Monthly Archives: February 2024


Cars We Love & Who We Are #50

In “Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part I” Drivin’ News sought to explore the impact of BMW’s new oversized grill and new design badge on the BMW brand. In examining the nature of branding, Part I looked back at how Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s had responded to market forces for which its engineering focus had been deemed untenable. How they dealt with it required many broken eggs to create the new Mercedes-Benz brand omelet of the late 1990s. The resulting outcome, though painful, did seek to morph the brand into representing a more consumer oriented maker of luxury automobiles while preserving its iconic 3-pointed star.

Part II visits Volvo and its branding challenges in the years just before and after being purchased by Ford in 1999.

Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part II


The experience of another great brand, Volvo, with its iconic Iron Mark logo offers important lessons in the value of fidelity to brand values.

When I came on board with Volvo Cars of North America in 1980, the previous decade of the 1970s had seen Volvo featuring taglines like “The car for people who think,” and in 1978 “A car you can believe in.” Reflecting the somewhat cerebral nature of its taglines’ appeal, Volvo courted a niche to which it played well. Its accessory catalog could easily have included Volvo branded leather elbow patches and pipe cleaners.

1979 Volvo “Love Letters” ad

With the 1980s, it seemed the world discovered the safe, durable, reliable, rugged, environmentally conscious and comfortable Swede. While always a small player in a much larger automobile universe, Volvo always punched above its weight. It enjoyed extraordinary brand recognition, far beyond what its modest sales volume would normally merit.

To think of any other car brand proudly displaying an “I Love my car” bumper sticker would have been unthinkable. I love my Lincoln? I love my BMW? I love my anything? It did not work. But “I love my Volvo,” absolutely. Owners loved their Volvos. So much so that they would pen love letters to Volvo headquarters especially ones featuring a common theme. Safety! Unsolicited, Volvo owners would send photos of terrible accidents they had experienced accompanied by letters thanking Volvo for the safe cars they built while proclaiming, “Volvo Saved My Life.” A steady stream of such letters inspired Bob Austin, then, Director of Marketing Communications at Volvo Cars of North America to start the “Volvo Saved My Life Club” in 1990. Austin said, “The club was a way to recognize a very special group of people and say thank you in a very respectful way.”

At the same time Volvo delighted in recognizing another group of owners. This group shared a very different Volvo attribute, longevity. These Volvo owners put hundreds of thousands of miles on the Volvos they loved. This lead to Volvo establishing the Volvo High Mileage Club that awarded handsome badges in 100,000 increments to drivers with high mileage Volvos. One such driver stood tall as a renowned figure among car people in general and Volvo people in particular. His name was Irv Gordon. Gordon had long held and most likely will always hold the Guinness World Record for most miles driven in a single car. Over the span of six decades Gordon put 3.2 million miles on his 1966 Volvo P1800.

Irv Gordon and his 1966 Volvo P1800

By the early 1990s, I had started my own business which enjoyed Volvo as a client. Still Swedish to its core, Volvo offered a new family of good looking and popular 850 sedans and wagons that all remained faithful to the Volvo brand values.

Volvo’s tagline of the 1990s “Drive Safely” proffered friendly and thoughtful counsel. In reinforcing long held brand values, the tagline really cut to the chase. In the Pantheon of Volvo core values intelligent comprehensive world class safety design stood the tallest. Going back to the very beginning in 1927, safety stood foremost in the minds of Volvo founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson when they stated, “Cars are driven by people. Therefore, the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo is, and must remain, safety.”

If asked, “What do you think of when you hear the name Volvo?” For all members of the Volvo family of employees and much of the public the answer would be “Safety, durability and quality.” In 1995 Bill Hoover, then Volvo Cars of North America Executive Vice President, speaking for all those Volvo executives who had come before him in carrying the Volvo banner, was asked. “How does a company with such relatively small annual sales get such high brand name recognition?” Hoover said, “We are not trying to be the auto du jour. Our image has consistently been one of safety, durability and quality.” Researchers at Yankelovitch Partners, a major research firm at the time, assessed the reason for Volvo’s success. Their conclusion? “Volvo promoted their car as the choice for safety, durability and quality and they delivered.”

