In 2003, Rick Rubin offered me a ride in his Bentley Arnage. I declined because I thought the place we were going was within walking distance, and only after he drove off did I realize that I was thinking of the wrong place and had missed a chance to ride in what I still believe is the most beautiful car ever built.
Ten years later I was reading an article of the top ten most depreciated cars, and the journey from number ten to number one ended in that very car, the Bentley Arnage. Bentleys retail for $250,000 or more, but at the time of the article the Arnage could be had for $30,000. That was still more than I would spend, but it brought the idea to earth at least.
I'm not really a car guy. I have a soft spot for Mercedes, coupes in particular, but I'm mostly interested in getting from point A to point B. I've never financed a car, and when I bought my last car the only three categories I'd consider were Japanese minivan, barest-bones econobox, or 90s era Mercedes. I ended up buying a 1996 Mercedes C220 for $1600 and spending $900 to get a couple problems fixed up. It shifted with a bit of a thud and the AC was cool, but not quite cold. I figured it would last a year or so, but it's still going strong two years later.
A few months ago I decided to see if Bentleys had depreciated further. Sure enough, they had. Some could be had as cheaply as $20k. The Mercedes was still clunking along, but at that price I couldn't help but do a little research. What I found whipped me into a bit of a frenzy.
The Arnage is sometimes considered to be the last true Bentley. The reasons require a long story of corporate takeovers, but the gist is that it's the last one that was designed and built by Rolls Royce. Volkswagen bought Bentley right after it was designed and produced the Arnage.
Most cars take around 14 hours to build, but the Arnage took over 500. Everything is built by hand. I've taken mine apart a bit to do a stereo installation and you can see pencil marks and notes from the builders. The wood is hand veneered with book-matched panels, and the leather is from cows that were raised in pastures without barbed wire fences, so that there would be no nicks in the leather. Everything is leather, from the headliner (usually cloth or vinyl in most cars), to the inside of the console storage compartment. I removed the old CD changer and even the little wedge to keep it at the right height was a hand cut piece of wood meticulously wrapped in leather. Everything that's shiny is actually metal, not plastic with a shiny finish.
It's at this point that I should admit that I'm a real sucker for quality materials and craftsmanship. When I was 21 I bought my first Rolex, thinking it would impress girls. No girl ever even noticed it, but it impressed me. I loved hearing it tick, thinking about the precise gears that were placed by hand within the case, and marveling at how this man-made object can keep time to within a second per day.
To me at least, the Bentley Arnage is a paragon of craftsmanship and high quality materials. I've found that whenever I spend money on quality, I'm glad I did. Being surrounded by excellence inspires me to create the same, whether it's something fancy like a Bentley or Rolex, or something more accessible like Wool and Prince shirts, Makers and Riders pants, or an excellent tea.
Further, I found out that 1999 was a special year. Instead of using an expensive-to-repair Rolls Royce engine, it used the V8 from the BMW 740i which was then fitted with twin turbos and tuned by Cosworth. Everything I could find online said that this was an excellent engine that was very reliable and reasonable to repair. It also had a fairly standard transmission.
There were only 1100 Arnages made in 1999, but I decided that if I were to buy a Bentley, that's the one it would be.
Every Bentley was customized back then, so no two are the same. I don't think I even saw two that had the same paint and leather combinations. There were also a variety of options available. One option that I just had to have was the hand-veneered folding wooden tray tables in the back. I can't even explain why, but I just thought that this was the coolest feature ever and wouldn't consider any car that didn't have it. Part of it is that I had a fantasy of using them to drink tea.
To make a long story short, I found two cars in LA that were what I was looking for, made offers on both, and ended up buying one of them. I figured that if it wasn't a great move I could sell the car for about what I paid for it, and I was just so curious what it was like to own and drive a Bentley. I also thought that it would be fun to be able to chauffer friends around in a Bentley, as that's an experience I'd value.
On the drive home from LA steam started shooting out of the hood and warning lights flashed. I pulled over and hitchhiked to Vegas while the seller, an excellent European repair shop, picked it up and replaced the radiator for me. Feeling bad, they then delivered it to me in Vegas a week later. The next morning the alternator died. At this point I started to worry that this car was going to be a nightmare. I shipped it back to the seller and he again fixed it.
Now it's a month later and I haven't had any more problems with the car. It's gone from being a crazy novelty to feeling pretty normal. I still love driving it, and I can't stop staring at it whenever I'm walking towards it or sitting near it. My perception of cars has changed in strange ways, where basically no other car seems all that fancy to me, and even the Bentley seems pretty normal. It simultaneously feels ridiculous to own because it's so excessively luxurious and like a great deal because I got all of that luxury for a relatively small amount of money.
Maybe my favorite part of it is that I get to know what it feels like to own my personal idea of the best car ever. Resale value aside, there's no car I'd trade for, even a newer Bentley or Rolls. It's simultaneously very satisfying and yet reinforces the idea that even a hand-made Bentley is still just a car.
I'm thinking about having an event in Vegas for 3 readers where I drive them around in the Bentley and we drink tea, see my favorite Vegas spots, and work on their goals / sticking points.
A quick background - I love Mercedes cars. As a kid my dad had one for a few years (incidentally, he hated it) and I always liked riding it. When we went to the dealership I would be drawn in by the pro-Mercedes anti-BMW propaganda.
When I bought my first car with my own money, it was a 1985 Mercedes 380SE. It was ten years old at the time, was the first car I'd even test driven, but I really loved the car. Even though it was so old it had good features and was fun to drive. Two months later, it broke.
Several years later I bought my second Mercedes, a 1994 E320 Coupe. I've always been a huge fan of the Mercedes Coupes. For one they have really cool four place seating, so instead of three squished seats in the back you have two full ones with a console in the middle. Their lines are beautiful, and they're fairly rare. I actually still have that car, although my brother, Devon, drives it right now.
Sue and I took a tour of the Tesla Model S factory in Fremont, CA today. This is the old NUMMI plant. If you haven't heard the NUMMI story between GM & Toyota, and you're a car buff, there's a This American Life episode about it that's just mind blowing. The net of it is that GM tried to learn Just In Time assembly practices from Toyota, they built a factory together for Toyota to transfer this know-how to GM, and GM completely blew it. The factory shut down and was sitting idle after that fiasco.
When Elon Musk was looking for a place to build his new Model S sedan, he approached Toyota with a $50MM bid for it, which Toyota accepted. Why would Toyota sell a car production plant arguably worth $1 billion or more for $50MM? For the answer to that, you really have to understand the relationship between Musk and Toyota, which is well portrayed in this 2010 WIRED magazine article.
As a reservation holder for the Model S, I'm proud to support one of the most amazing entrepreneurs of our generation. What makes Elon even more amazing is that he's not only revolutionizing the automobile industry, but the space industry as well, with SpaceX... at the same time. Elon, my hat is off to you.
Below are a number of pictures and vidoes of the factory and the event, which was very well done.