How Bentley salvaged a disaster after 189 cars sank to the bottom of the sea

This article was originally published HERE


There’s certainly never a good time for a massive ship carrying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of vehicles to catch fire and sink.

But for bespoke luxury brand Bentley, what tragically happened to the Felicity Ace in February in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic weirdly may have been a case of the wrong ship … at the right time.

Why? Because unlike other massive car carriers that regularly ferry Volkswagen Group vehicles from Europe to customers and dealerships in North America, the Felicity Ace didn’t have 40 to 70 Bentleys aboard, as is typical, among the roughly 4,000 vehicles on that particular sailing.

It had a whole lot more than that: 189, each carrying an average price tag of about $300,000, according to a Bentley spokeswoman.

Yet, with quick action and thanks to a bizarre set of global circumstances, Bentley — which manufactures each of its vehicles by hand in its single factory in Crewe, England — was able to replace every one of its sunken treasures, including custom-designed Mulliner models, delivering the last of them in September.

“Before the boat even went down, we had placed every order back in our system,” recalled Mike Rocco, the former Toyota and Nissan executive who is now vice president of sales and operations at Bentley Americas. “Of the 189 cars on board, 151 were [presold or custom-ordered], and we lost three or four customers, tops. Our dealers did a fantastic job of maintaining the customers and keeping them informed.”

When the Felicity Ace departed the German port of Emden on Feb. 10, the carrier, owned by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines of Japan, was loaded with nearly 4,000 Volkswagen Group vehicles, including about 1,900 Audis, 1,100 Porsches, 500 Volkswagens and 85 Lamborghinis heading from factories in Europe to dealerships in North America.

The 189 Bentleys aboard had been ferried from England to Emden to catch their ride across the ocean; the large number was attributable to supply-related production delays with other VW Group brands that had inadvertently concentrated Bentley’s deliveries aboard the Felicity Ace, Rocco said.

The Felicity Ace initially was scheduled to arrive at the Port of Davisville in Rhode Island on Feb. 23 and was averaging about 14 knots on what was a routine voyage. But six days into its trans-Atlantic journey, its crew of 22 reported a fire in one of the ship’s cargo decks. At the time, the ship was about 90 nautical miles southwest of the Azores islands and about 900 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal.

The fire’s origins remain unknown, but a large number of the vehicles aboard were equipped with flammable lithium ion battery packs or had at least partial tanks of highly combustible gasoline. As efforts to contain the blaze failed, the flames spread out of control, and the crew was forced to abandon ship near the Azores, leaving the still burning hulk drifting in the North Atlantic, with a giant plume of white smoke rising from her now-exposed decks. Half of the crew were rescued from a lifeboat; another 11 were rescued by the nearby crude oil tanker Resilient Warrior.

The fire’s timing was particularly bad. Volkswagen Group was already struggling with production disruptions caused by a lack of microchips. There was no additional inventory to pull from or production capacity that could be added to make up the loss of the Felicity Ace vehicles. And 15 of the Lamborghinis aboard were Aventador Ultimaes — the last of a limited run marking the end of the Aventador nameplate.

In Crewe, Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark and his global team quickly got to work, even as the Felicity Ace still burned, Rocco said. Bentley sold 4,212 vehicles in the Americas in 2021, so 189 represented a significant chunk of the brand’s business.

“Based on the demand situation in other parts of the world, we were able to immediately grab production slots,” Rocco said. Bentley’s global regional directors quickly crafted a replacement scheme for the brand’s biggest market. And global conditions elsewhere helped a plan come together.

“China stepped up and said, ‘We’re seeing less demand; we can help you with some cars.’ ” Rocco said. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bentley stopped imports of cars and parts into Russia. “Those order slots opened up. So we were able to react and pivot very quickly,” he said.

The Felicity Ace burned for days as rescue vessels and tugboats poured water on the abandoned hulk. On Feb. 25, with the fire finally extinguished, the first salvage crews went aboard in hopes of securing the vessel and getting it towed to a safe harbor.

