Paying a visit to the Bentley factory

It’s funny, but maybe not to a public relations department: The receptionist at my office saw the Continental GT coupe parked outside and asked, “Why is there a ‘B’ on your Aston Martin?”

Would that evoke a smile in the town of Crewe, in the northwest of England, at the factory where B-for-Bentley automobiles are built? The venerable firm is proud of its 93-year history and especially pleased to show off what it has accomplished since it was reborn, in 1998.That was when theVolkswagen Group purchased Bentley and freed it from the shadow its long-time stable mate, Rolls-Royce.

Corporate acquisitions make employees nervous: Will they close us down? Break us up? Will I have a job? One of VW’s first decisions was to keep Bentley intact and in England, and even in the same dour brick-and-skylights industrial buildings erected 75 years ago, when the UK was gearing up for war. (Rolls- Royce/Bentley built the legendary Merlin V-12 engines that powered RAF Spitfires, Hurricanes, and other warplanes.)

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VW management must have been tempted to raze the entire 65-acre lot and start fresh, but the old buildings are part of Bentley’s heritage. They would stay—thoroughly refurbished outside and modernized inside.

A collective sigh of relief swept through the workforce. Within three years of the sale, Bentley had returned to racing, with nothing less than a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (the last one was in 1930), and been honored with a commission to build a limousine for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Two years on, in 2003, the company rolled out an entirely new and popularly priced—for Bentley, anyway—car, the $175,000 Continental GT, which immediately set new sales records.

A decade later, Bentley is still on a roll. The quality, performance, and style of its cars are at an alltime high. So are sales, with China joining the US as the firm’s largest markets. The sense of pride among the company’s 4,500 employees is almost palpable. Nearly all of them work together, in Crewe, which integrates R&D, engineering, design, and production, not to mention communications. Most of the bits and pieces that go into each Bentley are built right there too, which is equally unusual in the global, commoditized auto industry.

Seats, for example, usually arrive at car plants on a truck. Bentley seats are built in-house: Bavarian-grown, Italian-tanned bull hides are sewn by hand over massive foambolstered steel frames that house adjuster motors and heating and cooling elements. After the engine, the seats are the heaviest items in a Bentley. They look and smell wonderful; they feel wonderful; they remain comfortable hour after hour.

Equally impressive is each car’s sumptuous, subtle interior. If it looks like wood, chrome, or leather, it is. Every surface is hand-crafted— machined, fitted, stitched, sprayed, buffed, and polished to the nth degree. Clients drop in and, over tea, choose their wood veneers, their shades of leather, their embroidery, and their paint—perhaps to match the yacht or the jet or the new Bichon Frisé puppy. No, it’s not quite the same as haggling with a salesman at the local auto mall. (Bentley does not offer financing, either. If you have to ask …)

It’s perfectly OK to have a bit of fun with the car’s “jewelry” and finish, but underneath, Bentleys are serious road cars—seriously fast, seriously strong and safe and, with the Continental GT’s all-wheel drive, seriously capable in all weather. Bentley understands that, in a road car, luxury without performance is meaningless and speed without comfort is useless. The Rolls-Royce, you’ll recall, was for the chauffeur; the master kept the Bentley for himself. Or herself.

Building a Bentley is much like crafting a Purdey or Holland & Holland shotgun, made 170 miles to the southeast in London: Advanced computerized machinery does the rote work; the rest is by skilled hands. Seven robots start the body of a top-line Mulsanne sedan, but then people, using 154 hand welders and innumerable sanding and finishing blocks, take over, working to a level of perfection that suits not just a laser but also the human eye. Two months later, the car is complete. Mulsanne prices start at $325,000 and go up—way up.

While walking from one gleaming workshop to another, following the intricate steps of luxury-car construction, a visitor might spot a decrepit building at the edge of the site and assume it’s a decaying remnant of WWII, empty and awaiting the wrecking ball. In fact, it is Bentley’s super-secure design studio, hidden in plain sight. Few employees are allowed in, and no employees have mobile phones with built-in cameras.

Styling is important, but at Bentley it is trumped by performance. In Wales last month, the BBC’s Top Gear ran a 620-horsepower Continental GT Speed, straight off the factory floor and complete with doubleglazed windows and electric door latches, against racing cars half its size in the World Rally Championship. Time and speed are closely guarded secrets until the show airs, in February, but the Bentley crushed the gravel course, with its two jumps and two water crossings. And last year Bentley set the world ice-speed record with this car: 205.48 mph on the frozen Baltic Sea in Finland.

Perhaps James Bond should go back to Bentley. After all, his initial is already on the car.