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And Now, the King of the Bentleys

March 24, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conspicuous and sumptuous consumption is down to final flickers. Old money Rod Stewart and young millionaire Andre Agassi drive trucks. Most of Bel-Air can be had for 50% off.

Amid all this depression, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, proud, good and grand parent of Bentley Motors, traveled to Beverly Hills anyway to premiere its richest and most regal wheels to date: a $367,000 convertible, the Azure.

This British lion king had barely whispered into town from LAX and its debut at St. Jean-Cap Ferrat on the Cote d'Azur (get it?) before Jay Leno was having his way with it. When the Bentley's air bag inflates, he said, there's always a mint on it. And the car comes with a cup holder: Prince Charles.

It should be noted, however, that $367K for a Bentley Azure-- "az-your" sniffed a press release--is the final cost az-you drive it off the lot. Or as delivered to your manse in the Cotswolds.

That includes sales, luxury and gas-guzzler taxes on a base of $319,000. But not registration. Nor bespoke options.

Your choice: patent leather, embossed leather, marbled leather, frog skin or silk? Your preference: picnic tables, cocktail cabinet, a fax machine or telephones fore and aft? Your call: English oak, bird's eye maple, Canadian maple or Portuguese walnut with a boxwood inlays?

But call it anything but just a car.

"For a customer purchasing this vehicle, there can be no comparable choice," said Rolls-Royce chief Chris Woodwark during the car's European launch. "The true alternative would probably be a boat or a private plane." Or a dozen frozen yogurt franchises.

"Attractive as the Azure is, the big question we face is: 'Will people buy it?' " said Robert Wharen, managing director of American operations, when the Azure curtsied at the Four Seasons Hotel last week. There didn't seem to be many takers in an audience of automotive journalists, who are spoiled rotten by always driving the best for nothing.

Continued Wharen: "Before the motorcar was built, we found from research that there is a mounting demand for top-down, wind-in-the hair motoring, particularly in the luxury end of the market."

He made no reference to the popularity of hairpieces at that end of the market. But added: "We expect the motorcar to sell well in those markets where the sky is azure and the air pure. Like Southern California, of course."

That could be the British sense of humor.

Reg Abbiss, the voice of Rolls-Royce in the Colonies, introduced Wharen. He also noted the absence of one Bentley customer unavoidably detained Downtown: O.J. Simpson.

That definitely was the British sense of humor.

*

Still worried about $367,000 being $150,000 more than the price of a really spiffy home in Woodland Hills?

Look at it this way. If the spastic dollar drops only a dime, the base value of your Azure could appreciate $20,000 in a week. That's a better bet than IBM.

It might also restore one's reputation as a canny investor and bargain hunter to let neighbors know that in Canada's squishy currency, the car actually costs about $500,000.

Still, given the unmajestic state of the Royals these days, the Bentley's big sticker--should anyone be vulgar enough to stick anything on it--remains considerably more than a king's ransom.

And considering the Azure is a convertible version of the Continental-R coupe at a mere $300,000, it could be the most expensive decapitation since Mary Queen of Scots.

There is, however, a striking side to the Azure.

Although weighing almost three tons, its turbocharged, 6.7-liter V-8 puts out 350 horsepower, good for 150 m.p.h. Also a 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration time of seven seconds. Or quicker than anything but the V-12 cars from Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW.

In this era of injection plastics and prefabrication, it is a lone category of one with its hand-stitched Connolly leather, hand-cut and matched walnut panels, and several dozen layers of hand-rubbed lacquer.

*

There is no heritage quite like a Bentley. Ian Fleming drove one. Bentley won Le Mans five times and has beaten modern production car speed and distance titles held by Lamborghini.

And there are billionaires in every country ready to buy another country's crown jewels.

Azure is exclusive: About 100 will be made this year and only 30 will come to the United States. Coachwork is by Pininfarina, the legendary Italian studio that styles cars for Ferrari, among others.

And two Los Angeles buyers have already visited Rolls-Royce of Beverly Hills to pick out their cars and colors. Or colours. Yes, they do include several shades of azure.

Azure is collectible: Under an agreement signed recently with BMW, the German firm will build V-8 and V-12 engines and chassis for the next generations of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars. So this could be the last Bentley powered by an historic, race-bred Cosworth engine.

(Footnote on how modern commerce can produce diplomatic amnesia: During World War II, Rolls-Royce built engines for Spitfires and Lancasters of the Royal Air Force, and P-51 Mustangs of the U.S. Army Air Core. BMW built engines for the German Luftwaffe-- which was defeated by Rolls-Royce and the Allied air forces over Europe. But now Germany takes over.)

And Azure certainly performs.

But take Bentley's word for it.

Journalists at the Los Angeles introduction were not invited to drive the topless debutante.

Seems that during the French introduction, Michael Kemp, veteran automotive writer for the Daily Mail of London, crested a hill and wadded the Azure against a truck.

The Azure was heavily wounded, maybe mortally.

Kemp walked away.

Ironically, it was the writer's last assignment before retiring.

Growled a Rolls-Royce representative: "Would have been his last assignment even if this had been his first year on the job."

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