However, during the 1990s winds of change started buffeting Volvo in North America. Traditional Volvo brand advocates had been organized out of the North American operation. Longtime CEO Joseph Nicolato retired in 1991. Hoover was provided an “opportunity” to manage Volvo’s Asia/Pacific marketing operations in Singapore and Austin chose not to join Volvo in its move to Irvine, California after Ford, under CEO Jack Nasser, bought Volvo in 1999. The cost, $6.5 Billion. Ford’s purchase of Volvo represented a watershed moment. By relocating Volvo to the west coast Ford intended to package it into Ford’s newly created Premier Auto Group (PAG) with Wolfgang Reitzle at the helm. PAG membership would consist of Volvo, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Mazda, Lincoln-Mercury and Land Rover, all Ford owned marques.

1981 Volvo “Brownies” ad

Unfortunately, Volvo’s relocation from Rockleigh, NJ to Irvine in 2001 gutted the corporate culture. Purged from the loyal Volvo ranks, a large number of longtime experienced employees with extensive product knowledge either did not get invited or chose not to uproot and move across country. Sadly, seven years later when PAG failed and with most of its pieces sold off, Ford would return Volvo to New Jersey. Regrettably it could never reclaim the lost and invaluable experience and expertise that had been willingly sacrificed. Ford ran Volvo off a cliff and without safety, Volvo would not survive the crash as a Ford owned brand.

With the demise of the old guard (Literally, like the three Grail Knights in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” Austin, Hoover and Nicolato, had protected the Volvo brand) a drum beat emanating from Sweden first heard in the mid-1990s grew louder. The message, now, arrived loud and clear. Volvo should move up in the luxury ranks to be priced like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. In the March 23, 1998 Automotive News, a front page photo of Volvo senior management accompanied a story trumpeting “Volvo adds spice to image of safety.” The first paragraph said it all in describing global management’s stated belief that, “(Volvo’s) safety-laden reputation may be too square for today’s buyers.” The corporate mindset of Volvo’s, then, new owner, Ford, proved richly fertile ground for navigating a sea change in brand messaging driven by powerful winds of competitive brand envy.

It became a given by management that, “Safety was “understood” by all customers and, thus, did not need to be promoted. In word and deed it seemed new Volvo management espoused opinions of old Volvo brand values with a palpable disregard bordering on contempt. At a time when the Ford Explorer had a well publicized rollover issue, Volvo, had a suspension design in its newly introduced XC90 SUV that offered greater rollover protection. Volvo had to limit its advertising to avoid comparing its superiority to other brands.

1980 Volvo “LOVE” ad

From the new millennium’s early aughts to its early teens the market witnessed a Volvo intentionally transformed into a brand unintentionally adrift. Where once Volvo advertising resided at the pinnacle of wry humor (We’d Never put our brownies in a little tin box and What four-letter word best describes your car?), its efforts now seemed more “awry humor” that unwittingly insulted the very people to whom Volvo wished to sell.

Volvo’s iconic High Mileage Club’s substantial metal medallions awarded at 100,000 mile increment (Up to 1,000,000 miles) were shelved in place of a decal for every 250,000 miles. The prevailing management thought, then, called for not incentivizing people to keep their Volvos in the hope that they would more frequently buy new ones. Another high mileage Volvo association, the promotion of Irv Gordon, the beloved and world famous million mile driver went to the far back burner.

Volvo’s new direction witnessed co-branding promotions whose intent bordered on the threshold of incredulity. Volvo reportedly poured funds into the vampire themed Twilight Saga series of romance fantasy films. The Twilight films targeted young audiences comprised of a significant percentage of teenage girls, many too young to drive. However, Paul Walder, Global Marketing Manager at Volvo Cars said “More younger people think that Volvo is ‘cool’ because Edward drives one and this will impact on their future car buying decision making.” Contestant winners, young women ages 18 an 19 took home new XC60s.

