Although I’ve been familiar with Bentley’s cars since my youth, I must admit that I never really thought of specifically where, other than the general vicinity of England, they were built. I somehow knew of the city of Crewe, but if it weren’t for Google Maps, I would have been hard pressed to tell you where it’s located (it’s just over an hour south of Manchester, or three and a half hours northwest of London, if you must know). However, on a somewhat colder than usual day in May, that’s exactly where I was headed to discover the home of Bentley Motors, and to spend some time behind the wheels of seeral of the marque’s current offerings.
First, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane. The company was founded in 1919 by Walter Owen Bentley, who was generally better known by his initials, W.O. His motto was “to build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class,” which he applied immediately, for Bentley won Le Mans the first time in 1924. The company itself though needed funding, and was acquired by Woolf Barnato, although W.O. continued to work for him. Bentley won again at Le Mans in 1927, and Barnato himself piloted the car to victory in three consecutive years, from 1928 to 1930. The Great Depression then took hold and the company was, in 1931, sold again, to Rolls-Royce, and moved to the latter’s factory, in Crewe. The two brands’ cars were built concurrently, sharing engineering platforms long before it became the norm in the car industry, with Bentley being, arguably, the performance oriented face of the company, while maintaining the hand craftsmanship and the very essence of elegant British motoring that’s common to both marques.
This partnership continued for many years until the company was eventually sold to Volkswagen AG in 1998, but with a twist; the sale comprised everything, from car designs to production facilities, except for a little detail: the Rolls-Royce name itself, at least when it came to cars (the name is also associated with the aerospace industry, as a separate entity), which was sold separately to BMW. Both companies worked out a handover period, during which time Rolls-Royce cars were still built in Crewe, until BMW opened a new factory in Goodwood in 2003 – that’s near Portsmouth, at the very southern part of England, if you must know.
As you can imagine, this was a rather uncertain period for all the workers based in Crewe, who had worked as a diehard British company for generations, and suddenly found themselves under German ownership. Our tour guide, Nigel Lofkin, is a Bentley Motors veteran, getting his start with crafting wood and leather some 37 years ago, where he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, although his older brother preceded him; he worked at Crewe for 42 years – so far. As a footnote, Lofkin added that his daughter had also spent a period of time interning at Bentley. If you add it all up, within his family alone, there is nearly a century’s experience working essentially for the same company, in the same location. He candidly admits that he and his colleagues were genuinely worried when the company was sold to Volkswagen; they thought that they might see their jobs replaced by machines. They simply weren’t sure which direction their new owners might want to take with Crewe and its facilities.
In hindsight, those fears were unfounded; instead of making wholesale changes, Volkswagen has invested significantly into expanding the facilities at Crewe, to the tune of 840 million pounds. The factory now has more than 5,000 workers, and as you can imagine, is one of the region’s larger employers. Machines have been brought in, but sparingly, as the focus has been on maintaining the hand craftsmanship that is such an essential part of the Bentley experience. As we walk through the vast facilities, a change with Lofkin does admit to is that there is much greater organization with the new management; the factory is virtually spotless, something which he says was not the case when he first started out, with a level of focus that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern watchmaking workshop. I was struck by a few signs that reminded the workers to be mindful of their jewelry and watches, lest they damage the cars that they were working on, and that they could obtain protective covers to place over said items if necessary. He emphasizes that all the knowledge that went into Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars over the decades was developed at Crewe, and that it’s still there, given that it’s the Rolls-Royce name that was moved elsewhere.
As the cars make their way around the assembly line, the majority of the work in progress is on the Bentayga, the SUV which impressed me tremendously when I test drove it a few months ago. An eye on the worksheets shows cars being destined for every region in the world, from the United States, to the Middle East, to Russia, with a few destined for Hong Kong as well. There are 47 stations dedicated to that model line, each car requiring an average of two days to build. The Continental line is actually longer, with 62 stations, which means that each car takes 1.5 days, but that statistic is a little misleading as it doesn’t take into consideration the number of man-hours required for each car; this ranges from 132 man-hours for a Continental GT, to at least 500 for a Mulsanne. Incidentally, the Mulsanne line is comprised of 14 stations only, where it takes a week to produce each car.
