Nigel Lofkin, customer host at Bentley head office in Crewe, UK, is passionate about the brand.
So much so that when we visited CW1 recently, he told us how sad he feels that some Bentley owners simply order their car without visiting the factory and seeing what goes into each model before they spec their choice of vehicle.
I have to say that after visiting the factory for the second time, I am in absolute agreement with him. You can’t appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that goes into every model until you have seen the way someone marks every imperfection in the leather, the finely sliced piles of wood veneer (Bentley is a centre of excellence for wood in the Volkswagen Group) and, of course, the chap who measures the distance between stitching on the steering wheel with a fork. Yes, a fork.
Under the bonnet sits a superb piece of technology and engineering, but it takes a piece of cutlery to get the best measurements on the steering wheel correct. I’m sure they could use tech, yet a bloke with a fork does it all by hand.
He is not the only one either. Throughout the factory there are craftspeople hard at work, from specialists carving the wood veneers, one of which, only for the Mulsanne, comes from trees in Africa, to seamstresses stitching the leather. Here too is an interesting fact — the company only uses bull leather as cow hide deforms too easily. The bulls are all from northern Europe where they live in fields with no fences to ensure the leather remains undamaged.
Walter Owen Bentley, who started the company in 1919, would be proud to see how well the company has preserved his legacy. That legacy includes South African connections.
The company’s first chairman was Woolf Barnato, the son of the founder of the Kimberley diamond mine. The latest-generation Mulsanne was codenamed Project Kimberley before going into final production.
In more recent times, the company’s director of powertrain engineering, Paul Williams, is from SA and the head of motorsport, Brian Gush, is also a South African.
We were fortunate to spend time with a couple of the designers, including Darren Day, head of exterior design who took me through some of the features on the Bentayga SUV. He pointed out that the Bentayga was not an easy project, saying that it’s virtually impossible to design a really good-looking SUV because of the dimensions.
That was clear in the original concept that was lambasted by many, but Day says the order books filled up immediately in spite of the criticism. The design changed significantly from that concept and while the Bentayga is not everyone’s cup of tea, it remains true to some of the key Bentley design elements.
We got to experience the Bentayga more when we took a V8 version from the factory for a couple of days’ driving through the picture postcard Cotswolds and Oxfordshire.
The roads of the UK are not as perfect as you might think and even the Bentayga with its air suspension felt many of the bumps. That is probably more because of the enormous wheels of course, but even with a few road imperfections, it cruised with a level of luxury that is incredible.
Experiencing the factory provided a new dimension to the drive. Holding that handcrafted steering wheel one could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into it. Looking at the wood trims in the dash, the Bentley wing design to it and the precise three rows of milling in each metal dial allowed an elevated sense of appreciation of what it takes to craft a Bentley.
This of course made negotiating the narrow roads of the Cotswolds villages a little more of an apprehensive experience. Driving within inches of the hedgerows and the mirrors of cars tightly parked along narrow village streets, I was conscious of the size of the Bentayga and the perfection of its paintwork.
First stop was the beautiful gateway to the Cotswolds, Broadway, a town that at the height of summer is full of coachloads of tourists. It was quieter when we were there, although still busy enough to frustrate our photographer, the aptly named Nick England. We managed to get the shot we wanted, but suffice to say everywhere we looked there were postcard backdrops for the regal Bentley.
Beyond the villages and on larger roads with fields on either side, the Bentayga stretched its legs, although the constant changes in speed limits meant it never reached a canter let alone a gallop. Instead it wafted through the countryside in a gentlemanly manner, occasionally releasing a bark from the exhaust as it dropped a gear before settling back into an elegant cruise.
The drive was all very, well, Bentley really. But unlike the Premier League footballers that Lofkin says often order their cars without visiting the factory, our visit to CW1 enhanced my appreciation of the Bentayga.
It is not simply the sum of its parts, it is the sum of Bentley’s history and the sum of years, decades even, of dedication from those who lovingly create each component.
The Bentayga, like other models in the range, is something grand, something to be appreciated. It is a Bentley.