Volvo committed significant dollars, as well, to its association with the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” This involved people following clues to finding a Volvo buried by a salt water beach in the Bahamas. It is said that the size of the expenditures on the film promotions left little remaining to support North American advertising. Tracking data showed no association between promotional money expended and additional vehicles sold.

Coco Framboise

In a truly head scratching move, Volvo launched a “Naughty Volvo” S60 model promotion possessing the power to drive a stake through the heart (Apparently the vampire thing has stuck with me) of any lingering “family values association” remaining in consumer memory. Promotional events showcased the “Naughty Volvo S60” in venues such as a make-shift “Red Light” district in Toronto featuring “Burlesque star Coco Framboise with sounds provided by DJ Dopey and Poizonus.” The campaign included slogans like “Spank the competition” and “Naughty Volvos are coming.”

The start of the new millennium and the promotion of new values begun under Nasser and Reitzle did not go well for Volvo. From MY2000 with sales of 123,178 to MY2010 where sales had plummeted to 53,948 Volvo had lost its way. For the purpose of this article, the year 2010  will serve as the point in time where the decision on brand betrayal or good business will be determined. Why?  By the end of 2010 Ford would have sold Volvo to Geely of China. The price, $1.8 billion. $4.7 billion less than it had paid. The Geely purchase presents a whole new story for a later date.

Brand betrayal or smart decision? The plummeting sales volumes and the subsequent sale of the company screams betrayal. However, the good news for the traditional Volvo brand values comes with the success it once again enjoys, but not with Volvo. When Volvo dropped it, Subaru snatched it up and ran. The following quote comes from Subaru’s agency of record, Carmichael Lynch:   “How do you stand apart when your competition is spending literally billions of dollars? By connecting with what’s truly important to your audience — not just features they might like, but the life that they love. Their families. Their pets. The great outdoors. Even the venerable old Subaru they’ve been driving forever. In 2007, we introduced the “Love” campaign. In the years since, sales and market share have more than tripled and love has spread to every level of the brand.”

Many industry people recognize that Subaru has drawn heavily from the original Volvo playbook with great success as its reward. Themes like the “Love” Campaign, fund raising, golden retrievers, driver’s stories, environmental concerns and, above all, safety, all masterfully interwoven with a consistent voice and narrative have served Subaru well. From 2009 to 2019 Subaru sales in the U.S. increased 200% from 216,652 units to 700,117 units. Such success has many parents, but the Volvo themes sit at the head of the table.

A humorous aside. Austin, now, Past Volvo Director of Marketing Communications, has a good sense of humor. A number of years back he complimented the Subaru Advertising Manager on Subaru’s wrecking yard “They Lived” TV commercial. With a smile he added, “In fact I liked it when I did it 10 years ago.” Both laughed.

Now what of BMW? Brand Betrayal or Smart Business?

All different model SUVs

BMW, as the Ultimate Driving Machine, despite considerable success faces many challenges in a world racing – some might say hurtling – towards autonomous cars and where visual identity is increasingly harder to come by. (See nearby image of two dozen recent white SUVs from different manufacturers. Can you tell them apart?). BMW does not face this threat to individuality alone. And to be fair, BMW does produce designs a notch above. However, for the most part, unlike years back, today, all of one manufacturer’s model line looks pretty much the same as every other manufacturer’s offerings. Basically everything looks like a jelly bean with a few razor edges added for character. Just sayin’. This causes manufacturers to take desperate measures to distance themselves from the crowd. Have you noticed the more that car designs suffer under imposed hard points accommodating global market homogeneity demands, fuel economy demands and corporate packaging the larger grills have become? As an apparent natural byproduct of big grill disease, the ugly bordering on downright disturbing aesthetics of some creations produce, in the viewer, a kind of curious morbid fascination like seeing a two-headed cow and wondering how could this be? Case in point, the Lexus “Predator” grill design. Really?  Don’t laugh Audi your grill offers no visual feast for sore eyes either. But BMW? It already possessed what many consider one of the most recognizable grills in the business.