Also, this doesn’t take into account the preparation work on the wood and leather that goes into customizing each and every Bentley. Here, we’re taken to another part of the factory, where specialist departments are dedicated to each craft. Lofkin is naturally very proud of the leather department, where he started, and we can see an army of workers preparing to cut the swathes of various tanned and colored leather into the numerous shapes required for fitting onto the seats and interior of each Bentley. Here, technology has been applied for environmental purposes; one of their newest machines produces a laser overlay which is calculated for each hide to optimize the cutting pattern and to reduce any wastage to a minimum.
The wood veneers are also an art unto themselves, requiring the longest lead time, with some five weeks dedicated to their preparation alone. We walk into a room where layers and layers of wood, sourced from around the world, are being carefully dried; it feels – and smells – as though you’ve entered a giant humidor. Customers are given the option of customizing the wood veneer to their heart’s content, and to enable this, Bentley has an apprenticeship program to allow their young workers to learn the finer details of woodwork; classes are in full swing and examples of their work are proudly displayed throughout the shop floor.
Both areas are larger than I would have expected, seemingly taking up as much space, if not more, than the assembly line itself. Even with that in mind though, it never loses the handcrafted approach; each part is closely inspected, and only goes to the assembly line when the finish is done perfectly – again, akin to what you might see in a watch manufacture.
The factory tour certainly gave me a renewed appreciation for the Bentleys that I had driven that day, even if the time on the road with each car was rather short given that our hosts wanted us to experience each model line. I started with the Continental GT V8 S, a sports evolution of one of their most successful models, which is primarily a two-door cruiser. I’m pleasantly surprised with the sound of the 4-liter twin-turbocharged engine, which I’m told was specifically engineered to be more sporty and raspy, without being intrusive.
A few minutes later, and I find myself now at the controls of the Flying Spur W12S, a variant of Bentley’s entry-level sedan, if I may use the term given its luxurious interior. I expected the 6-liter engine to be louder, but it felt oddly quiet, even though I was well aware that it could propel me from a standstill to 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds, a fraction quicker than the GT V8 S. The additional power compared with the V8 engine is certainly perceptible on acceleration, although the added weight does affect the handling and braking, compared with its Continental cousin.
Next, I take the Mulsanne Speed along the same loop. This is the flagship luxury saloon in the range, where you’re more likely to be driven than to drive yourself. Performance, as befitting W.O. Bentley’s original wish, is still part of the equation, as it’s powered by a 6.75-liter twin-turbo engine, and in spite of a significantly higher weight, around 400 kilograms more than the Continental, it still reaches 100km/h in just under 5 seconds. I wouldn’t say it does so unwillingly, but you can get a sense that it’s not its raison d’être; the Mulsanne will carry you in extreme comfort, even at its top speed just over 300km/h, but its sweet spot is gliding along the motorway, taking you to, perhaps, your country estate for the weekend.
Lastly, I’m able to spend a few minutes getting re-acquainted with the Bentayga, an SUV which handles and accelerates more like an overgrown sportscar than an offroader, although there are numerous settings to make it adaptable to just about any driving surface imaginable. I’m still of the opinion that the exterior is an acquired taste, but it’s an aspect that’s the furthest from my mind as I make my way back to the Bentley factory. Judging from the sheer numbers of cars we could see shuffling through the assembly line, it’s convinced a significant number of buyers around the world to place their orders.
As the day concludes, I’m struck by how much more of an appreciation I gained into Bentley’s cars, just from a short visit at its home in Crewe. The dedication and pride of its workers is palpable, and it’s part and parcel of every Bentley that’s built there, from the mechanical aspects to the fine hand craftsmanship that gives the cars their individuality and character. You can even take that level further, as Bentley’s Mulliner workshop carries out personal commissions, which goes well beyond basic color or leather customizations. However, that’s a story that I’ll delve into on another occasion. Until then, I would highly recommend, should you find yourself in the general vicinity, to make the detour to Crewe, and to experience for yourself the home of Bentley Motors.