True to tradition
We get a history lesson at Bentley
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.