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The Bentley: Class for a few, art for the masses

Some masterpieces are painted on canvas. Others are built by automakers. Would we want to sacrifice either?

February 16, 2005|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

Why doesn't class warfare break out in America, or at least class resentment? Why, when I drive a car like the $170,000 Bentley Continental GT, don't the valet parkers, the carwash rag men, the predawn pop can harvesters in their rusty swayback pickups -- why don't they lynch me with their looks?

I have a theory. And no, I am not about to argue -- as the strict constructionists of capitalism might -- that members of the working class regard such displays of wealth cheerfully because they believe that they, too, could someday be wealthy. The American dream relies on more or less equal economic opportunity for all, and you would have to be pretty starry-eyed to think that's the case today.

In an unexpected way, the Bentley transcends envy altogether because it is so beautiful, such a fine specimen, that it is almost public art. It is a perfect line drawn in air and penned in steel. Implausibly sleek, weightlessly substantial and rare enough to be one of a kind wherever it goes, the Bentley is the object of long, contemplating looks, the alert reverie of museum-goers. To drive a Continental GT is to see the world through the eyes of a Frank Stella sculpture.

I'm sure the czars made similar arguments about their Faberge eggs, and the Bourbon dynasty counted too heavily on the aesthetic gratitude of the peasants. And yet when you drive the Continental GT, you sense that you are at the wheel of something privately owned but communally shared.

Who could be more disenchanted with cars than the men who work at the carwash at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado? But when I pull the Bentley in, the workers eagerly scrimmage for positions around it. These are guys who are standing in rubber boots half filled with cold, soapy water, whose hands must hurt from the biting detergent. Why are they so happy to see me?

The crew foreman scoffs at the Lexus waiting in line. "This is a true car," he says in Spanish.

Perhaps the word is "sincere." The biggest difference between the Bentley and the cars with which it shares its hardware -- the Volkswagen Phaeton and the A8L, VW Group products that don't set off any alarms at the carwash -- is the richness and authenticity of its materials. The several feet of book-matched burled walnut, the knurled-aluminum switch wands and knobs, the clubroom leather, the chromed organ-stop vent controls, the Breitling clock centered in the dash -- steel, wood, leather, wool, glass and not a scrap of plastic anywhere.

In a world of temporary cars, the Bentley has a feeling of permanence. People who see it feel they have brushed up against something fine and enduring.

While it may seem foolish to lump pro basketball players and Malibu real estate developers in with the likes of the Medicis, it's nonetheless true that without rich patrons the Bentley would not exist. And that would leave us all a little poorer.

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