This brings me to BMW issue number one, the God-awful smiling Tasmania Devil grill. To put things in perspective while it doesn’t quite make me want to scratch my eyes out, it does make the “Bangle Butt” and the first generation Z4 front fender “Z” line border on being fond memories. Yes, a frontal feature that distinguishes and differentiates a design serves a valuable purpose when it does so in an attractive way. However, the Phantom of the Opera wore a mask for a reason.

Does BMW believe that its iconic grill design suffers from being so indistinguishable that “better to be ugly and noticed” offers valid defense of its questionable execution?

Secondly, the lollipop Roundel. Logos such as Ferrari’s prancing horse, the Rolls-Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy” and, yes, the BMW Roundel trigger a conditioned customer response. A product bearing that badge confirms that that car fulfills that long established brand’s promise. Research suggests that it takes five to ten years for a brand to be established in market consciousness. Common sense would suggest it takes one look at a distortion of the brand icon to confuse the observer. When the revered iconic badge undergoes change, the natural course of thought calls to question what other changes this new symbol might augur?

In the 2004 Automotive News World Congress Helmut Panke, then Chairman of BMW said, “A brand is a promise, a promise that the products of a brand provide substance, authenticity, emotional appeal and heritage.”

Does the jumbo grille and the pin wheel badge seem frivolous and unworthy of the BMW brand in light of Panke’s words.

What do you think?

For those interested in reading that offers insight into Branding and the automobile industry, the following are three recommendations:

  1. Where the Suckers Moon, An advertising story. Randall Rothenberg, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
  2. Branding Iron, Branding Lessons from the Meltdown of the US Auto Industry. Charlie Hughes and William Jeanes, Racom Books, 2007
  3. Car Guys vs Bean Counters, The battle for the Soul of American Business. Bob Lutz. Penguin Books, 2011
By |2024-02-29T13:01:04+00:00February 29th, 2024|6 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #49

Good fortune allowed me to enter the U.S. import car business in the later part of its formative years. For a subsequent period touching 5 decades I had the privilege to write for the vast majority of European automobile brands including, for over 30 years, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW. It afforded me the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest professional men and women to grace the import automobile industry. I learned from these experienced, insightful and wise individuals the meaning and importance of “brand.” I admired how they would passionately defend “the Brand.” My time in the business also allowed me to witness corporate decisions that tacked a marque away from their traditional brand values.

This two-part issue of Drivin’ News will ask can “Betraying the Brand be good business?”

Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part I


For a product, a brand is a promise. A strong brand adheres faithfully to a set of values highly prized by a targeted market segment. Building a powerful brand image takes time and consistency because building trust takes time (five to ten years is a number quoted) and consistency. A brand that has established a high level of trust usually features a slogan and/or logo, the Mercedes-Benz 3-Pointed Star, Volvo Iron Mark or BMW Roundel that functions as a beacon signaling to targeted customers that this product will fulfill their expectations. A brand that customers have grown to trust represents a hard earned and invaluable asset. A product sending off-brand messages confuses the customer and undermines the brand. It raises questions.

Recently I noticed a new BMW with a redesigned version of the iconic blue, white and black BMW badge. The new iteration called to mind a child’s multi-color swirl lollipop. That together with BMW’s recent addition of the oversized smiling Tasmanian Devil grill gave me pause. I realized that I had witnessed this manifestation of questionable branding efforts before. As a “car guy” such moves always engendered personal doubt and discomfort. As an exercise in retrospection I chose to revisit examples of brand infidelity I had witnessed and dig deeper before I explore two of BMW’s recent curious measures and their potential impact on the BMW brand.

Rather than looking first at BMW, Part I will start on the other side of the Strasse, with BMW’s arch rival Mercedes-Benz and in Part II, Volvo.

I began working at Mercedes-Benz in 1976. Then, the Mercedes-Benz boldly confident slogan “Engineered like no other car in the world” succinctly captured the Mercedes-Benz commitment to engineering excellence, quality, and luxury. It proudly advanced without equivocation the Mercedes-Benz brand values. As an organizational culture most everyone in the company embraced the passionate self-assessment of Mercedes-Benz as a builder of superior luxury automobiles for customers who understood, respected and could afford superior quality.

