1998-2009 Bentley Arnage

1998-2009 Bentley Arnage

In the third instalment of this series, we take an in-depth look at the saloon that Volkswagen inherited and then continued to develop through its first decade of Bentley ownership. Words: Richard Gunn. Photography: Kelsey Archive.


AN ANATOMY OF THE… …Bentley Arnage, the four-door saloon that VW inherited and went on to develop over the next decade

As much as this is a history of the birth and evolution of the last Bentley to be designed during the 20th century, it’s also (inevitably) a look at the very public battle between Volkswagen and BMW for ownership of the Bentley and Rolls-Royce names. The car was launched in the middle of the takeover tussle between the two German giants. And when BMW snatched the rights to Rolls-Royce from under VW’s nose – and at a fraction of the price that VW had paid for Bentley – it would have quite radical repercussions for the new Arnage.

1998-2009 Bentley Arnage

However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, for the origins of the Arnage date back to the days when Vickers was in charge of both marques. The British aviation, defence, marine and engineering conglomerate had acquired Rolls-Royce and Bentley in 1980, and it was under Vickers’ watch that Bentley began to properly re-emerge from the shadow of its parent marque. Restoring a more sporting image to the Flying B, with turbocharged models that looked more than just slightly different to Rolls-Royces, meant that Bentleys rose from representing just 5% of production when Vickers rode in, to 40% by 1986.

Five years later it was a 50:50 split between Rolls-Royce and Bentley, with the latter’s share still climbing. Initial work on successors to the Silver Spirit and its various Bentley derivatives (from Mulsanne to Brooklands and Turbo RT) got under way in the late 1980s, with design officially commencing in October 1990 under engineering director Mike Dunne, chief designer Graham Hull and Steve Harper. Management was happy enough with the way things were going to ‘freeze’ the conceptual design in June 1991.

However, after Dunne retired in 1992, his role as project director passed to Tony Gott, a former TI and Lotus engineer. He took over in January 1994, and it was under him that several refinements were made before the definitive design was reached later that year. (Gott, incidentally, would ultimately end up as the overall boss of Rolls-Royce from 2002 to 2004.) In July of 1995, design patents were taken out for the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage, based on prototypes machines. While the angular Spirit’s styling had clearly been an evolution of the previous Shadow, the Seraph was much more of a clean-sheet effort, with its body adopting some pleasing curves. Hull had been influenced by both the Silver Cloud and yacht styling for his creation. Aside from the radiator grille, badges and wheels, the Arnage was externally identical to its Rolls-Royce sister. On both cars, more complex electronics were incorporated as standard, including adaptive ride control, anti-lock brakes and digital engine management.

And it was the engine – or rather engines – that proved to be the real talking point. By the 1990s, it was felt that the trusty 6750cc L-series V8 was a little long in the tooth, having been the mainstay of all Rolls-Royces and Bentleys since 1959.

There was a desire to come up with something a little fresher. However, Vickers at the time was going through one of its more turbulent financial periods, and there simply wasn’t the money to develop a new body and engine. The way forward had been signalled by the appearance of a concept Bentley – the Java – at the 1994 Geneva Motor Show, which used a BMW 5-Series E34 platform. This partly prompted Vickers to take the controversial decision to buy in engines from another manufacturer – plus it would be making its own bodies rather than having them constructed by Pressed Steel, as previously.


Responsible for pressing the body panels was Vickers itself at its factory in Newcastle-on-Tyne, as well as the engineering contract group Mayflower, using its plant in Coventry. Rolls-Royce invested £40 million in a new body shop occupying the old engine assembly area at Crewe. Production of the V8 engines for the outgoing models shifted to Cosworth Engineering in Wellingborough, which Vickers had acquired in 1990.

But which engine supplier should Rolls-Royce go with, bearing in mind its constant need to win back the title of ‘The Best Car in the World’? A Ford V12 and General Motors’ Northstar V8 were both considered… but rejected. Ultimately, the choice came down to BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

The latter seemed the best choice; it had on offer V8 and V12 engines that were simply better than the BMW equivalents. However, because BMW had previous connections with Vickers – the Bentley Java concept for starters, as well as a 1992 joint venture to design and develop medium-sized aircraft fan jets – it was Munich that triumphed over Stuttgart. The decision to team up with BMW was taken in December 1994. The German marque also offered to buy a 20% stake in Rolls-Royce, but this was rejected.

For the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, the M73 5379cc V12 was chosen, a unit also used in the E38-generation BMW 750. For the Bentley Arnage, however, it was the 4398cc M62 V8, with both engines being mated to five-speed automatic transmissions.

