Behind the scenes at Bentley
If you have ever wondered why some cars cost
more than others - yet are similarly capable of the basic job of transporting
one from A to B - it’s worth a tour of the Bentley factory. Which is exactly
what prospective Bentley owners receive, and a couple of weeks ago, I had the
pleasure of doing just this. Sadly, I’m not about to bring home one of Crewe’s
finest but I did manage to see first hand exactly what makes these cars very
About the factory
Let’s start with that factory. Built in 1938 to
manufacture the Merlin aero engine, there were good reasons to locate it in
Crewe. Firstly, it was away from London and the risk of WWII bombs. In fact the
roofing was designed so that it looked like ordinary houses from above, another
trick to help it avoid air strikes. And of course Crewe sits in the heart of
the railway network, perfect for logistics.
After the war, when production could focus once
more on the motor car, the Bentley Mk IV was the first off the line. Today, it
is a very different place, although perhaps not as different as you might
expect. As I enter the trimming area, the strong and appealing smell of lacquer
hits the nose. It will be equally familiar to the multiple family generations
which have - and do - work there.
Life inside the factory
Unlike many factories - and I have visited a few
- there is an element of calm within the buildings. They’re not without the
capable equipment to help create the fine finishes, but there’s a patience
among the employees while they work on each part to get it just right.
It’s not just the atmosphere which is a world
away from other car plants; the integration of manual processes with automation
is carefully judged. The leather pattern is machine-cut, while every stitch is
performed manually on a sewing machine - or by hand. That’s 310,675 stitches
per car and 2.8km of thread. Even the steering wheel takes 3½ hours to assemble
and sew to the exacting standards - so important to get right because it’s what
the driver sees and touches on every drive.
Finely-finished leather is a significant part of
each car’s make-up. Bull hide - or all 10 for each Continental GT - is finished
in Italy and inspected for flaws before it is deemed good enough for a car.
(Don’t worry, there’s Alcantara available should you choose not to sit on the
skin of an animal.) You’re not limited by the standard palate either; Bentley
will indulge your most exacting colour demands.
We’re shown the many varieties of wood - for the
veneers - and told of their differing characteristics. And just as important as
what is acceptable in a Bentley is what isn’t;
standards are high. As I walk past, a dashboard inlay receives one of its final
polishes, using 98% beeswax and just 2% abrasive in order to achieve its deep
The Bentley assembly line
Moving through to where the oily parts come together, the main assembly line is closer to what you’d expect from any modern plant. The vehicles move slowly around the factory, steadily gathering parts and sub-assemblies - and yes, the beautifully hand-crafted interior pieces - until they are whole. After set-up procedures and tests, each is subject to a 10-15 mile road test, the reason why brand new Bentleys seem almost 10-a-penny around Crewe.
Roger, my guide, has been with the company for
an eternity. He talks fondly of the different roles he has performed, and his
latest position taking visitors around. Such as those about to be owners of new
Bentleys. With a three month lead time, Roger - and his colleagues - aim to
time buyers’ visits with when their cars are at key junctures in the process,
such as the union of engine and body. And it isn’t uncommon for owners to
become a touch misty-eyed as they see their cars come to life.
Mixing new technology with old world
craftsmanship has been a winning formula: last year, 11,006 Bentleys were
bought, 5% up on the previous year, and this despite all the political and
Sneak peak of the all-new Flying Spur
Bentley’s future is looking strong too. Hot off
the press - and for us to view in the main showroom - is the all-new Flying
Spur, a huge step up in the opulence stakes. By 2023, all Bentley models will
be available as hybrids; by 2026, the plan is for all to be available with
electric versions too.
Following the tour - and a respectable lunch,
naturally - it’s behind the wheel of the Continental GT V8. Read the review here.
About the Author
Andrew is a freelance motoring journalist with a background in IT and the vehicle leasing industry. With a lifetime’s passion for all things automotive, he can be found behind the wheel of everything from vans to supercars. In addition to reviewing the latest vehicles and technology, Andrew also runs a couple of classic British motors. He lives at the edge of the Peak District with his son and cat.
Andrew Wright @theMotorWriter