Bentleys in shows like Entourage, whereas the last big Rolls-Royce product placement was in a Rowan Atkinson film. The result? Both companies are growing, but Bentley has more than twice the customers."
Says L.A.-based event coordinator J. Ben Bourgeois, who has put on major bashes everywhere from the Louvre to LACMA: "I bought my Rolls-Royce when I 'made it.' That's what it means to buy a Rolls-Royce when you're not old or from old money. There is a time in your mind where a Rolls is, 'Wow! I can't imagine a day when I can write a check and buy one!' " Bourgeois has seriously upped the hip quotient of his Rolls by commissioning street artist Retna to paint the exterior; Blakey had his painted in matte black and added black rims. "I didn't want to have a car that looked like an old-man car," he says. Adds producer and manager Larry Thompson, who drives both Bentleys and Rolls, "The Flying Spur is what you drive fast with your friends; Wraith is what you drive fast with your lover."
The ubiquity of the Bentley GT and Flying Spur the past few years around valet stands like the one at Spago (where the valet estimates five to 10 Bentleys pull up during a typical lunch hour, compared with two to four Rolls) might give the Wraith an opening in Hollywood, where scarcity remains the defining rule of desirability. Says Bourgeois, "At the end of the day, anyone looks great behind these wheels, the way everyone looks good wearing Bulgari jewelry."