In 1998, the Volkswagen Group bought Rolls-Royce and its subsidiary marque Bentley for $750 million, after a fierce bidding war with BMW. Months later, it was revealed that for $65 million, BMW had made an end run and snookered away the rights to the Rolls-Royce name—arguably the only valuable asset in the whole deal.
All VW ended up owning after spending so much was a Bronze Age Rolls/Bentley factory in Crewe, England, and the second-rate—in many eyes—Bentley brand (what were Bentleys, other than stealth Rollses with different grilles?).
I was among the know-it-alls, a group that included many business and car magazine editors, who snickered that VW CEO Ferdinand Piech had let himself be head-faked by BMW. Piech was said to be a rude, arrogant, pushy blowhard, a classic "couldn't happen to a nicer guy" dupe.
But a funny thing happened on the way to market. When BMW introduced the first German Rolls-Royce early in 2003, we saw in the new Phantom a huge, enormously expensive car that undeniably had ... presence. It pushed a Grecian-temple grille the size of a card table. But the car lacked grace and suffered from styling flaws that suggested the heavy hand of a committee.
VW, meanwhile, was late out of the gate. It had spent a lot of time and money hugely upgrading the old Crewe factory and making substantial mods to Bentley's aging Arnage, a pocket battleship of a sedan that benefited greatly from VW-engineered suspension and turbocharging tweaks. In the meantime, VW had spent many millions of pounds and three years on a victory in the 2003 Le Mans endurance race with a Bentley-branded racecar, the Speed 8. It was the first Bentley win in 73 years.
I got a ride in a Speed 8 four months after that race, suiting up and jamming myself into the left seat—it is an English car, after all—alongside team driver Tom Kristensen, a 36-year-old Dane who is just slightly handsomer and vastly faster than Brad Pitt. Kristensen has been on a Le Mans?winning team five times. This is not a record, since two other drivers have won five. But only Kristensen did it in just seven tries. He is also the only driver with four consecutive wins.
It used to be that the best endurance racers were strokers, skilled at going just fast enough and coddling the equipment. No more. Today, you're going flat out pretty much the whole 24 hours at Le Mans, and one of the reasons Tom enjoys giving rides in the 600-plus horsepower, 215-mph Speed 8 is that it reveals to civilians what punishment a good racer endures in his or her office. The G-forces are sharper than anything I'd imagined. I doubt that any fighter pilot undergoes such rapid G onset from side to side and fore and aft, and certainly none experiences those stresses virtually nonstop for two and three hours at a time.