Motors

The Spirit in the Seams

At its factory in Crewe, Bentley preserves the past and embraces the future.

A car in the paint inspection tunnel.
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JOHN O’DRISCOLL IS walking me through the wood shop at the Bentley factory in Crewe. Scrupulously clean and very spacious, it is unlike the factories of popular imagination. People glide between stations on soft-soled shoes. We both drop our voices, in deference to our surroundings. O’Driscoll takes a brass cylinder from his top pocket, and hands it to me. It is a bullet, found snagged in one of the shop’s machines, after it hit a tree.

“This tells you how natural our product is. It was found by a gentleman in the 1980s and passed down by the colleague who trained me. It’s been lucky for me. I keep it on me always.”

This is a very Bentley story. For employees, the company is less a workplace than a system of belief. Routinely voted Crewe’s best employer, it holds a vaguely paternalistic position in the town. When it annexed a local road and turned it into a private drive, people didn’t make a fuss — the benefits of having Bentley here outweigh minor irritations. It offers something that has become increasingly rare in this corner of the country: manufacturing jobs that pay properly and come with decent benefits. People want to work here because their fathers worked here, and their father’s fathers before them. It is quite typical for senior management to have worked their way up from the shop floor. O’Driscoll is a case in point, having started out in the trim shop 17 years ago. His son took up a placement after school. His wife’s grandfather came to work here in 1948, shortly after the company arrived in Crewe from Derby. Today, the 3,500-strong workforce is highly unionized, and the deals they’ve brokered have effected real change. Most people in the factory now work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., which means they can leave in time to pick their children up from school.

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It feels surreal, to be standing on the floor of a functioning British factory. If you’re from the northwest of England, as I am, you’ll be more used to seeing car plants close. Industrial decline is part of our region’s iconography, like warehouse raves and constant rain. Manufacturers shift operations abroad at the first sign of trouble, or else downsize drastically, turning company towns into voided conurbations, and leaving ex-workers marooned. Bentley has taken a different route. The company continues to invest in Crewe, doubling down on previous commitments. Over the 2020 lockdown, it made up the 20% shortfall in workers’ pay. Last year, it took on 112 graduates and apprentices, its largest-ever trainee cohort. Now, it has launched an ambitious new scheme that will see hybrid versions of all models made by 2024, and an electric model released every year between 2025 and 2030.

“Sustainability is a big thing here at Bentley,” says O’Driscoll, as we enter the trim shop. “Certain cultures enjoy a big powerful engine like the W12, but other regions love hybrids and electrics. It works both ways, but personally, I think we’re headed in the right direction. Not just for the people, but for the planet.”

He points out the hides draped over metal horses. It takes between 10 and 15 hides to furnish a Bentley’s interior and up to 400,000 stitches to produce the diamond quilting. The leather comes from herds of beef bulls (cows get too many stretch marks) kept at high altitudes, miles from barbed wire. Cool weather means fewer insect bites, while the open grazing equals fewer snags and scars on the skin. Once the hides arrive in the factory, they’re scanned digitally, to determine the most efficient pattern. Any scraps that don’t make the grade are sold to make watch straps, gloves, and belts. The famous walnut veneers are also ethically sourced; the trees are usually grown for their nuts and Bentley’s wood comes from the burls.

This is all part of the company’s push to be fully carbon neutral by 2030. Alongside practical innovations at the plant — electricity generated by 31,000 solar panels, living walls, honey made at on-site hives, in-house logistics vehicles run on renewable energy — there has been a broader cultural shift within Bentley, a redefinition of what luxury actually means. Flawed materials are being repurposed rather than thrown away. New technology is deployed to ensure minimum waste.

If it’s hard to square the idea of a luxury car with spotless green credentials, it can at least be said that every Bentley is wanted. Supply is kept just shy of demand, so there is always a waiting list. Prospective owners often come to the factory to see their baby being assembled. On the factory floor, O’Driscoll pauses at one bay where an engine is being lowered onto a chassis. This process is known as “engine marriage.” He saw one customer cry as she watched her engine being put together.

“Bentley customers were very clear on wanting a U.K.-built engine,” Jon Smedley explains later. “It was important for them to know their car was being built in Crewe, they could go and see it, that they were putting money back into the country.”

Smedley, Bentley’s communications manager, is doing double duty as my minder this afternoon. I am taking a Bentayga Hybrid, their retooled SUV, out for a drive. The car is large, plush, and quiet. Even though I can feel the engine tugging and fretting beneath my control, like a large dog being hauled back by a fussy owner, inside the car, it’s almost silent. The sensation is like being in an airplane; a low hum tells you you’re in motion, yet you feel sealed off from your surroundings.

Smedley taps at the console, switches modes, and assures me I’m not the worst driver he’s ever chaperoned; automotive journalists often fail to factor in the car’s acceleration, and corner far too quickly. I have the opposite problem. I am taking corners at a snail’s pace, because I’m scared I’m going to roll the car and end up in a very expensive heap in the middle of a field. Smedley says I have nothing to worry about. He has got up to 175 mph on the autobahn before; the car’s engineering is so solid, it still feels safe. Time, he says, contracts inside a Bentley. You can cover hundreds of miles in a day while feeling you’ve driven no distance at all. And it’s true. After 45 minutes, I am habituated to the car. I feel as if it should be mine. I develop rapid, retrospective sympathy with the woman who wept over her engine. Handing the keys back, I feel like having a bit of a cry myself.

