Last week, the topless model Jordan became the latest in a long line of C-list celebrities to buy a Bentley. So is the image of a car once associated with aristocrats, maharajahs and glamorous playboys now irreparably tarnished? Michael Booth reports

These days it seems as if the image of a car is dictated as much by the celebs who are seen driving it as by the multi-million pound advertising campaigns that accompany each new launch. That is why car manufacturers go to such extraordinary, and frankly embarrassing, lengths to get their cars photographed with every Tom, Dick and Premier-League footballer. Although the car companies' press officers will slip into automatic pompous-denial mode whenever you ask them about it, the evidence to the contrary is plentiful. Not a week goes by without some preposterously vacuous press release coming through my letter box alerting me to the fact that an Atomic Kitten has just bought a Rover, or Jay Kay has done his bit to combat global warming by buying a dirty great Audi, replete with photo of the celeb receiving the keys to his or her heavily discounted (or free - well, it is cheaper than an ad spot during Coronation Street) motor from their local Swiss Toni.

And though you would never guess it from the depths of the celebrity barrel car companies are prepared to scrape (ladies and gentlemen, I give you Sada Walkington "from TV's Big Brother" and her new Mitsubishi), I can't help but feel that there must be some celebrity associations that can actually have a negative affect on brand image. This thought is prompted by the appearance in The Sun last Thursday of Jordan, at the wheel of her newly acquired Bentley Azure. According to The Sun, the renowned topless model has paid for the car with her appearance money from the impending I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here part two (it cost £120,000, second hand). The paper's investigation continued: "As curvy Jordan took it for a spin, fans had to admire the fine bodywork - and an impressive set of bumpers."

"I would love to comment, but we don't comment on any of our customers," said the Bentley press officer when I rang to hear what they thought of this choice piece of publicity.

It is hard to imagine any product actually benefiting from an association with Jordan - the morning-after pill, perhaps - but the folks at Volkswagen who are charged with nurturing Bentley's new image must have been particularly crestfallen to see her tottering around Brighton in her convertible behemoth (that's assuming that Bentley's brand managers aren't German, in which case they probably just assumed she was Benny Hill's chauffeur).

The whole affair appears in an even more tragic light when you consider that, until very recently, there were few cars that were cooler than a Bentley. These hand-built, old-fashioned gentlemen's carriages tended to appeal to two highly diverse demographic groups. On one side of the Atlantic you had rap stars such as P Diddy, Wyclef Jean, Missy Elliott and Nelly, for whom a posh English car was another way of drawing attention to their limitless wealth. For them, the Bentley had to be new, and at least $2m. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond there were the young fogies, including celebrities such as Jools Holland and Top Gear's James May - people with a genuine appreciation for the quality and dignity inherent in the brand, plus perhaps some suppressed nostalgic aspirations to the landed gentry. They favoured the older cars - Mulsannes, Ts, even older if they could afford them. They wouldn't have dreamt of buying a virtually identical Rolls-Royce - far too vulgar, all the wrong signals - but a winged B was the bee's knees. I even recall that AA Gill bought one, which now I think of it may have indicated the turning point.

The slide continued for me when it was reported that Ben Affleck had bought a Bentley for Jennifer Lopez, despite the fact that P Diddy had also bought her one, and gathered pace with the inevitable orders from Jay Kay Towers (he bought a new, £110,000 Continental GT earlier this month), and Chez Beckham. David bought a GT for Victoria on behalf of their sons; the dash is reportedly inscribed: "To Mummy, Happy Christmas 2003. Love from Romeo and Brooklyn."

Meanwhile, the disgraced footballer (or is he? I never did figure that one out) Rio Ferdinand has a Bentley, along with virtually every other Premiership star with a half-decent agent. And, to add insult to injury, Roman Abramovich is often seen swooshing through the countryside surrounding his Sussex estate in his red Arnage. It doesn't get much more nouveau than him, but if you want more evidence of increasing collateral C-list damage, the professionally angry chef Gordon Ramsay and the anodyne popster Ronan Keating have recently added their names to the annals of Bentley history, too. Both have just bought new Continental GTs. Prior to Jordan's outing, Bentley was probably wondering if these new owners would put their car at risk of being labelled "the new Jaguar XK8". Now, with Jordan's arrival on the scene, the Bentley is looking more like the "new Capri". As for Jordan's Azure, these days you are more likely to see them being driven by the wives of Northern textile tycoons or Hollywood madams. What was once the world's most expensive and glamorous car is now a kind of automotive David Dickinson.