In the early years the business plan expressed by Mercedes-Benz management actually considered restricting overall Mercedes-Benz sales to 100,000 units to maintain its limited availability and support premium pricing and healthy margins. It is said that in the 1960s Executive VP of Sales Heinz Waizennegger laughed at the thought that consumers would ever consider paying $10,000 for a new passenger car. By the time I joined, company insiders laughed at the idea of people paying $20,000. By the 1980s nobody laughed any more.

Back then Mercedes-Benz as a company benefited from a workforce populated with skilled and dedicated car guys, both male and female, who, as a group, displayed a quiet and prideful confidence born of their perceived association with an internationally admired, stable and prosperous organization where the employees place and future seemed assured. Gifted engineers and technicians held respected status.

Many employees bought a new Mercedes each year at a favorable discount. Often the following year they would sell their year-old sedan for a profit. For longtime employees the annual profit could build to a cumulative sum where they were buying their annual new Mercedes with what felt like “house money.”

The Mercedes-Benz early North American business model succeeded based on a system where cars were designed, developed and perfected in a timely manner. Much like the aging of a prime steak or the maturing of a fine wine, Mercedes-Benz would bring without great haste well engineered and assorted superior vehicles to a loyal but limited market. However, the late 1980s witnessed U.S. sales volumes and margins declining. Word filtered out of internal management discussions considering the advisability of moving Mercedes-Benz product upscale into higher cost/higher margin but lower volume Rolls-Royce/Bentley territory.

Then Mike Jackson took the helm in 1989. He passionately preached to Stuttgart a message advocating reduced prices with more exciting product and advertising designed to reach a younger and broader market slice. To keep this in context, realize that M-B home office in Germany and M-B North America did not always see eye to eye. In their early years in America the mindset of the predominantly conservative post-war German Mercedes-Benz management in Stuttgart found the North America market baffling and at times infuriating. Especially humorous and emblematic of the disconnect surfaced in the early years when Mercedes-Benz in America pressured Stuttgart for a sunroof as a product feature. The German’s did not see the need when you could simply open the windows but, over time, Germany yielded to the demand. Shortly thereafter America wanted air conditioning. Home office in Stuttgart lost its mind. “The Americans had gotten their sunroof with the fresh air and sunshine now America wanted to close the sunroof and have air conditioning. By the 1980s, however, times were indeed changing with Mercedes-Benz having a more international character.

At the close of 1980s, U.S. sales had dropped for most European luxury car makers, including Mercedes. The economic recession, the luxury tax, and the dollar/mark valuation all played a part in the problem.

A 1991 study by J.D. Powers & Associates found that American luxury owners appreciated prestige but bought reliability, a Japanese brands’ strength. One particular reason for Mercedes’ maintenance issues, as compared to Japanese brands, emanated from Mercedes-Benz emphasis on cars being crafted more than mass produced. The Mercedes-Benz mindset at that time was expressed by Edzard Reuter, then chairman of Daimler-Benz, who said, “We constantly study our position and we always come to the conclusion that we should stay away from mass production. The economies of scale wouldn’t help us. Besides, we have a culture of engineering and product differentiation that would make it difficult.”

However, it had become increasingly apparent that Americans viewed Mercedes’ signature over-engineering as irrelevant. By 1991, Mercedes had started to pay attention to what the American customer and baby boomers in particular, wanted. This sea change in mindset resulted in Mercedes redirecting its focus away from engineering and towards marketing. Germany had listened to Mike Jackson. Mercedes-Benz would respond to a new reality by retaining the 3-pointed star but changing the value proposition it represented.

300SL factory craftsmanship

Like the canary in the coal mine, the slogan “Engineered like no other car in the world” would no longer sing the praises of Mercedes-Benz automobiles. The old brand values buckled under the pressure making way for a new paradigm intent on defining a new path to broader success.

