Bentley, Jaguar meet on the Stairs

Jaguar going upstairs will soon meet Bentley coming down. The price ladder is becoming congested around £100,000 and next year’s bottom Bentley will cost not much more (relatively) than a top Jaguar. In 1960 a Bentley Continental was £8,000; a special equipment Jaguar XK150 £2,000. Next spring’s V8 Continental will be about £120,000. Jaguars are edging towards £100,000 - more if you add on all the add-ons.
Sleek Continental (above) XK150 (below)

It’s no surprise. They have been shadowing one another for 75 years. In 1937 Rolls-Royce and Bentley chief development engineer WA Robotham was deeply impressed with a 3½ Litre SS Jaguar. He reported to Robert Harvey-Bailey, chief engineer of the chassis division in Derby, that the engine was almost exactly like one proposed for a still secret Bentley. “The crankshaft has 2½in journals and 2in pins, exactly the dimensions we have in the (Rolls-Royce) Wraith.” It was also more compact and lighter than the Bentley and, “appeared appreciably smoother. In order to pick up 10 horse power at the peak of the power curve Jaguar has gone to the trouble of fitting two entirely independent exhaust systems.”

Jaguars looked like Bentleys. William Lyons styled them so that they earned the soubriquet “Bentleys of Wardour Street.” It was not meant to be a compliment. Buyers could not believe how Jaguar managed it at the price. The secret was William Lyons’ parsimony. Robotham bought an SS for assessment, describing it as “disconcertingly good, better than a 3½ Litre Bentley for acceleration and within 1mph of the 4¼ Bentley in top speed.” Its duplex exhaust had less back pressure than the Bentley’s, cost more to make and was so quiet Robotham instructed his engineers to match it. The chassis was not as stiff as the huge Rolls-Royce Phantom but better than a Wraith. The Jaguar was dismantled, Rolls-Royce praising every component save the fuel tank, which it thought flimsy. There was nothing to show that low cost had been achieved by, “abbreviated specification, simplification, or poor quality materials”.

Bentleys had a brake servo, one-shot chassis lubrication and gaitered and lubricated road springs, de luxe items accounting for less than 2 per cent of its chassis price. The question was why a Bentley should cost twice as much as a Jaguar. * “We have so far accounted for less than 30 per cent of the difference. We are of the opinion that the remaining 70 per cent can be accounted for by good manufacturing (and) sound purchasing of parts.”

A lot has happened since 1937 but over the years Jaguar made great efforts to give itself the air of a Bentley. Under Ford it also tried to make itself a large-volume manufacturer in the mould of BMW or Audi. It failed, even with perfectly good products, like the Mondeo-based X-type. If Detroit hadn’t meddled with the styling it might have been better. Now, with Indian investment, Jaguar is on an engineering-led endeavour for quality and exclusiveness. Spiralling prices are taking it, along with Land Rover, to profit that has eluded it for years.

Up-market crinkly net grille on Jaguar
At the same time Bentley, now Audi-inspired, is wisely widening its range from the heady heights of the £226,000 Mulsanne and £150,000-ish W12 Continental, downwards to something people can afford. £120,000 is still a lot but it is no more than the price of a modest saloon for one of the family. Bentley is unlikely to compromise quality and this new twin-turbo of 500bhp places it firmly in Jaguar territory. The XK Coupe Portfolio I tested the other week was a V8 of 515bhp at £70,860. The supercharged XJ Supersports I had the week before was £94,000 with a piano black interior that could have graced a Bentley. At £91,050 the XK Supersport will be in Bentley V8 territory.

Up-market grikly net grille on Bentley.
Rather like Robotham some three quarters of a century ago, you would be hard-pressed to make a distinction in driving quality. Speed, refinement, gadgetry and handling were beyond reproach. The Jaguars were disappointing in road noise; press departments invariably equip demonstrators with stupid low-profile tyres that make them all sound like cars of half the price – see the previous Audi blog for the difference well proportioned tyres make. Assuming that the approaching V8 is in the same idiom as my last test W12 Bentley the two must, at last, be chasing the same customers.
* Robotham was thinking chassis prices. 1937 Jaguar 3½ Litre saloon £445. Bentley 4¼ Litre chassis £1,150; 4-door saloon £1,510, nearly the 1:4 proportional difference of 1960.