Something has changed profoundly in the world of ultra-cars. It's impossible to describe in only one word, but we suspect if there were such a word, it would be long and German. Thanks to German investment, modernity has caught up with the luxury limo. Excess is back, and it's state-of-the-art and competent, once more and at long last.
Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen, the puppet masters behind the three new or "new and improved" ultra-luxury brands-Maybach, Rolls-Royce, and Bentley, respectively-are all engineering-driven companies with glorious reputations. Each can claim a long, noble lineage as well as recent success and growth. And yet all shared an assumption about the market, for none was prepared to assign to its own name the task of justifying prices several times higher than it had ever charged for a car.
BMW and VW looked westward to England and went name shopping where all things elegant and luxurious pertaining to auto-mobiles were thought to reside, even if the truth, on the technical side, at least, was that the British carmakers had lost any competitive edge in the 1960s. No matter. Under the guidance of former chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, a well-known Anglophile, BMW worked to spirit the British industry's crown jewel-the Rolls-Royce name-out of the country and out from under VW, which had intended to outmaneuver the BMW chieftain by acquiring Rolls and Bentley but wound up with Bentley-and the factory that builds both cars in Crewe, England-alone.
Both brands are obviously known for their Britishness, a trait the German caretakers mean to preserve. BMW has been inspired to build a virtual theme park of a plant to assemble Phantoms on Lord March's estate in Goodwood, West Sussex. At Bentley, most of the old Crewe work force remains in place.
DaimlerChrysler, makers of Mercedes-Benz, took an entirely different direction in its march upscale, appropriating an obscure brand from Germany's automotive past. Maybach, a name-plate cold-chilling in Daimler's cellar, hadn't been seen on an automobile in more than sixty years. Low-volume luxury machines of some technical interest, Maybach cars were last heard from back in the 1920s and '30s, and may seem an unlikely choice for the move upmarket today. The Pullman name, for instance, served Mercedes very well in the 1960s, its 600 Pullman limousine doing brisk business at the steepest prices then known to kings, potentates, and captains of industry. Perhaps Mercedes sells too many cars for its own good these days. Maybe it's not the exclusive name it once was. But ours is not to wonder why. Maybach it is.
Together, these three revitalized luxury brands set the stage for an all-German battle royale. You don't have to think about it too carefully to realize what excitement this Teutonic rodeo has set in motion. Serious engineers, the people who give us the BMW M5, the Mercedes-Benz E55, and the Audi S8, to name a few, have gotten to work, but with four and five times the money to spend building their new motherships. It ought to be a gearhead's dream. And it is.