What has Bentley done to deserve this? Bentley Motors is, of course, a noble name. It was founded in 1919 by Walter Owen Bentley and was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1931. The marque has won Le Mans six times, most recently last year, and for the first half of the last century, its cars were the choice of playboys, maharajahs and even James Bond. A Bentley was as at home blasting down the Mulsanne Straight as it was kerb crawling in Shepherd's Market. After the Second World War, Bentleys were little more than Rollers with different grills. In the 1980s, the company flirted with extinction when a mere 4 per cent of the Rolls-Royce/Bentley output was Bentleys. But that, I think, is where the ascendancy to cool status began. While Rollers were two-a-penny and became saddled with a ghastly image, a Bentley was a rarity. And as the cars produced in the Seventies and Eighties depreciated to the point where £12,000 would buy you a good one, fashion-savvy car enthusiasts started to snap them up. At the other end of the scale, the Bentley Azure was, at £250,000, for a while the most expensive production car in the world, which made it an automatic must-have for emerging rap stars.

And where rap stars go, Premiership footballers inevitably follow, and thus begins the decline until we arrive at the first Bentley to be built under Volkswagen's auspices, the Bentley Continental GT, launched last year. The GT worries me, and not just because the Beckhams, Keating and Ramsay have all bought one. What worries me is the whole concept of a "cheap", "small" Bentley (these terms are comparative in Bentley land, you understand). It also worries me that it has a VW engine and running gear - you even start the thing with a standard VW ignition key such as you would find in a Skoda Fabia, which, if I had paid that much for a car, would niggle me each time I turned the thing on. Even more problematic is that it was styled by Dirk van Braeckel, the same man who did the Skoda Fabia. The Fabia is a superb car; Dirk did an excellent job styling it, and the car was partly responsible for the remarkable turnaround of the Skoda brand over the year. But once you know he styled the GT, too, you can't shake the likeness - particularly the front end - from your head. When you are styling a Bentley, you don't just bring over all the favourite bits of the last car you did - especially if the last car was a Skoda.

And this is not the lead-in to the familiar car journo's anti-German tirade. The Germans build the best cars in the world. The new Rolls-Royce is a German car, and it is fabulous. The thing is, the Phantom looks like a Rolls-Royce. It feels like a Rolls-Royce. It could be nothing else but a Rolls-Royce. The Continental GT looks like an expensive German coupé. It could easily be an Audi or a posh VW. As Autocar commented recently: "In producing a smaller, more affordable Bentley, some of the desirability and emotional involvement has been lost." And when you bear in mind that Autocar has a reputation for erring on the side of sycophancy in its verdicts, this is serious. A Bentley is, largely, an emotional purchase, after all.

BMW has pulled off a masterstroke with the new Roller by realising the only way out of its brand-image hole was to aim for the high ground. It re-launched with a car built to look like Chatsworth on wheels and costing more than £250,000. Bentley's masters at VW have gone for the low ground, targeting the Mercedes CL and Porsche 911 - not Bentley territory at all. If the evidence of the recent arrivistes in the Bentley Owners' Club is a litmus, the brand is heading down market as quickly as Bentley Boy "Tim" Birkin late for lunch in his Speed Six.

There is, however, some good news for Bentley this week. On the internet I found this ad, part of the promotion for the 33rd annual Barrett-Jackson classic car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona: "For sale: Custom-built Bentley automobile, mint condition, just 13,000 miles, owned by a reclusive performer who used it to squire fellow pop stars to and from his private amusement park." That's right; Michael Jackson is trying to sell his customised 2001 Arnage Red Label to help pay his legal bills. At least that's one less embarrassing owner to worry about.

The curse of VIP endorsement

Burberry check: Once, this ancient English emporium was notable only for the fact that Humphrey Bogart wore Burberry's gabardine trench in Casablanca. The label lolled in doldrums until 1997, when Rose Marie Bravo hired Kate Moss and everyone from Madonna to P Diddy was buying into the trend. But things got ugly when the BBC reported Burberry had become the uniform of football hooligans and crack dealers.

Juicy Couture: Fresh from the gym, perky as a teenager and soft and velvety as cotton candy, the Juicy tracksuit was the only kit to be seen in last summer. So what about the fact you didn't do any exercise in it? You simply had to slouch around, swinging a yoga mat and sipping Evian with a devil-may-care nonchalance about your builder's bum and lack of make-up. Then Charlotte Church was spotted in hers and everyone realised they looked like they were wearing an oversized romper-suit.

Louis Vuitton: Whose arm has Takashi Murakami's multicoloured monogrammed number from Louis Vuitton not swung from? Carrie (Sex and the City) Bradshaw started the craze two seasons ago, and Liz Hurley, Posh and the fashion pack followed. Death ensued when it was spotted on Vanessa Feltz's oversized arm.

Ant stacking chair: Arne Jacobsen designed a single piece of plywood balancing on three or four legs - form following function. It enjoyed notoriety when photographed under Christine Keeler. Sadly, it also spawned a thousand cheap and shoddy imitations.

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