On the Western fringes of Crewe, England, lies the sprawling factory works of Bentley Motors. This famous marque has been associated with the town since the end of World War II, but the origins of the marque go back to the 18th of January, 1919.
It was founded by two brothers, Walter Owen (WO) and Horace Millner (HM) Bentley who, between them, had a strong locomotive-based engineering background and experience selling and servicing French cars. As a keen racer, on two and four wheels, WO experimented with materials and engineered new lightweight engine parts for his own car, competing with considerable success. His MBE (a British Honour), however, was awarded, not for his automotive engineering, but for developing reliable aero engines during the first world war, which undoubtedly saved a huge number of lives at a time when more pilots were lost through engine failure than by enemy action.
After the war, the Bentley Brothers, along with some seasoned car making talent recruited from Vauxhall and Humber, set about the construction of the first car to bear the Bentley name – a 3-litre touring chassis built for competition. Thanks to some positive press right from the outset, and with a wealthy circle of early adopters known as the Bentley Boys buying into the racing experience, the Bentley brand immediately became a prestigious and popular marque.
Unfortunately the coach-builders of the era were, more often than not, commissioned to build heavy luxurious bodies for the wealthy clientele, so the team at Bentley had to rethink their engine choice. It would be a hundred years later that Bentley offered another car with a 3-litre engine – the 2019 Bentley Bentayga Hybrid SUV.
It is the Bentayga SUV that stood sentry outside the front door of the Crewe Works when we went to visit.
Our guide was dressed in a smart charcoal grey suit and tie, but this was not his first uniform. Having worked in the trim department for over 30 years, Roger was a dyed-in-the-lambswool Bentley man. His friendly demeanour and gentle delivery spoke volumes of the type of person who works here. Even when he’s hard at work on the production line, he remains on familiar terms with some of Bentley’s most important clientele. Wherever we walked in the industrial complex he was always greeted warmly with a convivial, “Ello Rogeh” by other members of the Cheshire-based production team.
And “team” is the best way to describe the extraordinary group of people who work here. Like a soccer squad, each staff member wears a branded athletic-style polo shirt – White, with Green piping. The team leaders wear the same but with a subtle extra yellow piping to mark out their role as overseers.
Everyone on the team has the same attitude – a positive, progressive attitude – working towards the same goal. That goal was laid down by WO Bentley a century ago when he set out to build “a Good Car, a Fast Car, the Best in its Class.”
But this philosophy was not always prevalent at Bentley. After the marque had been surreptitiously acquired by its great rival, Rolls-Royce, under an assumed name in the 1930’s, WO was sidelined to a testing role overseas. He eventually left the company to run engineering operations at Lagonda, but today, under Volkswagen’s ownership, the late Walter Owen is very much back at the heart of Bentley.
In a striking development that has transformed the Crewe works from a 1930’s Shadow Factory to a thoroughly modern manufacturing facility, VW management turned to Toyota, the experts in efficiency, to shake up the way things were done. The Japanese concept of Continuous Improvement (“Kaizen”) was introduced along with other Lean Manufacturing philosophies and the new approach has not only bound the workforce together as a real family, but has allowed the ultra exclusive brand to increase production from just 3,000 to over 11,000 units a year.
Walking into the assembly hall, the overwhelming impression is of just how many vehicles are under construction at any one time. Each team member has exactly 12.6 minutes to complete his or her specific task as the production line slowly progresses. The pace is relaxed and the allocated time gives enough flexibility to deal with minor mistakes, but if there is danger of a fault being passed along into the next work station, each team member has the ability to bring the entire assembly process to a halt.
That can be an expensive choice to make, as delays eat into the profits, but it is more important that only flawless products leave the factory. Everyone realises this and everyone works together to resolve faults as they arise and ensure they cannot happen again. There is no sense of blame either. Each team member owns his or her process and is not made to feel shamed to admit a mistake or to take action to resolve an issue.
There is immense pride in the skills that exist within this factory. While, on the face of it, the mass-production techniques that Bentley have introduced are similar to those found in mainstream carmakers like Vauxhall or Toyota, one thing you won’t find in their plants is a dedicated wood-working “apprentice training island”.
At Crewe, apprentices spend three and a half years learning the intricacies of marquetry, designing and crafting unique and beautiful jewellery boxes, or glasses cases, preparing for a career in the wood-shop. When you knock on wood in your Bentley you are knocking on real wood veneer carefully selected, matched, refined and polished to such a precise degree that it requires skilled craftspeople who have thoroughly immersed themselves in the art of woodworking. Their contribution to the car is every bit as special as the engineering or upholstery departments.
The creativity and artistry on show is quite breathtaking. Bentley customers aren’t just looking for lovely woodgrain patterns. They can specify designs and themes which the trim and wood-shop teams can turn into incredible wood, stone, and mother-of-pearl images showing exotic landscapes or falconry scenes on the dashboard.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this attention to detail is that the trim and woodwork can take up to six weeks to prepare, yet still comes to the assembly line just in time to be installed into the correct car body, exactly when it is needed.
The options list for your Bentley is quite eye-opening, with five-figure accessories that match your favourite pass-time. The rural ‘Hunting-Shooting-Fishing’ set can have all their tackle prepared in special compartments in the boot of their Bentayga, while a middle-eastern prince can keep his hooded Falcon on a specially designed perch in the passenger compartment. But for those who want something a bit more special, the Bentley factory has its own dealership, known as CW1 House.
Here we find the Mulliner Commissioning Suite where the spirit of bespoke coach-building is carried forward as a place of inspiring ideas, where clients can discuss exactly what they want inside or outside their particular car. Just like in a Savile Row outfitters, samples of colours, materials and accessories are available to browse, albeit hidden away in compartments behind curved wooden walls. The furniture is trimmed in a similar fashion to car seats. In the centre of the suite, a Mulliner ‘showcase’ model displays some of the countless items that can be fitted to make the car unique.
Roger, our ever-hospitable guide, sits down with us for a cup of tea and offers an open invitation to anyone passing by to drop in to CW1 House, for a tea or coffee, to relax in the company of some of Bentley’s most special products. A 2003 LeMans Special, a Continental GT3 race car, the Extended Wheel Base Mulsanne and a Flying Spur look out over the Cheshire countryside from an impressive glass building, designed to be emulated by Bentley dealers around the world.
He explains that the company has purchased a swathe of land across Pym’s Lane, extending the site to 114 acres, suggesting that the growth of Bentley is not about to slow down any time soon.