The south-east corner of Cheshire, a county in north-west England, is an unexpectedly bucolic realm of meadows enclosed by leafy hedgerows and sheltered by copses, and of pretty towns and villages, many of whose buildings date back hundreds of years. It’s especially lovely in late April, when blackthorn, wild cherry and hawthorn blossom adorn the trees, though the area isn’t entirely idyllic.
Smack in the middle of this verdant landscape, as if transplanted from a more mundane universe, is Crewe, an industrial settlement that sprang up around a railway junction in the 19th century. Indeed, so synonymous with its train station is this workaday red-brick community that it was immortalised in a music-hall song: “Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do? I want to go to Birmingham and they’re taking me on to Crewe … ”
There is, fortunately, a more compelling reason to visit this town of some 70,000 people than simply getting off at the wrong station. It goes back to the years immediately before World War II when, in an effort to boost air defences, the British government built aircraft factories around the country. One, an aero-engine plant run by Rolls-Royce, was constructed beside a railway line on the outskirts of Crewe – and from these same buildings some eight decades later now roll out some of the most painstakingly crafted and luxurious automobiles in the world.
Today the headquarters of Bentley Motors – Rolls-Royce Motor Cars moved to new premises in southern England after the two brands divorced in the late 1990s – this grid of low, largely ’30s structures quietly bustles with activity. Now owned by Volkswagen AG, it not only produces an impressive number of cars each year (the 11,817 in 2016 was the greatest annual output ever), but it also serves as a centre of excellence for the VW group, assembling all of the 6-litre, W12 engines used across a range of Bentleys and upmarket Audis. Additionally it manufactures a relative handful of 6.75-litre V8s, a venerable motor that dates back to the 1950s and currently powers the wonderfully anachronistic Mulsanne limousine, the latter as much a force of nature as it is a motor car, thanks not least to its earth-moving levels of torque.
This is my second visit to Bentley’s Pyms Lane factory in two years, during which I’m given an opportunity to drive a trio of the company’s latest offerings, as well as to immerse myself in the more traditional aspects of motor manufacturing – labour-intensive craft skills passed down the generations, which continue to thrive alongside a selective use of state-of-the-art automation and robotics. My guide, Nigel Lofkin, is a company veteran of more than three decades, who started out as an apprentice working with leather in the trim shop but now, impeccably turned out in a navy-blue Savile Row suit, serves in an ambassadorial role.
Lofkin says it takes 132 man-hours to build a Continental GT, 30 of which are driven off the production line each day, as opposed to a minimum 500 hours for a Mulsanne, whose manufacture involves a far greater degree of human intervention. “I say minimum,” he explains, “because you can have an extended-wheelbase Mulsanne, or a metre stretch with cocktail cabinets in the back, and that’s, kind of, how long’s a piece of string?” Unsurprisingly, only three of these biggest Bentleys are completed each day.
Although not everything is produced on site – for example, Bentayga SUV and Continental GT bodies are shipped in from Slovakia and Germany respectively, while 4-litre V8 engines for the Conti and Flying Spur come in fully assembled from Hungary – Bentley is unusual among motor manufacturers in that key processes such as design, research and development, craft skills and manufacturing are all grouped together in a single geographic location. That includes the company’s personal-commissioning operation, Mulliner, which was founded as an independent coachbuilder in the 19th century and then bought by Rolls-Royce in 1959, becoming a Bentley subsidiary almost 20 years ago.
Now housed in its own premises on Pyms Lane, and offering everything from specially engineered and built Bentleys to relatively simple touches such as non-standard colours, embroidered headrests and personalised treadplates on door sills, Mulliner has a team of some 60 employees variously involved in design, engineering, coachbuilding, cabinetmaking, fabric trimming and marketing, and currently produces around 200 one-off cars each year. Among such vehicles are the pair of State Limousines for Queen Elizabeth II, delivered in 2002, and the more recent metre-stretch Mulsanne Grand Limousine, a dozen of which were designed, re-engineered and built over an incredible 14-month period and are among the most luxurious – and certainly the longest – OEM (original equipment manufactured) motor cars in the world.
Rather less ambitious, though no less desirable, is the dramatic, all-black Mulsanne Speed specially commissioned by watch customiser and Bentley buff George Bamford. Mulliner has also created a Bentayga equipped with everything a dedicated angler would need for a day on the river – from fishing tackle stowed in cabinets made from wood, leather and aluminium, and rods in leather tubes, to an equally exquisite refreshments case.
Artisanal skills such as these aren’t confined only to Mulliner, however. Right beside the Bentayga line in the main factory I watch a team of craftsmen and women hand-sewing leather-clad steering wheels, a process so exacting that each person completes only two such items each day. In the wood shop, I enter a storeroom packed almost to the roof with stacks of wood veneers – thin sheets peeled as if by giant pencil-sharpener from the root balls of trees – that are expertly mirror-matched, lacquered and polished to a lustrous reflective sheen, and then affixed to dashboards, doors and consoles.
Intricate hand-made marquetry work is applied to glove-box lids and picnic tables, and though machines now cut the multi-hued leather and stitch the headrest emblems and monograms, all the Pasubio hides are inspected and selected using the human eye. As Lofkin says, “High-technology is fantastic and we embrace that, but we still need traditional skills.”
That Bentley heritage, which mixes engineering, craftsmanship, luxury, power, speed and – it must be said, Britishness – is made only too plain when, on my way out of the plant, I stop to admire a small selection of cars, each representing a key milestone in the company’s history. It’s a remarkable story, perfectly encapsulated by the two-seat, Le Mans-winning 3-litre of the 1920s, the magnificent 8-litre grand tourer of 1930 and the sleek yet voluptuous grace of the 1958 S1 Continental Flying Spur – a four-door coupe with coachwork, naturally, by Mulliner.
Lofkin’s passion for the company he’s been with all his working life is palpable. “What’s fantastic about Bentley as a brand,” he says, “is that we’re now back on the racetrack. We’ve got all the Continentals and the derivatives, and we have the Mulsanne and the different stretch versions. [In Bentayga] we have the fastest and most luxurious SUV in the world, and the Queen arrives at state occasions in a Bentley State Limousine.
“Powerful, sporty, practical, luxurious – Bentley is all of those things, and our competitors cannot tick all those boxes. No other brand does this. None.”