If the mulsanne speed was a blockbuster Hollywood film franchise it would be less Fast & Furious, more Vast & Luxurious. At more than 5.5 metres in length and tipping the scales at 2685kg, it was, until very recently, Bentley’s flagship. Sadly, after a decade and some 7300 cars built, production of the Mulsanne ceased in June last year.
With it went the legendary 6.75-litre V8. Fondly referred to as the ‘six-and-three-quarter’ by those in the know, this engine could trace its roots all the way back to 1959. In continuous production ever since, and fitted to an unbroken succession of series production models right up until the Mulsanne reached the end of the road, this record-breaking run eclipses even that most celebrated of V8s, the ubiquitous small-block Chevy.
The bones of Bentley’s venerable L-series engine may famously date back decades and decades and decades, but it has been continually refined and re-engineered. Highlights include the adoption of forced induction back in 1982 when the Mulsanne Turbo was introduced. Despite boosting power and torque by 50 per cent, the original Mulsanne Turbo had no suspension changes over the standard car, but there’s no question the cachet of a latter-day ‘blower’ worked wonders for Bentley’s otherwise beleaguered sales.
During the period when BMW owned both Rolls-Royce and Bentley there was a phase when the six-and-three-quarter looked like it was going to be axed, BMW preferring to slot its own V8 into the Arnage and Rolls Seraph. Then VW acquired Bentley and, in a glorious snub to BMW, reintroduced the 6.75 at the top of the Arnage range. Named ‘Red Label’, it proved far more popular than the unloved BMW-engined ‘Green Label’, and the latter was soon removed from the lineup.
Given this backstory it’s no surprise the 6.75 received its most extensive redesign under the Volkswagen Group’s tenure. Still lovingly hand assembled, but with twin turbos, a new cylinder head design, cylinder deactivation to save fuel and variable valve timing for the single-cam pushrod top end (still with just two valves per cylinder), only the most basic architecture – namely the bore diameter and cylinder spacing – of its substantially stiffened aluminium block remained unchanged. The phrase ‘Trigger’s Broom’ springs to mind.
Tenuous it may be, but this unmatched lineage forms a silken thread that runs back through almost half the automobile’s existence. That the last iteration produced is 99 per cent cleaner than the first, and could actually idle on the tailpipe emissions of its most distant forebear, is testament to a remarkable engineering evolution. If any engine’s passing deserves a requiem it is this.
Such longevity and permanence is impressive, but what connects us to this last-of-a-kind Bentley is the manner in which it performs. Not so much the fact this block of flats will touch 305kmph and accelerate from 0 to 100kmph in 4.9sec, but more because it’ll barely break into a sweat while doing so.
I’ve long believed exceptional internal combustion engines trigger a deeper emotional and sensory connection to the machines they power. That’s why we look up when we hear a Supermarine Spitfire fly overhead, and why crowds of people flock to be near exotic Grand Prix cars, Le Mans prototypes or rally cars when they’re about to fire up. Non-sentient they might be, but these machines have their own particular life force.
The Mulsanne Speed makes no such fuss, but it’s as alive as any machine can be. Think about it. An engine, especially one as storied as this, is often described as the heart of a car. It has a pulse. But it also breathes in and out, and has vital cooling and lubricating fluids passing through a network of pipes akin to veins and arteries. And, of course, it expresses itself through the sound it makes and the unique characteristics of its power and torque delivery.
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