Four days later, at about 9 a.m. local time March 1, the Felicity Ace, which was heavily listing to starboard while under tow, sank in rough waters about 230 miles south of the Azores. It is believed to rest some 2 miles below the surface; the final disposition of its cargo — whether it stayed within the ship or scattered across the seafloor — remains unknown.

Hallmark was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. However, by March 17, he told Automotive News that the brand already had a plan to replace the bulk of the sunken Bentaygas, Continentals, Flying Spurs and Mulliner-built coaches within six months. “We’ve promised those customers, and we’re doing some clever things with dealers to keep [those customers] mobile, which I won’t talk about,” Hallmark said then.

While executives in Crewe and Germany were dealing with getting the burned Bentleys replaced, the task of telling customers what had happened to their custom-ordered Bentleys fell to folks such as Juan Hinestrosa, general sales manager of Bentley Miami.

The dealership, part of Braman Motorcars and located just a block off Biscayne Bay, had 20 of the 189 vehicles aboard awaiting delivery to expectant customers.

Hinestrosa and his sales team quickly got on the phone with each customer, he said, recalling how the conversations went.

“Hello, Mr. Customer. How are you? Have you heard the news? What news? About the Felicity Ace. What’s the Felicity Ace— Oh, that’s the boat that is on fire in the middle of the ocean. Really? Well, the news is that your car is there,” Hinestrosa said.

The reactions weren’t angry, Hinestrosa said. “It went smoothly. It was taken very well by the customers, as much as it can be, anyway. Nobody got mad. I think people have changed their mood a little bit after COVID; people became more understanding.”

It helped, he said, that the dealership was able to communicate quickly about replacements and give customers a timeline for when they might finally show up at the dealership. The dealership also gave them a chance to change their order, Hinestrosa said, with only one customer opting to select a different color.

The biggest impact at the dealership was internal. The 20 incoming Bentleys represented about a month’s worth of sales, so the dealership recast its employee compensation plan to keep the impact to a minimum on its sales force, Hinestrosa said.

Hinestrosa’s boss, Mike Rodriguez, general manager of all the brands at Braman’s campus in Miami, credits Bentley for not only replacing the cars quickly, but keeping its dealers informed of its plans even before the Felicity Ace sank. The brand and the dealership kept pricing untouched for customers, and the last of the 20 sunken vehicles, a Bentayga First Edition, was finally delivered to its new owner last month.

“It was amazing because there was full communications at all times from Bentley, and that meant that we could get on the phone and communicate directly with our customers and let them know what was going on,” Rodriguez said. “We have great customers, but the fact that there was constant communications, I think that was the key factor that turned what would have been a big negative into a positive.”

Because the Felicity Ace sank before it could be towed back to port, the cause of the blaze is likely to remain officially undetermined. Yet what happened to the vessel — which was hauling dozens of Porsche Taycans, Audi E-trons and VW ID4s, as well as several hybridized vehicles and other cargo — raised the specter of added fire risk for shippers hauling battery-electric vehicles.

“While EVs are inherently safe, they do represent a significant difference in risk profile for shippers when compared with traditional vehicles, and transporting them may represent an enhanced risk for the maritime industry, at least in the near term,” wrote Rahul Khanna, global head of marine risk consulting at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, a giant global insurance firm.

In the wake of the Felicity Ace incident, Khanna says shippers should ensure that any EVs being shipped should be charged to no more than 50 percent and that they are “properly secured to prevent any shifting during transport.” He also says it’s vital that shipboard crews keep close watch on their cargo, with regular inspections and early-detection systems including thermal scanners, gas detectors, heat and smoke detectors, and closed-circuit TV cameras.

“If the maritime industry is to improve its incident record related to the transportation of lithium ion batteries, then all parties involved must understand the hazards involved, the most common causes and the problems associated with transporting in commerce,” Khanna said. “Only through a concerted effort by stakeholders in the supply chain can the industry hope to reduce the rate of incidents.”