In Crewe, in the northeast of England, Noel Thompson is using an ordinary kitchen fork to punch a perforated line into a lovely piece of burgundy leather. He’s one of 3,700 employees who make one of the world’s most coveted luxury goods, the Bentley, and Thompson’s will be just one pair of hands working for nearly four hours to make each steering wheel. He’s creating the holes that his neighbor will then hand-sew together, securing the leather around the metal wheel. There’s only one machine stitch on the entire wheel, used to ensure an even pressure across the leather.
This fork-hole-punching could be a metaphor for the company’s overall manufacturing, how it toes the line between the bespoke, handmade 95-year history of the car while incorporating new machinery and leading technology. There were, Thompson tells me, a variety of other methods, including machines, tried for hole-punching but, he says, “we’ve gone back to the old way of doing it.” Simply put, every Bentley is still handmade, but the company has adopted machinery to streamline processes and to avoid human error and save time on the production line (likely the influence of the Germans; VW purchased Bentley in 1998). The leather for the steering wheel, for example, is cut by a computer-controlled machine—intentionally a little small so that it will be stretched taut as the team hand stitches it around the metal wheel. At her Coronation Festival in 2013, The Queen of England was shown a demonstration, in Buckingham Palace Gardens by Thompson himself, of how the Bentley steering wheel is made; he joked that when they were making hers (she has two identical limousines in traditional Black over Royal Claret), they used a sterling-silver fork.
On any day, there are 400 Bentleys on site in Crewe, from shells to the shiny, finished versions ready to be shipped to "the one percent" across the globe, with starting prices that range from $187,900 to $303,700. I didn’t see anything resembling a “base model” on my visit. Every Bentley is made to order, which essentially means anything “superficial” is possible. One client brought in his food processor to match, while another Bentley in the Middle East is precisely the same shade as a lady’s favorite nail polish (a discontinued one, apparently, so she had to paint one of the Bentley designers’ nail for color matching). Family crests and nicknames are stitched into headrests, colors are specified for seat stitching, veneers are chosen for the dash. Currently there are three models to choose from—the two-door Continental, the Flying Spur, and the flagship Mulsanne—though an SUV is in the works and has already received some orders despite the fact that a final design has yet to be unveiled.
While the Americas is Bentley’s largest market, customers there seems the least interested in taking advantage of the customization possibilities, preferring Glacier White and Anthracite to the rainbow of 120 “standard” color choices. Through the third quarter of 2014, there were 7,786 Bentleys delivered worldwide, up 19 percent over 2013, which was a record-setting year for the company. So far this year, the Americas has had 2,107 delivered, although orders from the Middle East have more than doubled in the past three years (to 720 so far in 2014).
Every station is made up of about six people, ranging from those cross-stitching the trim on seat covers (about 37 hours of work per car) to the guys on the line fitting all the wires into the car (about eight miles inside every one). On average, 25 Continentals and four Mulsannes are built per day; it takes 104 hours to build the former, and 399 hours for the latter. According to my tour guide Nigel Lofkin, a 34-year veteran of Bentley who previous worked in the Trim Shop, your Bentley could be ready in as little as 13 weeks, which is particularly impressive when you consider that in the interior design world, that’s a common lead-time for a table or sofa, which usually come without any electronic components. When an order comes in, the specifications go off to the different divisions—wood, painters, leather, etc.—who must all work to ensure that their part of the car order is completed on-time, and arrives for assembly at the same time as the specific car’s other parts and accoutrements. It’s a logistic marvel, thanks to a skilled workforce and a lot of supervisors.
“During the last economic downturn, we kept paying our employees—we couldn’t afford to lose their skills when we would need them again, so that when production ramped up again, we still had the talent we needed to do it,” explains Crispin Marshfield, Bentley’s Exterior Design Manager.
We’re walking next door to the Wood Shop, where we peek inside a room with 250,000 pounds of veneer from 14 wood varieties, including Chestnut, Eucalyptus and Bird’s Eye Maple, selected for interior woodwork. There are 17 processes herein, which collectively take four years for a craftsman to master. Each car’s order will spend about three weeks in here, getting five coats of veneer, cut by laser CNC machine, before heading to an enclosed area where a robot, whose arm has been programmed to mimic how a human hand of the past would work, applies the lacquer. The lacquer cures for 72 hours, and then is sanded by hand to buff out any imperfections.
Through a doorway is the cutting room, where there are anywhere from eight to 14 bull hides from Northern Europe. The hides are by-products of the food industry, I’m told, and what isn’t used is sold back for use in other industries. Then the car’s 350 pieces of leather get their trimmings—transformed into seats and stitched with embroidery. Every step inspires awe. One visitor who was tagging along with a couple of friends who were coming to see their commissions on the line, said he was having a horrible visit. Why? Because he placed an order.
I admire the EXP2, the second Bentley model ever built, which still runs, in the exhibition space—a gallery that changes every 18 months lest repeat buyers tire of seeing the same thing. I learn that if you get close enough to the winged Bentley logo, conceived of by W.O. Bentley himself, you’ll count 11 wings on one side and 10 on the other, which helped prevent counterfeiting. Also on view are an 8-Line from 1930, then the most expensive car in the world, which “comfortably cruises at 100 mph,” Lofkin points out, and a 1952 R-Type Continental, in its day the fastest car in the world. Handcrafted machines are apparently made to last.
“The very first Bentley that W.O. Bentley made, back in 1919, had a multi-valve engine. That’s something that wasn’t really thought of till about the 1980s!” Lofkin marvels.
It’s a conundrum, albeit a magical one, where supreme handcraft and technological innovation create a high-performance luxury experience, a blend of old world that looks firmly to the future. As recently as 2003, Bentley won the legendary race at Le Mans, where its two Speed 8 cars averaged 133 mph. Bentley is known for its wave of power. Yes, it can go fast, but it’s the smoothness of acceleration that impresses. Apparently there’s such a thing as an “Ice Speed Record”—of 205.49mph—which Juha Kankkunen set in 2011 in a Bentley Continental Supersport Convertible (subsequently broken by a tire company). Bentley is putting its performance capabilities into a consumer version of the Continental GT3-R, a road coupe inspired by Bentley’s current racing car, an edition of 300 (99 for the US) of which will be available soon, and the fastest accelerating Bentley ever, for those who need to reach 0-60mph in 3.6 seconds. I’m taken for a cruise in a 1933 Bentley Darby, which an aging U.S. owner recently donated back to Bentley (many Bentleys seem to outlive their drivers).
These might be everyday vehicles for their lucky owners, but most of us would consider them enviable items for those wealthy enough to buy a car for the price of a nice house. “These are incredibly special things,” Marshfield says, “and it’s important for us to take them out and enjoy them and realize what a treat they are.” The company has a generous policy, making cars available to their craftsmen, the ones who spend their lives making something they’ll likely never afford (much like the rest of us), for their own special occasions.
On my way back to the train station, in the back seat of a Mulsanne, I asked the driver how he likes driving a Bentley. He said he’d demonstrate, if a portion of open road permitted. At once, in what felt like the blink of an eye, we went from 20 mph to 100 mph on a back road, and I felt not the jerk and thrust of speeding but something akin to an airplane takeoff (albeit quieter) and without the pressure of being forced back against your seat when your taxi is going through a red light (my usual ride). Suddenly I knew what a wave of power felt like, confirmed by the driver’s wide grin, and I couldn’t help but join him when I realized I knew exactly the hands that had built it, and we were minutes away from where it was all done.