By late 1997, development work on the new Silver Seraph and Arnage was over and pilot production cars began to appear from early ’1998, with both models making their debut at that year’s Geneva motor show. Perhaps inevitably, there was some discontent among traditionalists that two such resolutely British marques should now be powered by German engines, even though both the V8 and V12 offered improvements over the old unit. While both Seraph and Arnage were very similar inside and out, the Bentley had a centre gear selector and more comprehensive instrumentation laid out in a slightly different style. The Seraph had a column-mounted selector and fewer dials.

The Arnage and Silver Seraph weren’t the only things for sale that year, as Rolls-Royce and Bentley were also up for grabs, with Vickers having confirmed it intended to divest itself of its car division to focus more on its core businesses in October 1997. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Ford and Ferrari were all cited as interested parties, but eventually BMW emerged as the frontrunner. In April 1998, Vickers reached a formal agreement with BMW to sell Rolls-Royce to it for £340m. However, at the last minute VW nipped in with a £430m offer, which Vickers’ shareholders voted to accept in the July.

What Volkswagen got for its money was Bentley, the Crewe factory, and the rights to the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot and Rolls-Royce radiator shape. It didn’t, however, have the rights to the Rolls-Royce name, which was still controlled by the separate Rolls-Royce PLC aero engine company. It’s genuinely difficult to comprehend that VW didn’t do due diligence, and it later claimed it had only wanted Bentley anyway – by then the dominant marque. But the impression was that VW had slipped up, especially when BMW asked the PLC if it could use the Rolls-Royce name on cars, and was handed it on a plate for just £40m. A major headache for Volkswagen was that the Arnage used a BMW engine – which BMW had threatened to stop supplying while the two were at loggerheads over ownership of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Eventually, the two German giants did sort out their issues, but having to use such major components from BMW still didn’t sit well with VW, and it decided to reengineer the Arnage to accept the old Rolls Royce L-series V8 after all. The official line was that customers just weren’t keen on a BMW engine in a Bentley, despite sales of the German-powered cars being perfectly respectable.

To differentiate between the two versions, 2000-model-year cars with BMW engines were rebadged as Arnage Green Labels, while those with the newly reintroduced traditional British V8s (which were effectively the same single turbocharger units as used in the Turbo R) were dubbed Arnage Red Labels. Their debut came in October 1999, with both variants receiving a stiffer bodyshell and larger wheels and brakes, plus an Alpine popup navigation system, parking sensors, modified seats to improve their rear legroom, folding electric door mirrors, a modified steering rack and plastic headlamp covers in place of glass.


The final 52 BMW-powered Arnages were constructed during 2000 as Arnage Birkins, referencing one of the most prominent ‘Bentley Boys’ of the 1920s and ’30s, Tim Birkin. One of the differences was that, instead of five gauges in the centre of the dash, there were just three. These cars were sold into 2001, after which the BMW-powered Bentley was no more. The Red Label tag was now no longer needed for differentiation and was dropped in 2002, shortly after a long-wheelbase model – with an extra 250mm of length in its middle – had been unveiled. Alongside that was the normalsized Arnage Le Mans Series, commemorating Bentley’s return to the Le Mans 24-hour race after 71 years. Just 153 of these appeared, with distinctive features such as quad exhaust pipes, front wing vents, five-spoke alloy wheels with red calipers visible through them, wider wheelarches, remodelled bumpers, dark racing green instruments with Le Mans lettering, drilled pedals, darker burr walnut veneer, and chrome and leather-clad gear levers. The exterior colours were Silver Storm, Black Oriole and Le Mans Racing Green. Replacing the Red Label, meanwhile, were the Series Two Arnage R and Arnage T. Bentley claimed that the Series Two had been completely re-engineered, which was overstating things somewhat, but more stiffening was added and there were suspension upgrades as well. Under the bonnet, two smaller Garratt T3 turbochargers replaced the previous single T3 item. What wasn’t mentioned in the Series 2 publicity was that the engine was also slightly modified to try and reduce the number of head gasket failures that had been besmirching the Bentley image. Visually, new bumpers, tailpipes and side sills (plus a reduction in chrome) made the cars stand out from their predecessors. Inside, the seats were made more comfortable.

The R was the more laid-back of the Bentley bunch with ‘just’ 399bhp, the T being further tweaked to an impressive 450bhp to offer a top speed of 170mph and a 0-60mph time of just 5.5 seconds. At this point, the LWB model became the RL. Another very exclusive model of 2002 was the Bentley State Limousine, which was developed from the Arnage for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee; just two were built, and they remain in use for state duties today. Bentley’s win at the 2003 Le Mans 24-hours led to a very limited run of forty special cars created by Mulliner. These T24 Bentleys shared similar features to the earlier Le Mans models, but also had Union Flag badges, 19-inch split-rim polished alloy wheels, and carbon fibre in place of the usual wood.


