San Simeon, California - Back in the 1930s, the train would leave Los Angeles at dusk, and the weekend guests would keep the club cars lit brightly all through the night as they made their way north. Finally, the train would reach San Luis Obispo at three a.m., and the guests and their luggage would be loaded into big touring cars for the last forty miles to San Simeon. As the sun rose, there would be the great house on its hilltop overlooking the ocean, more like a castle than the weekend retreat of William Randolph Hearst, the last of America's newspaper barons.
It was night, and we were also on our way to Hearst Castle, a state historical monument since 1957 and still a weekend destination for people in Los Angeles. We weren't traveling in private railway cars, but the effect was much the same. The $211,900 Bentley Arnage Red Label and the $114,000 Mercedes-Benz S600 are the most silent, serious, and luxurious instruments of earthbound transport that man has yet devised. They are the automotive equivalents of the one-of-a-kind objects that Hearst bought in such extraordinary profusion to decorate his estate--cars that are almost beyond price in their beauty, function, and image.
At the same time, the Bentley and the Mercedes-Benz interpret their missions in automotive life in very different ways. We think it has to do with a fundamental difference between the British and German approaches to luxury. And so the subtext for this drive became the search for some insight into the well-known dispute between Volkswagen and BMW in 1999 for control of Bentley and Rolls-Royce. (Volkswagen acquired control of Bentley, while BMW will take the rights to the Rolls-Royce brand in 2002.)
It's a good 250 miles to San Simeon from Los Angeles when you drive California Highway 101, a modern combination of freeway and divided highway that follows the old trail that connected the Spanish missions founded by Father Junipero Serra. We'd neglected to bring our own private dining car to help fortify us during our journey, so we stopped in Montecito, an exclusive little town adjacent to Santa Barbara, and dined at Lucky's, a likewise exclusive little steakhouse just opened by a friend, chef James Sly. The Bentley and the Benz looked at home here in this enclave of estates, avocado ranches, and citrus groves. It was a reminder that these cars are driven by people with wealth--a consistent, reliable source of coin of the realm. Wealth is different from a simple windfall of cash, and that's why an Arnage or an S600 seems appropriate in Montecito and yet self-indulgent in Silicon Valley.
Above Santa Barbara, the traffic finally clears, and a divided highway unrolls along the ocean. At night, the headlights focus the mind wonderfully and help you appreciate the excellence these cars deliver on the open road.
A Mercedes always feels born for the freeway, as well it should, since it's designed in a country where high-speed autobahns (not air routes or railways) are the main corridors between cities. And so the S600 serves up resolute straight-line stability. The 5.8-liter V-12 offers 20 percent more horsepower and 15 percent more torque than the S500's 5.0-liter V-8, and it helps the 4488-pound S600 rip from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. We really felt its power only above 80 mph, however, which is what we'd expect from an autobahn runner. When the V-12 is just loafing along in the cruise mode, it will shut down the left bank of cylinders to increase fuel economy, and it did so with such transparent sophistication that we never noticed. The optional Distronic cruise control, which can automatically keep pace with the car in front of you until you swing into the passing lane, was usually well behaved and surprisingly useful.