Pulse: Manners: Joining the B-List

Sure, they’re expensive. But these days, Philly status seekers can’t afford not to buy a Bentley.

Why pay $150,000 for a Mercedes-Benz S-class when it could easily be mistaken for the $30,000 C-class driven by your yoga instructor or your kid’s piano teacher? It’s a quandary. Fortunately, Joe Innaurato is an old hand at solving the dilemma few will be lucky enough ever to face. His advice? Buy a Bentley instead.

Innaurato leads the luxury-car sales team at F.C. Kerbeck & Sons of Palmyra, where, just across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, half a dozen Bentley Continental Flying Spurs sit gleaming like overfed dimes in the hot summer sun. Today, the dealership has invited 25 of its best customers — mostly old-money types, with a smattering of new — for Ride & Drive Day, at which they’ll tool around South Jersey and nosh on lamb chops, crabcakes, and endive leaves loaded up with Roquefort mousse. By the day’s end, Innaurato’s Rolexed hand will have filed orders for four new Spurs at a base price of $164,990 — well out of reach of the help and the hoi polloi. The cars themselves won’t arrive for another six to eight months; the company’s factory in Crewe, England, assembles them by hand, spending a legendary 15 hours just stitching up the leather steering wheels. At 11 mpg in the city and 19 on the highway, Bentleys drink up gas the way their owners do Glenfiddich at the club, but many are willing to pay the price of a well-appointed rowhouse in hopes of turning a few heads.

Over the past three years, more and more luxury car buyers have cast aside the Benz’s neutered peace sign in favor of Bentley’s winged silver “B,” which, in white-on-black lacquer, resembles a speeding eight-ball. Sales in the U.S. jumped from 400 to about 2,500 when Bentley released its (slightly) more affordable Continental GT in 2004. F.C. Kerbeck, the only dealer authorized to sell Bentleys in the Delaware Valley, has seen its Bentley business triple, including orders from Bruce Willis, Allen Iverson, Aaron McKie and R&B singer Tyrese.

“With the Bentley, you get ess-clue-siv-i-ty,” Innaurato says as we explore the Bentley design center, a kiosk at the far end of the showroom. It is a temple to customization, a consumer trend that Bentley has embraced as avidly as Nike and Apple, and part of what sets it apart from BMW, Lexus and Mercedes — brands that Innaurato calls “cookie-cutter cars.” Customers can select any combination of seven wood and brushed aluminum veneers, 15 paint jobs, 16 colors of stitching and 16 Bentley leathers, swatches of which hang like slacks from chrome rods. A few minutes later, Innaurato ushers me out so he can close the day’s fourth sale.

“It’s only money, John,” I hear him say to a customer as I make my way over to the hors d’oeuvres. “They print more of it every day.”

Status, on the other hand, is scarce and getting scarcer.  — Mattathias Schwartz