Bentley Beijing: Chariots on Fire

In a country where your average Zhou earns about $600 a year, selling cars that cost $400,000 and up may seem like an exhaust-fueled pipe dream. But in just nine months of operation, the Beijing dealership of luxury auto maker Bentley (VLKAY ) has sold 29 cars, including three top-of-the-line Pinnacle Bentley Limousines -- more of those 20-foot land yachts than any other dealer on earth. The price: $1.07 million -- or 8.88 million yuan, fortuitous because 8 represents prosperity in China. "It is China's most expensive car -- not counting armored vehicles," boasts Hong Kong-born Kenneth Y.K. Tsang, the ebullient chief executive of Bentley Beijing.

So how do you move such precious metal? You fill your showroom with reproductions of Victorian-era furnishings and photos of Bentley history, including the Queen Mother's 1940 factory visit. And you train your salespeople to weed out mere gawkers from those who have a spare 8.88 million. Hint: Look for Patek Philippe watches, hand-tailored suits, and the confident demeanor of someone who long ago banked his first, second, and third million. Then knock yourself out to please them. "We provide meticulous, immaculate, 'Wow!' service," says Tsang. One example: Buyers often get a free trip to the Bentley factory in Britain.

But before the sale, there's plenty of haggling -- oops, negotiating. Like any car buyer, Tsang's Bentley customers try to get the most for their money. So Tsang, sales director Zhang Lichen, and the customer might retire to Beijing's exclusive Changan Club, where the tab can easily top $1,000. "These are big bosses," says Zhang, a former Wall Street broker himself. "You have to know how to massage their egos."

So who's buying? Like Bentley dealers worldwide, Tsang is too discreet to name names. But he hints that real estate tycoons have been big buyers. And despite the tough negotiations, price isn't usually much of an issue. Most buyers simply make bank transfers for the negotiated amount, while at least one handed over a suitcase stuffed with cash.

Not surprisingly, Bentley isn't the only luxury auto maker to cast a covetous eye on China. Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, and Maserati have all opened Beijing outlets in recent years. And Tsang himself will oversee the launch of Bugatti in China this fall. If getting rich is glorious, spending your riches on a new Bentley may be sublime.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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