I should be rich, I think to myself, as we walk back to the workshop. I would be really good at it. My theory is dashed the moment I sit down with Maria Mulder, head of color and trim, to design my own car. The studio’s car configurator throws a photorealistic render up on a big screen, so customers can choose wheels, leather, and accessories. You can swap out the iconic wood veneers for finely milled stone or metal. If you can’t find the exact shade of paint you want, Bentley will make it. Customers have brought in sequins, jewelry, and candy wrappers as references. Bespoke colors belong to them for two years. The most popular stay in production.


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Mulder sends me to choose a color from a selection of samples. I like all of them. I pick one almost at random and hand it back. As my chosen colorway comes up on-screen — rose-gold paint, with mulberry leather interiors — Smedley gives a small wince.

“Really?” he says. “You sure?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe not?”

I suddenly feel paralyzed by indecision. I can no longer tell what’s nice and what’s not. I realize I would not be good at being rich. I would be one of those hapless people taken in hand by what the team calls the “taste police,” a shadowy unit that sweeps in when it looks like a customer’s poor choices might sully the brand’s image.

Fortunately, they can fall back on Mulder’s expertise. I am rarely jealous of anyone’s job, but listening to her talk, I feel a faint twinge of envy. I’ve never met anyone so into her work. She talks about materials as if they are sensate, alive. She pulls out swatches of wool, tweed, and cotton, adjuring me to feel the weight of one, the finish on another. She hands me a scrap of plum-colored fabric; it is made from grape skin, and may one day be a substitute for leather. A piece of black wood shot through with flecks of gold is bog oak, shaved from fallen trees preserved in peat.

“The black is its natural color. The peat sort of carbonizes it. This wood is 1,300 years old. When they dig it up, you find knots and holes in it; it expands in the water, and sometimes it’s almost split apart. We put real gold in, mixed it with a very fine resin to strengthen it. Our idea was to celebrate that imperfection.”

Which is not to imply standards are slipping. Under Mulder’s stewardship, they’ve only become more exacting. She tells me about one abortive trip to Spain, when they were preparing to show a car to Volkswagen’s board of directors. Previously, they’d only seen the paintwork in drab Crewe daylight. As they rolled the car out of the hangar for the first time, they saw it under the unbiased southern sun.

“It looked like a bumper car. It is night and day, between Crewe solar radiance and that band we see in Spain. We said, ‘We’re not showing it to them,’ and just rolled it back in. The reflection of the pigments and the materiality we use within the paint itself changes drastically from region to region, and season to season. If you go down to Dubai, the light is even stronger there. Oman is just incredible.”

Much of Mulder’s time is spent anticipating how cars will look in certain contexts, and tailoring the specifics to fit. Colors that glow on a mountain plateau may not look so good at sea level. Paint that works on the side of a GT convertible may be too much when applied to a Bentayga. She points out a Bacalar 4 in Mulliner’s adjacent workshop. A sliver of paintwork is visible, peeping out from beneath a drop cloth like a chink of of sunlit sky. The car will be shipped out to Arizona once it’s finished. The pale blue was chosen, in part, to pop against the baked-red earth.

It is at Mulliner that Mulder’s boldest schemes can be put into practice. This is Bentley’s bespoke arm, where special projects are pursued with a quixotic focus.

Smedley takes me on a tour of the studio. A racing-green Blower — one of 12 — stands at the back of the room. To the untrained eye (mine) the Blower looks quite fun: the kind of car Toad of Toad Hall might tool around in. But to the manufacturers, it has been a nest of logistical problems. For the car to be authentic, it has to be built with original materials like Rexine. Rexine, by the team’s own admission, is a “horrible” fabric to work with. It has to be heated up before it can be stretched over the frame without getting creased. It shows any lumps and bumps. And as there are only three pieces of material on the car’s body, any scratch or rip will derail the whole build.

In the far corner, a partially built Mulsanne also has a period look. It has been commissioned by an unnamed royal family, who apparently order all their cars in the same classic shade of Buff. As we leave, we pass a trainee engineer working on one of the limousine’s more analog accessories: a seat that flips up to reveal a DVD player. He looks — he is — extremely young. He tells me he is one of last year’s new cohort. He moved straight to Crewe after graduating from the University of Bath.

“That’s new,” I say. “It used to be the other way round. If you had any ambition, you had to leave the northwest and go down south to get a job.”

He smiles, and shakes his head.

“Well, it ticked all the boxes for me. It’s a well-known British brand. It has the quality, the heritage. And it’s just a nice thing to be able to say: Where do you work? Oh, I work for Bentley. You can take some pride in that.”

Our Contributors

Tabitha Lasley Writer

Tabitha Lasley’s work has been published in the LRB, the Guardian, and Esquire, among others. Her first book, “Sea State,” was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize and the Portico Prize, and longlisted for the Folio Prize.

Rory Payne Photographer

Based in his native London, Rory Payne applies a mix of analog and digital techniques in his work. His clients include Calvin Klein, Cartier, Mugler, and Versace. He has shot for publications such as British Vogue, GQ Style, Vogue Mexico, and Teen Vogue.

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