Mercedes-Benz of North America retreated from its engineering-centric heritage to that of a North American marketing function. The retreat created pain. Notorious international business consulting firm McKinsey came in to plan the desired organizational changes with one of the results being a mass layoff of staff members that became known as “Black Tuesday.” This purging of experienced and loyal employees devastated company morale and weakened the foundation of the corporate culture. McKinsey interventions often left such organizational detritus in its wake.

W140 S-Class

The radical departure from past practices would evidence itself when comparing the MY1992 W140 S-Class with its replacement the MY2000 S220 S-Class. With the W140, initial development started in 1981 with it coming to market in 1991. It should be noted that the final product caused much consternation in Germany. The impact of significant cost overruns associated with the project’s over-engineering (Estimate, approx. $1 billion) would ripple through the organization with lasting effects. That said, in the case of the W140, save for a later developing issue with the car’s biodegradable wiring insulation, its excellent build quality and noteworthy expression of over-engineering received wide praise but lukewarm buyer interest. Certainly, new competition contributed to Mercedes’ disappointing sales. Japanese luxury in the form of Lexus and others had burst onto the scene swinging polite but sharp elbows. It forced the staid luxury market including Mercedes-Benz into a period of wrenchingly painful self-examination.

Development of the S220 began in 1992 at the dawn of marketing taking dominance over engineering at Mercedes-Benz. In comparing the S220 replacement for the W140, Motor Trend wrote, “Though hard to pin down, there was something about the S220 that suggested it was developed in an era when the engineers no longer held sway at Mercedes.”

S220 S-Class

Doug Munro, the respected online car reviewer and founder of “Cars and Bids” in comparing the S220 and W140, said, “It represents a low point being the product of cost cutting and simplification in production and engineering.” Munro went on to say, “The earlier goal in producing the W140 was to make the greatest car in the world and they did. In the case of the W220 cost cutting was the name of the game.” The 2000 S500 cost roughly 15% less than the 1992 S500.

So was the Mercedes-Benz course of action that of a brand betrayed or a smart business decision necessitated by a changing market?

The answer may well depend on your point of view. Are you a pure car guy or a business guy? A car guy savors great automobiles built with passion, brilliance, excellence and a cost be damned attitude. Business guys savor a great car that makes money. Car guys love Duesenbergs, Cords, Tuckers, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces to name a few. Unfortunately, all went bankrupt or were sold.

As to whether brand betrayal or smart business move, by the year 1998, one would have to say a necessary business decision. Why 1998? Because that year Daimler-Benz swallowed Chrysler and initiated a boiling cauldron of brand confusion and chaos. But that is story for another day.

Did Mercedes-Benz financially benefit from the brand’s redirection? Sales volume would seem to say yes. From Model Year 1991 though 1999 Mercedes-Benz unit sales increased from 58,868 units to 189,437 units. Certainly many factors such as more models, sportier offerings, the competitive set, exchange rates, manufacturing techniques and market conditions impacted sales as well. Furthermore, in considering the earlier fate of pinnacle brands such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley and, later, Mercedes’ own effort with Maybach, the idea of the upmarket move Mercedes-Benz management once considered, would seem to have been destined to fail. Furthermore, based partly on the success of Mercedes-Benz who industry insiders viewed as having been revitalized by Mike Jackson, Jackson now resides in the Automotive Hall of Fame.

In speaking of the old Mercedes-Benz brand, then, it may be best to say, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”


Betraying the Brand or Smart Business? Part II will focus on Volvo and BMW

By |2024-02-15T15:19:41+00:00February 15th, 2024|12 Comments

Cars We Love & Who We Are #48

It ranks high on the list of last places to look for classic Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. The meandering country two-lane bisects a large expanse of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania farmland. Upon cresting a berm saddled with a railroad crossing, the road descends to reveal a well tended but non-descript collection of linked single story beige structures with the character of warehousing. Au contraire, one has arrived at the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Museum and home to the Rolls-Royce Foundation and Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club. Much like an automotive Clark Kent there is far more here than first meets the eye.

On this particular clear and crisp late autumn day turning into the front parking area reveals an array of vintage and classic Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. One in particular snags the eye and demands greater scrutiny. A striking black and silver open wheel hot rod sporting a Bentley Flying “B” vibrates in place, poised to launch.

