Turning a corner, I find a portrait of W.O. Bentley staring back at me. Behind the image stands the EXP2, the oldest Bentley in existence.
In its day, EXP2 was faster than anything else on the road. I’ve got goosebumps, and the day has only just begun.
I’m in the small but perfectly formed museum at Bentley’s headquarters at Pyms Lane, Crewe, about to be immersed in a world of high octane engines, classical craftsmanship and modern manufacturing. It’s more than just a nice day out though; today, despite my meagre wages, I’m playing the role of a big-spending customer to find out exactly how it feels to be part of the Bentley family.
It all starts at the new Bentley Cambridge dealership just outside of St Ives, where it’s simple enough to sit down and choose options, colours and such like from a brochure. However, the dealership takes things much further for their clients, whisking them away from Cambridge to the home of Bentley, the factory in Crewe. Once there, it will be possible to get into finer detail on the car, experience directly the myriad options available, compare different trim choices side by side, and discuss with the experts just what will work best for you and your Bentley. There’s a Bentayga Diesel waiting for me at the dealership, complete with a driver to take the strain of the A14 and M6, but on this occasion, I choose to take the wheel, keen to find out how the V8 diesel compares to the previously tested petrol option.
Performance is still mind-blowing, the huge reserves of torque being enough to propel this 2.5-tonne behemoth to law-breaking speeds in around five seconds. That’s thanks to two turbochargers and some new high-tech additions – there’s an electrically powered compressor that reacts instantly, filling in those gaps where you might otherwise be waiting for the turbo to spool up. Such is its refinement though that you’d be hard pushed to tell there’s a diesel engine under the bonnet, something Bentley went to great pains to achieve. There’s nothing in the rarified cabin of the Bentayga Diesel that suggests this is in any way second best, either.
The only significant difference for most buyers will be the extended range, now just about long enough to get from Cambridge to Switzerland without refuelling. That it costs less to buy than the petrol-powered model and brings with it lower running costs shouldn’t matter a great deal, but the rich don’t get rich by wasting money.
To simply drive a Bentley isn’t to fully understand the brand though, so I’m taken through to the factory where the Bentayga is built. The huge investment made by Volkswagen is immediately apparent, with a degree of automation that belies the handmade reputation of the car. Semi-built cars inch down the production line on giant clamps, stopping at each station for precisely 16.8 minutes. It’s here that the automation stops as some of the 4,300 staff get cracking with their part of the build process. Robots appear to install the dashboard, but it’s just a hefty lift that makes it easier for the workers to swing into place before manually attaching it to the car.
There are 47 such stations, each appearing to be mechanised but ultimate control is in the hands of the skilled workers on the factory floor. It’s a combination of old and new that works well and sets the tone for what a modern Bentley really is.
It’s not without its quirks, as production stops momentarily while an unfinished car is transported from one building to another, across a road and under a rather makeshift looking roof. Built during the Second World War as a shadow factory for the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, the site looks like a throwback to another era with its rows of sawtooth-roofed buildings and a maze of roads and alleys working their way between them.
It’s a reminder of the craftsmanship that almost pervades the air. Sometimes that’s literally true, especially in the woodshop where all those gloriously polished veneers that adorn the Bentayga’s interior are produced. Stored in a humidity and temperature-controlled building, wood shaved from metre wide lumps to a thickness of just 0.6mm is stacked in bundles made from the same part of the tree. This allows for book matching and mirror imaging of the grain, meaning that the wood you’ll find in the car is almost perfectly symmetrical on both sides of the cabin, spreading from a central dividing line. It’s almost as if just one single piece of wood has been used across the entire interior but in reality, there are 24 veneers reserved for each Bentayga.
These veneers are assembled onto an aluminium substrate with tulip-poplar wood and glue, before being fused together under immense pressure. Once solid, there are several sanding and polishing steps – by hand, naturally – before five coats of lacquer are applied. There’s a near-limitless choice of woods as well, including Vavona that comes from the Sequoia; Bentley has to wait for a tree to fall naturally as felling is illegal, which means there’s a very limited supply. For those with a more modern bent, there are carbon fibre or even stone inserts available.
The same levels of choice and craftsmanship hold true with the leather, where 14 hides from northern European bulls (fewer insect bites and no barbed wire knicks, apparently) are used on each car, sewn together by hand. Even something as mundane as a steering wheel requires 10 separate pieces of leather, each hand-stitched, in a process that takes four hours.
It’s at this point you realise just how much can be done with ‘your’ Bentley, so it’s off to CW1 House, the part-showroom, part visitor centre, where every Bentley model is on display. Here I talked through the options I could specify for ‘my’ car, from the kind of seat in use to monograms on the headrests (a simple Bentley logo takes 4,700 stitches), and from built-in DVD players to custom stretched and armoured limousines. The process is personal, with a host helping you make your way through the myriad options, including infinite paint choices, thread colours for contrast stitching, or the perfect leather for the steering wheel.
Being able to get close to the people that turn those dreams into a reality, and even see your car making its way down the production line at a later date, really helps build that bond between buyer and brand. A Bentley will never be cheap, but spending time at Pyms Lane helps you to realise exactly what it is that your money is being spent on.
W.O. Bentley had one mission for the company; to “build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” Despite directives from the governments, a turbulent modern history, and the kind of demands expected from any enterprise investing more than £1 billion into the business, the men and women at Crewe appear to be staying true to that wish.