In 2005 came a further facelift, with different headlamps and bonnet line, new wheels, enhanced suspension and new switchgear – the latter doing away with anything from the BMW parts bin in favour of Volkswagen controls instead. A drophead coupé was shown off at the 2005 Los Angeles Auto Show but wouldn’t make it to production until 2007.

More limited editions followed, including 2005’s Arnage Blue Train to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Wolf Barnato’s famous race against the French Blue Train Express between Cannes and Calais. The 36 models were based on the Arnage R, but with the T’s 450bhp engine. Among the features were a dash-mounted plaque that had a silhouette of the Gurney Nutting coupé that was believed to have been Barnato’s car. It was only some years later that it was discovered that a Mulliner-bodied saloon had been used instead, thus meaning every Arnage Blue Train portrayed the wrong car.

Bentley’s sixty years of production at Crewe was marked by the Arnage Diamond Series, with sixty cars planned – although it seems the company fell one short. Diamond-quartered wood, diamond-quilted leather, a mesh front grille, stainless steel bumpers and 19inch alloy wheels were standard fitment. But what enthusiasts probably appreciated most was the reappearance of a Flying B mascot topping off the radiator surround – the first time one had been used on a series production Bentley since the 1970s.

In 2007, there was another update, albeit with most of the changes being under the skin. The Arnage T saw power rise to 500bhp, which made 179mph possible, while the Arnage R’s output rose to 450bhp. It was the fitment of new Mitsubishi low-inertia turbochargers that helped make these surges in power possible; they spooled up to maximum speed in half the time of the previous Garratt units, although a reprofiled camshaft and revamped electronics also played their role. Remarkably, the 2007 version of the 6750cc V8 had around 300bhp more than its 1959 incarnation, yet only 60% of its fuel consumption. Bentley announced in September 2008 that it would cease building the Arnage the following year, by which time it would have outlived Rolls- Royce’s Silver Seraph by seven years. The last 96 cars were dubbed the Final Series models and were really quite special indeed – so much so that they deserve a more in-depth examination, which you’ll find on page 60. The replacement for the long-running Arnage was to be the Mulsanne, marking the revival of a name from the days when both Bentley and Rolls-Royce were still married. However, for the first time in many decades, there would be no commonality with the marque that was now one of Bentley’s biggest rivals.

The steadily-updated Arnage remained in production at the historic Crewe plant for more than a decade.

Unlike previous models, bodyshells for the Arnage (and Silver Seraph) were produced in-house at Crewe.

Just forty examples of the Arnage T24 were built to celebrate Bentley’s win at the 2003 Le Mans 24-hours.

While the Seraph and Arnage were similar inside, the Bentley had a centre gear selector and more comprehensive instrumentation.Early examples of the Arnage were criticised for their lack of reg legroom and rather tight headroom.

“Volkswagen later claimed that it had only ever wanted Bentley, which by then was the dominant marque anyway”

To the delight of Bentley traditionalists, the British-built L-series V8 was reintroduced for the 2000 model year.

Aimed at the chauffeur-driven sector, the long-wheelbase model was renamed the Arnage RL for 2002.

“Chief designer Graham Hull had been influenced by both the Silver Cloud and yacht styling for his latest creation”


  • Arnage (1998-1999) 1123
  • Arnage Green Label (2000) 7
  • Arnage Red Label (2000-2002) 2273
  • Arnage Birkin (2000-2001) 52
  • Arnage Le Mans (2001) 153
  • Arnage R (2002-2009) 1365
  • Arnage T (2002-2009) 2100
  • Arnage T24 (2003) 40
  • Arnage Blue Train (2006) 36
  • Arnage Diamond Series (2006) 59
  • Arnage Final Series (2009) 96

The Crewe plant was updated to prepare for Arnage production, with £40m being invested in a new body shop occupying the old engine assembly area.

The relatively firm suspension settings of the original Arnage helped to give it a handling advantage over its predecessors.