Meet the Black Adder VI Bentley Special.

The Black Adder VI, an Outrageous Hot Rod Bentley

Alex and Elaine in the Black Adder VI

Daresay that the chances approached nil. Surely Baron Henry de Blonay of Villa Favorite in Chembésy, Switzerland never thought about it at all. What were the chances that his new 1947 Bentley Mark VI would, 70 years later, be a cycle fendered, open cockpit hot rod named after a poisonous viper and seen cruising the back roads of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

While tracking ownership history of early postwar Bentleys ranks high on the frustration scale, much of the Black Adder’s last 75 years is known. Most of it resides in Mechanicsburg, PA.

My friend Henry Uiga greeted me. A Rolls-Royce owner, club member and Drivin’ News reader, Henry had extended Drivin’ News an invitation to the Rolls-Royce Club’s monthly Volunteer Saturday. On this scheduled day club members gathered at the Museum to service the Rolls-Royce and Bentley vehicles in the collection. Watching the members in action quickly dismissed any preconceived notions of an elitist membership dominated by the white glove crowd depicted in the iconic Grey Poupon Mustard ads. The men and women present and immersed in their hands-on work displayed a hardy respect for the 100 plus-year heritage of Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles including that featured in the fabled mid-century “Loudest thing is the clock” ads.

As I entered a workshop lined with vehicles representing a century of British engineering excellence, I had found Henry working on an open wheel roadster the likes of which I had never seen. It sported the Bentley Flying “B.”

Displaying an apparent Dry Lakes Racer/T-Bucket inspired visual execution and chassis number B46AK, this right-hand drive Bentley hot rod pleased the eye with a striking livery of a black passenger tub with saddle tan interior, black cycle fenders and silver aluminum bonnet. With Brooklands Type Racing Screens, leather hood straps and an athletic stance, this well conceived custom execution represented a consummate example of a breed of collectible Bentley, the modified Bentley “Special”.”

Starting life as what might be described as the entry level 1947 Bentley Mark VI, the Bentley Special concept came to life in the early 1960s. At that time, the poor quality sheet metal used in the early Post WWII Mark VI had almost universally fallen prey to the tin worm. In sharp contrast, owners found their Bentley Mark VI’s seriously deteriorated steel bodies to be mounted on rugged and reliable chassis with an equally capable drivetrain.

As a restored Mark VI did not possess a high value comparable to a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a Vintage Bentley, owners saw little merit in committing large sums of money to the restoration of a rusted hulk. However, the Mark VI did possess a rugged drivetrain and chassis pretty much regarded as bulletproof. The solution? Re-body and upgrade the remaining chassis to create a “Special” that reflected the personal tastes and interests of the individual who commissioned the restoration.

Woolf Barnato

Starting around 1963 in the UK, Bentley Specials became very popular. Many of the first re-creations emulated the vintage racing Bentley’s of the late 1920s and early 1930s. During that period Bentley had made its name in competitive motorsports with numerous victories including multiple wins in the 24-Hours of LeMans. At the same time, this period witnessed the heyday of adventuress part-time drivers, more sportsmen than professionals. They became known as gentlemen-drivers who would race their cars at the track and then drive the same cars home. Their ranks included Bentley drivers like Woolf Barnato, John Duff and Glen Kidston. These men, though not professional drivers, piloted Bentley’s to many impressive victories in the 1920s and 1930s earning them the name, the “Bentley Boys.”

Bentley “Specials” today offer non-professional drivers great enjoyment in vintage racing as well as rallies and tours. Utilizing open style bodywork and Bentley sourced performance upgrades, one prominent auction house states, “We admire these MK VI Specials, and think they best represent what a true British gentleman might create in lieu of an American hot rod.”

To get the real story behind the Museum’s chassis number B46AK Black Adder VI Special, Henry directed me to Mark Lizewskie, the Executive Director of both the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club and the Rolls-Royce Foundation. Mark said, “As with all the vehicles in our collection this Special came to us as a donation. Presented to us by the married couple of author, military historian and decorated Special Forces veteran James Stejskal and Ms. Wanda Nesbit, a United States diplomat and career Foreign Service Officer. the Black Adder VI entered the collection in 2017.”

