Gavin Green on that Bentley SUV and Brit luxury icons

Published: 20 March 2012

The Germans have done a fine job at running the British car industry. Every major British-bred car company – Land Rover, Jaguar, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Mini, Aston Martin – has a German boss. Most of these companies are doing very well, Land Rover, Mini and Rolls-Royce spectacularly so.

The three best British cars of the past decade – the Range Rover, Rolls-Royce Phantom and Mini hatch – were all engineered by BMW. The other brilliant Brit of that era, the Discovery 3, began development under ex-BMW man Wolfgang Reitzle’s enlightened chairmanship of the Premier Automotive Group, then parent company of Land Rover.

We owe our German car friends a lot. They saved our precious premium car industry.

Just occasionally the Germans get it wrong

But just occasionally they get it wrong, misunderstanding the subtle nuances that are ‘Brand Britain’. The Mini hatch was spot-on, never mind the loose packaging that ran contrary to Issigonis’s original vision. Red-hot sales – from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Shanghai to Stuttgart – prove BMW’s execution was perfect. As we all know, the Mini hatch – designed by an American with substantial British input – is a little charmer.

But as BMW multiplies its latest Munich-designed Mini offerings, so you begin to wonder. The Clubman is not a success. The goggle-eyed Countryman looks like something fished out of the deep, and is by some margin the worst new car I have driven over the past year. Don’t even consider one. Just buy a Golf.

Bentley: Bling is not British

Then there is the Bentley SUV concept, which at least provided some comic relief to what was otherwise a rather serious 2012 Geneva motor show. This was an attempt by Bentley’s German leaders at a British luxury SUV. It was a flashy flop not because a Bentley SUV is inappropriate – the commercial logic is clear. Rather, its crass execution was totally at odds with classy British luxury, and with past fine Bentley saloons and GTs.

Great British upmarket cars – all of them – have a subtlety about their luxury. It’s inbred, rather like royalty. It’s palpably there but never flaunted. It’s an innate feeling, not extra features.

It’s all about the inner quality, not the bling veneer. It’s Savile Row for the street: materials, cut, durability, timelessness. Check out the latest Range Rover or the Rolls Phantom, both designed by Brits. They’re imposing but elegant. Or look at the better Jaguars. Or the latest Continental GT V8

The Germans sometimes do not do high luxury well. They’re brilliant at functional premium – think Leica cameras or the Mercedes S-class. No country does in-depth quality engineering so convincingly, or so proudly. No country does simple unfussed design better (look at recent Audis). But when they try to ladle on the luxury, it can go wrong.

Like the blingy souped-up AMG Mercs of a few years back. Or the German tuning shop-tarted Porsches and BMWs. Or the Maybach, Germany’s homegrown ‘rival’ to Rolls-Royce, whose creators (Mercedes-Benz) mistakenly thought that an S-class with extra lashings of tonnage, trim and tree constituted ‘high luxury’.

Or like the Bentley EXP 9F.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience