The fascination other car-making nations have with the Great British Car is an enduring mystery to me.
Otherwise level headed German and American industry executives seem to be reduced to impressionable enthusiasts when faced with the chance to buy a ‘classic’ British marque.
Ford started the trend in the late 1980s, snapping up Aston Martin and Jaguar. BMW followed in early 1994, bagging a huge number of live and dead British badges. By the end of the decade, BMW and VW were fighting over Rolls Royce and Bentley.
The defining feature of all these purchases was the need to ‘re-invent’ some classic British car concepts of the past, from the imperious to the classless. In fact, much of the British car industries efforts over the last 20 years have been focused on re-capturing so-called ‘glory years’.
The first big efforts to revive the moribund UK car industry began 20 years ago, after the 1989 Rover 200 showed that bought-in, reliable, technology wrapped in ‘upmarket’ British threads could be a popular antidote to the bland, corporate, cars of the 1980s.
This tide of modern Brits began with Ford’s 1993 Aston-Martin DB-7, which was well received. Ford’s polished 1994 Jaguar XJ was also a sales success. 1995 saw the arrival of the tiny 1995 MG-F, the long-awaited revival of the classic British roadster.
When VW took over Bentley in 1998 it immediately started work on updating the then new, Bentley Arnage. Land Rover’s Freelander re-invented the brand for the road, but was based on a hotchpotch of existing Rover Group bits.
All these cars, however, were based on existing, and often rather outdated technology.
Freshly engineered models appeared towards the end of the decade. BMW put everything into the all-new 1999 Rover 75, an idealized modernization of the classic post-war Rover, but that also undershot its sales targets.
Jaguar also stumbled with overtly retro-styled cars such as the S-Type and X-Type.
However, other revivals were much better judged. The Mini, Range Rover and Rolls Royce Phantom were all brilliantly re-thought and modernized under BMW control. VW also hit the spot with the Bentley Continental GT.
Ford made huge strides at Land Rover with the Discovery 3, Range Rover Sport and new Freelander and at Aston Martin with the VH-based range of supercars.
All these cars are highly successful - but most importantly - modernist interpretations of iconic British cars. They hit a sweet spot of new technology and new thinking.
Which is why I was left a little disappointed by the new Bentley Mulsanne. It was VW’s first chance to re-interpret the big, bruising, British luxury barge and it played it remarkably safe.
As we moved into the second decade of the C21st, I hoped for a fresher, more bracing re-think of the big Bentley. It’s a tricky thing to get right – as Jaguar’s new XJ shows – but there’s no excuse for not trying.
I have no doubt the Mulsanne will be a brilliant engineering achievement. But, for my money, it doesn’t quite take this type of British car far enough into the new decade.
Perhaps VW has fallen too much in love with Bentley’s past, rather than its future.