James Young Coupe bodied Mark VI

The record seemed to indicate that chassis number B46AK started life in 1947 as a James Young Coupe bodied Mark VI. The subsequent search for any records covering the next 25 years drew a blank. Fortunately its history resurfaced in the 1970s when Johnard Engineering, located in Blandford, Dorset UK, re-bodied B46AK as a Bentley Special. Johnard possessed considerable renown for the superior technical and aesthetic execution of its Bentley Specials. Elton John owned one and another finished 4th in class in the 1997 Peking to Paris Challenge.

The 21st century saw B46AK experience a second re-bodying by the late Victor Yordy of Metal Works in Dewart, Pennsylvania. Many regarded Yordy as an artist who at times would create new art in the form of an automobile. B46AK’s beauty extended beneath the skin with all mechanicals undergoing a comprehensive performance upgrade by the Rolls-Royce specialists Pierce Reid and Billings Cook at The Vintage Garage in Stowe, Vermont. Billed as purveyors of superlative engine rebuilding, mechanical restoration and service since 1963, the end result affirmed their reputation. And so, the Black Adder VI came to life. As reported in The Flying Lady, “ The Black Adder VI is a formidable performer, with 90+ mph available in third gear alone; no one is exactly sure what the top speed is on this car. Equally at home on the track or on the road. It is in outstanding condition and a formidable performer. In short it embodies everything a Bentley Special should be.” In 2015 it received a Touring Class award at the RROC Annual Meet.

Mark in describing some of the technical upgrades said, “As with all Specials it reflects the owner’s specific taste and preferences. Mark continued saying, “It’s certainly not original. And after all, that is the point of a Special.”

In enhancing the original Bentley 4.3-liter inline 6-cylinder, the Black Adder features an R-type Continental big valve head and highly desirable R-type Continental manual center shift gearbox. Mark added to the list saying, “It’s upgrades include disc brakes, larger SU carburetors and numerous drivetrain tweaks.”  As to the actual engine and performance specs, Mark says, “It has never been on a dyno. But, together with the engine upgrades and the significant weight reduction due to the open cockpit re-body, performance has improved significantly.” Interestingly no base performance figures exist as Rolls-Royce/ Bentley never would publish them. With true British reserve, the corporate answer to questions about horsepower and performance was, “Adequate.”

Now came the time to bring the Black Adder out to play. Climbing behind the wheel would be Foundation volunteer Alex Sharpe. Alex said his lean physique, comfort with the right-hand steering and the four-speed found him taking the Black Adder out with the greatest frequency.

Elaine, my partner in crime, would be taking the passenger seat for the test drive. She noted that the interior while very nicely trimmed did feel quite confining. She said, “The tiny doors provided minimal easing of entry. I am glad I do a lot of yoga otherwise getting in and out would be a challenge.” In referring to my size twelve feet she just shook her head and said, “No way.”

Alex agreed saying, “The cockpit itself is very tight. It’s very shallow at the end so your seating is much more constrained and the relationship between you and the steering wheel is much different than people are used to in a modern vehicle.” Alex continued saying, “You sit tall in the seat with the door top in line with your kidneys. That together with the fact that instead of having a conventional windshield you have the Brooklyn screens makes for a very open cockpit.

Twitchy might be the best word for Alex’s description of the Black Adder’s handling. B46AK’s close coupled design positions the driver just forward of the rear axle while, much like an XK120 (Alex owns and drives one), the front end feels a mile away. Alex said, “It can create a dynamic that produces over steer.” With a wry smile Alex laughed saying, “I have not pushed it to the point where I can confirm my suspicions. I like being a volunteer here.”

In closing, when asked for any other comment he would have on the experience of driving the Black Adder VI Bentley Special. Alex said, “I just can’t wait to get out there and enjoy it more.”

Apparently being snake bit is not always a bad thing.

By |2024-02-01T15:00:16+00:00February 1st, 2024|1 Comment