True to tra­di­tion

We get a his­tory les­son at Bent­ley

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents - an­thony@ram­say­ Com­piled by AN­THONY DO­MAN

Romeo isn’t re­ally the robot’s name, just one coined by our bub­bly tour guide. Romeo is blue and has the typ­i­cal lean, me­chan­i­cal frame bent at a 45-de­gree an­gle. And yet, at the Bent­ley fac­tory in Crewe, Romeo is unique: in this 30-hectare man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity, he’s the only ev­i­dence of au­toma­tion.

Romeo’s sole pur­pose is to place sealant around Bent­ley wind­screens. Once done, he is not al­lowed to po­si­tion the wind­screen into its aper­ture, as he would have done if this were any other car man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity. Like ev­ery­thing else here, that job is done by hand.

Crewe is home to the big­gest col­lec­tion of Bent­leys at any one time any­where in the world. But on th­ese ex­act foun­da­tions, the Rolls Royce V12 27-litre Mer­lin en­gines for the Spit­fire circa 1938 were as­sem­bled and tested.

The lore ooz­ing from th­ese brick-faced walls brings the coach­build­ing era back to life. Yet I do be­lieve that, if WO Bent­ley was stand­ing ex­actly where I am to­day, he’d recog­nise not only the build­ings, but also the meth­ods.

Hav­ing vis­ited my fair share of man­u­fac­tur­ing plants, I can vouch for the fact that Bent­ley still plies its hand- crafted trade in the purest sense. Not­with­stand­ing the 10,2-inch tablets, on-board Wi-fi and Shi­atsu mas­sages, Bent­ley’s fin­ished prod­uct is not tech­nol­ogy-re­liant. Here, tech­nol­ogy needs to be in­vis­i­ble and is ap­proved only if it can add to the lux­ury side of the drive.

First rev­e­la­tion upon en­ter­ing the fac­tory is that you’re not re­quired to wear a pro­tec­tive hat. Since this is a fac­tory mostly of peo­ple, it can stop, pause and adapt. It’s tran­quil, all things con­sid­ered. I can hear a seam­stress’ ra­dio play­ing the BBC. To our left, ovens heat up the one­piece wiring har­ness into a flex­i­ble state while a team crawl through each Bent­ley to spread it out along with the brake hoses

and an­cil­lar­ies. To our right we meet Max­ine, the lady whose ra­dio has been hum­ming.

With nee­dle and thread in hand, she demon­strates the op­tional cross stitch as a dec­o­ra­tive fea­ture for cus­tomers she’s never likely to meet. There are rows of ladies like Max­ine, sit­ting at their or­gan­ised work sta­tions all per­form­ing this time-con­sum­ing process; to com­plete this in­tri­cate stitch pat­tern on a Mul­sanne takes around 38 hours.

Swivel round and we bump into a skilled coach trim­mer. With 48 years at Bent­ley be­hind him he has the fine mus­cle co-or­di­na­tion in his right hand to ma­nip­u­late two nee­dles for an al­ter­nate thread colour in ev­ery stitch. He’s pa­tiently ap­ply­ing the leather to a steer­ing wheel, a task that can take three or four hours. But ev­ery piece of leather re­acts slightly dif­fer­ently, so there’s no guar­an­tee of time, only qual­ity. What he can rely on is his abil­ity to im­pro­vise, press­ing a fork into the leather­bound wheel to cre­ate four equidis­tant points for the thread to slip through. Due to the leather’s flex­i­bil­ity, the fork is more ac­cu­rate than a ma­chine.

If a cus­tomer times his visit well, he will be given the chance to sew his own stitch, or sign the in­side. It’s all part of the price­less per­son­al­i­sa­tion.

Min­utes later I’m in Bent­ley’s wood shop, sur­rounded by tim­ber sourced from all over the world: Cal­i­for­nia burr wal­nut, Cana­dian bird­s­eye maple and other sweet­smelling or­ganic fra­grances. And as of re­cently, 200-mil­lion-year-old In­dian

Stone ve­neer skimmed down to 0,1 mm for a be­spoke look.

Ve­neer bun­dles in their raw form are kept in packs of 21 sheets; 17 of them will go into a Bent­ley and the other 7 are kept briefly as in­sur­ance should one of them get dam­aged along the build process. This is be­cause ev­ery Bent­ley is unique and there’s no other match for it. Th­ese are sanded by hand through an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and his per­sonal tools, the crafts­man even­tu­ally es­chew­ing dig­i­tal scales for his sixth-sense.

Taurus is the name given to the ta­bles where each hide is in­spected, apt since Bent­ley only uses the bull. First, air sucks the hide taut across brightly lit ta­bles where a team will mark off slight im­per­fec­tions with sticks of coloured chalk. Then the hide is in­flated – as if back on the bull – to re-ex­am­ine the ac­cu­racy of the chalk marks be­fore a light box moves across and cap­tures a high-def­i­ni­tion im­age in or­der for the com­puter and 360-de­gree cut­ting wheel to work out the most ef­fi­cient pat­tern to max­imise the hide. That’s gen­er­ally 67 per­cent and a Mul­sanne will re­quire any­where from 16 hides up­wards.

As we pass the can­teen where some peo­ple have brought in their work as that day’s ex­hibit of in­spi­ra­tion, two Bent­leys are se­lected at ran­dom for a fi­nal qual­ity in­spec­tion and the re­sults are then com­mu­ni­cated to ev­ery­one on the fac­tory floor. The pres­sure to achieve per­fec­tion is re­lent­less.

Of course, in the mod­ern era there’s a sim­i­larly re­lent­less pres­sure to evolve. With its first sport-util­ity, the Ben­tayga, Bent­ley is poised to flour­ish in new era. But rest as­sured, back at Crewe the re­la­tion­ship be­tween so­phis­ti­ca­tion and emo­tional lux­ury car­ries on as it al­ways has.

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