Bentley, like so many car brands, have been reinvented in recent years. Falling under the Rolls Royce banner for so long, it is now 10 years since, whilst under the ownership of VW, they have been an entity who controls their own future.
We headed up to Crewe (of all places), and the home of the famous Bentley B to take a look behind the scenes, a glimpse into their ethos and the people that make the company so very special. Crewe may seem like a strange choice, but ‘in the war’, Crewe was an excellent hub for the whole of Britain with rail connections a plenty. At the time, Bentley, along with Rolls Royce, built engines for British war planes, so back in 1920 it was the perfect choice. A lot has changed in 95 years though, but as we find out, perhaps not as much as you might think.
When VW purchased Bentley back some 11 years ago (Rolls Royce went to BMW), they bought more than a name and a badge. They knew the importance and history of the famous wings and were keen to maintain it. It would have been all too easy to shut-up shop and move everything over to Germany to keep a closer eye on things. It was a tough decision, but it seems that heart ruled over head, as the British base in Crewe, and the workers within it, were too important to lose.
You can put a badge on anything you want, but just because you own the badge, doesn’t mean you have the brand. The heritage, the ethos, the human element, are all too easy to remove, yet impossible to replace. Whilst VW have made wholesale changes, concentrating around technology and processes, Bentley still remains very much Bentley, and very much British.
The Crewe plant produces 50 Continental’s and 5 Mulsanne’s every day, that doesn’t sound like a lot, and in the realms of major car manufactures, it really isn’t. But what makes that more impressive is that the whole thing is done by hand. Yes, there are machines, but they are more conveyers and jigs for positioning and of course tools for cutting etc.. Out of the 62 stations on a Bentley Continental line, there is just one robot. And it’s job? Sealing the windscreen… The rest is completed by some 4000 skilled individuals, from line workers, to mechanics, seamstresses to electricians.
It’s a remarkable feat, and one Bentley are so proud of, every buyer from new is offered the chance to visit the factory, get the guided tour, and spec their car as they wish. It works well, with people travelling across the globe to the little old place of Crewe, though thankfully not the whole 10,200 they sold last year!
One thing you will quickly realise is that racing is an integral part of Bentley, and perhaps one that will never be removed, and quite rightly so. The speed and that winning mentality started in the 1920’s with the aptly named ‘Bentley Boys’. And as you speak to people associated with Bentley, or even those in the know about motor-racing in the early days, they were a group of guys who very well liked, and although from very different backgrounds they all had two things in common. Fast Cars, and as it turns out, booze! When the Type 2 won its very first Le Mans, they didn’t just drive it up to the doors of the Savoy in London for the party, they actually ended up driving it in and all dining around it as they celebrated. A feat then matched some 70 years later when Bentley again won Le Mans in 2003.
As they say, Rolls Royce have an owners club, however Bentley have a drivers a club.
Where next for Bentley? Well this year sees them return to the motorsport arena, taking the GT Continental into the GT3 class. The car is a thing of beauty, and you can expect a limited edition road going version in the near future. After that it’s the big one, with the launch in 2016 of the all new Bentley SUV (which will actually be built in Crewe).
It’s a bold step as Bentley try and get a foothold in the younger market, a market for the future. And although they have made strides in recent years, many of those strides are really baby steps. With a wealth of interior and exterior options, it seems money doesn’t buy you taste with clashing and traditional options a common place. Will the SUV be a more simple and scaled approach? On one hand we hope so, something for the minimalist, something clean. But on the other, why ruin a tradition? A flamboyance that you won’t find anywhere is the world. Well, apart from Crewe.