Gold-plated? No! Pink paint? Yes! How the hot carmaker is wresting control of its customization.
Paris Hilton had her coupe painted bubblegum pink. Music producer Jermaine Dupri added an aggressive body kit and black wheels to his convertible. And Kim Kardashian had a red monogram emblazoned on the seats of her drop-top. For better or worse, the Bentley Continental GT, a $190,000 luxury four-seater, has become a favorite of celebrities with a penchant for customization. But from where Bentley Motors sits, they sometimes are going about it the wrong way.
The British carmaker, known for producing vehicles that are at once stately and sporting, has seen sales surge since the 2003 introduction of the GT, which along with the Continental sedan is the company's entry-level car (the range-topping Mulsanne sedan starts at $285,000). Bentley, founded in 1919, sold about 1,000 cars in 2003 and is targeting sales of 7,000 this year. Long reserved for the older, high-end customer who appreciates its refined nature (the U.K.'s royal family opts for Bentleys), the brand is now within reach for people who prize the cars as trophies and often desire a level of flash that broadcasts success. Some have turned to custom shops to modify their rides in ways that might be considered less than elegant. To maintain its reputation for handcrafted, high-quality vehicles and funnel more customization business its way, in 2003 the brand enlarged and began marketing a bespoke program called Mulliner.
"You've sold your Burger King franchise, cashed in your Apple shares and you say, 'I am going to treat myself.' So you drive to the dealership in Beverly Hills, and if they happen to have one, that's great," says Graeme Russell, head of Bentley public relations in the U.S. "Sometimes I feel we lose the opportunity to allow buyers to create their Bentley." And yes, Bentley -- which has long done customizing work -- happily would have painted Hilton's car pink, he says.
While Bentley offers a slew of options for the average buyer (there are 115 color choices for paint), the Mulliner program takes it much further. It has tricked-out Bentleys to include pipe holders, safes, makeup trays and shotgun cases, and it even concealed drawers for an art dealer to store his paintings. Options cost as little as $2,000 for custom door sill plates and run up to $30,000 for personally commissioned paint.
The GT, which was redesigned last year, has allowed Bentley to tap a new, younger audience, particularly in the music and sports worlds. (Other owners have included Kobe Bryant, rapper Game and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.) As a result, the perception of Bentley, owned by Volkswagen Group since 1998, has shifted, according to Mike Spinelli, senior editor of the automotive site Jalopnik.com. "It changed along with the makeup of the rich," he says. "You can't really get away with selling just the old-money aesthetics." For Bentley, it's about walking a fine line between what it considers tasteful and pleasing its customers. "In the Hollywood culture, there is a lot of one-upmanship," says Russell. "A lot of these cars have a lot done to them to make them stand out, which is a little sad to me." There are limits on what Bentley will do to a car; for example, it declined to gold plate one. "Whether that was for engineering restrictions or on the boundaries of taste … we will leave it at that," Russell says.
A BENTLEY FOR BOND: James Bond's Aston Martin is perhaps the most iconic movie car of all time. But in Ian Fleming's first three Bond books, 007 piloted a Bentley. And recent Bond tomes have moved back to Bentley -- though it's not the result of product placement. Jeffery Deaver, author of this year's Carte Blanche, says he gave 007 a Continental GT because he "wanted to present the original Bond." Deaver kept things simple: The car's only gadget is GPS. Despite the Carte Blanche appearance, Bentley says it is not actively pursuing inclusion in future Bond films.