Bentley had already come up with some pretty exceptional Arnage limited editions, but it pulled out all the stops for the Arnage Final Series of 2009. This swansong model featured many options that had previously only been available by special order. As with the Blue Train, the Arnage T’s more powerful engine was used – albeit this time with 500bhp instead of 450bhp – in combination with the R’s softer, more comfortable suspension. That was probably just as well given that hardriding 20inch polishedalloy fivespoke wheels were fitted. The headlamp and rear light bezels were bodycoloured, the radiator and bumper grilles were dark mesh, there were Le Mansstyle wing vents and a billet aluminium ‘jewel’ fuel filler cap, and naturally a proper Flying B mascot proudly decorated the radiator surround… although for reasons of safety and security, it was retractable. Customers had a wide choice of standard colours (42 in all, plus 25 different interior hides and three wood veneers), although Bentley ‘suggested’ the combinations of Titan Grey with Anthracite interior, Royal Ebony with Beluga, Windsor Blue with Windsor Blue, Meteor with Imperial Blue, Burnt Oak with Burnt Oak, or Black Velvet with Burgundy.

The Mulliner-designed interior featured Final Series sill plates, drilled alloy pedals, distinctive chrome trim and a rear cocktail cabinet. So that those occupying the back seats could enjoy this latter feature properly, there were two picnic tables, Final Seriesbranded stainless steel flask and shot glasses, plus the extra decadence of enhanced rear cup holders in place of the previous somewhat flimsy BMW 5series items.

For even more incar entertainment, there was a 1100watt Naim sound system with ten speakers and a dualchannel subwoofer – at that time the most powerful production setup ever fitted in a car. Of course, that could be enough to force any passengers outside if the driver’s choice of music was questionable. So, should it happen to be raining at the time, there were four umbrellas mounted on the rear wall of the boot. All in all, it was quite a way to commemorate the passing of the Arnage, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Lseries V8 engine – a powerplant that had come quite a long way since 1959.


Compared to the old Rolls-Royce L-series, BMW’s M62 all-aluminium double overheadcam V8 was (technically) an improvement, having been designed in the 1990s rather than the 1950s. But when Rolls-Royce engineers assessed it, they were concerned about its pulling power at lower speeds, even with twin turbochargers bolted on. (The M62 in standard form, as used on 5, 7and 8Series BMWs, was normally-aspirated). Fortunately for Vickers, having engine specialist Cosworth in its armoury paid dividends. Its experts were able to take power for the 4398cc unit from 282bhp to 349bhp by dint of adding two Garratt turbochargers and many other modifications, even if torque stayed roughly the same at around 310lb.ft. In such form, the M62 was far more appropriate for a big Bentley bruiser. Incidentally, the 4.4litre BMW V8 found more than one British home beyond Bentley; it was also used in the Morgan Aero 8 from 2000 and the Range Rover from 2002, albeit without the benefits of turbocharging.


John Tupper, managing director of IntroCar, says:

The introduction of the Bentley Arnage represented both a departure and continuity. Use of a BMW-sourced 4.4-litre twin-turbo powerplant marked a major change, while the entirely different (and modernised) suspension and subframe altered the character of the car compared with its predecessors. However, production numbers remained similar to those of earlier years and the character of a grand, powerful and quiet limousine was still intact. The BMW engine was soon replaced by the traditional 6.75-litre V8 used in the Turbo R models, albeit with an enlarged throttle and enhanced performance. This was after howls of protest from the Bentley faithful, who often referred to the BMW engine as a ‘sewing machine’. This is possibly unkind. The BMW engine is hugely reliable and, if you can do without the characteristic ‘thrum’ of the original V8, a good early Arnage remains ridiculous value for money.

The Arnage’s style was based around the S-series Bentleys of the 1950s and ’60s, and I think it was a great success. It doesn’t seem to date particularly, with a look that’s distinct, flowing and refined. I own and drive an Arnage Red Label and cannot think of a car that is more comfortable. I regularly drive for hours at a time and never get tired.

Bentley owners who are used to earlier models will find the ride much tauter. My Turbo R eats speed humps like a boa constrictor consuming an antelope, but in the Arnage I approach these things with a little more discretion. The benefit is in cornering, and a well-maintained Arnage can be pointed confidently at corners without displacing the occupants.

This car is heavy – nearly three tonnes – and eats suspension. Front and rear bushes and ball joints need maintenance or slack, noisy suspension will result. Rust is also now becoming apparent, as Bentley didn’t corrosion-proof the car underneath, so this can need attention and a watchful eye by an experienced technician who knows what to look for.

The expensive job that often happens at around 60-80,000 miles (96-130,000km) is replacement of the head gaskets, as that is how long the original ones seem to last. If the car you buy has had them done, all well and good; but if not, you should consider this in your maintenance budget as you will be lucky to have this work done for less than £6000. Ouch. Other than that, my usual recommendations regarding regular driving and maintenance hold well here if you want a reliable car.

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