CREWE, U.K. – On the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 29, 1940, a German Junkers 88 dropped two bombs on the Rolls-Royce plant here, killing 17 people who were building Merlin engines used in Spitfires, a vital weapon in the fight against Nazi aggression.
Today, ironically, the Germans deserve credit for saving the plant from the industrial scrap heap, even though shrapnel damage remains visible in the rafters.
The plant used to make both Rolls-Royce and Bentley premium luxury cars, but now it is dedicated solely to Bentley after a complex transaction more than a decade ago that sent Rolls-Royce toand Bentley to .
Something had to be done. In 1998, when VW began the Bentley takeover, the auto maker had delivered 414 vehicles. The following year, it was 1,001.
With German support and investment, the British auto maker went on to launch multiple versions of theGT, a sleek coupe that in 2003 marked the arrival of thoroughly contemporary athletic design and the departure of haughty, stoic styling that often could not be distinguished from a Rolls.
Thearguably is the car that saved Bentley. The hidebound company founded in 1919 that had been puttering along for years began pumping out vehicles like never before: 7,686 in 2004, a tenfold increase from a year earlier.
A Continental Flying Spur 4-door would follow in 2005, pushing sales to 9,560 vehicles that year and Bentley’s all-time high-water mark of 10,014 in 2006, requiring a second shift of production.
Then came softening in 2008 as luxury-car sales suffered from the economic downturn, and 2009 and 2010 were positively dreadful by modern Bentley standards, with fewer than 8,500 deliveries over the course of two years. Employee morale plummeted as the second shift was discontinued.
But the launch of the all-new Mulsanne flagship sedan that replaced the Arnage, as well as economic recovery in certain key markets, spurred production back to a healthy clip in 2011 and 2012, still with one 4-day, 40-hour shift, with occasional overtime on Fridays. Bentley is Crewe’s largest company, employing some 4,000 people, up from 1,500 in 1998.
Today, the plant that builds nothing without an order from a buyer or dealer is primed for its newest arrival: the redesigned Flying Spur sedan, which goes on sale in August in the U.S., Bentley’s No.1 market.
Next up is another first for the brand: an SUV.
VW recently gave the green light for the ute, set to be built here and go on sale in 2016, although a concept unveiled at the Geneva auto show in 2012 was roundly panned.
If Porsche, Maserati and Lamborghini can do SUVs, VW management seems to think, so can Bentley. The Porsche Cayenne has been monumentally successful, even though purists complain it clouds the brand persona.
Bentley once again is relevant in a stratospheric segment occupied by car collectors and connoisseurs, and its survival is a tribute to the plant here that holds fast to old-school methods of building by hand.
It takes five weeks to assemble, test and deliver a Continental GT, including two days on the final assembly line. The top-end Mulsanne requires two months, including seven days of final assembly.
It takes about 96 hours to fabricate one Mulsanne body shell in a new part of the plant that began production in 2009. Takt time at each station for Mulsanne final assembly is 64 minutes.
For context,’s two U.S. F-150 plants each crank out about 60 trucks in that time.
By industry standards, the plant operates at a positively glacial pace, but who wants to hurry and cut corners when the customer base includes Queen Elizabeth II?
Under German tutelage, Bentley’s plant, built in 1938, has been updated to a point, and workers have embraced the concept of continuous improvement. For instance, takt time at each station for Continental was 27 minutes when it launched in 2003. Now, it’s nine minutes.
The plant has 65 work stations, and at any one time there will be 350 cars being assembled. An onsite paint shop can spray any color a customer wants, but some bodies (for Continental and Flying Spur) now are built and painted with standard colors in southeast Germany.
The body shop also learned to “superform” aluminum sheet by heating it to 932º F (500º C), which makes it pliable enough for molding fenders to achieve a highly sculpted look for the front end of all the cars, incorporating inset headlamps.
The least expensive vehicle to roll off the line, the Continental coupe comes with a sticker price of more than $175,000, which requires a fair degree of build variation: The number of robots can be counted on one hand, and steering wheels are wrapped with fine leather and hand-stitched by one employee who shrugs off daily needle sticks. It takes 3½ hours or more to wrap one wheel.
Mulsanne pricing starts at about $300,000, but finicky buyers with particular tastes for bespoke craftsmanship can push stickers well past $400,000.
The build configurations for a Mulsanne would make a manufacturing manager’s head spin in a high-volume assembly plant.
Mulsanne buyers with particular tastes often take the time to visit here, perhaps to tour the facilities, but certainly to enter the beautifully decorated, climate-controlled gallery that is more than a showroom to spec a new vehicle.
Here, the buyer can lounge while perusing seemingly endless combinations of veneer, Pasuvio leather from Milan, threads, woolen carpet, interior trim and exterior paint colors. Avert your eyes, animal lovers: 17 hides fill a Mulsanne cabin and as few as 10 for a Continental.
There’s an entire cabinet of drawers filled with gorgeous veneers, all of them classified as light, dark or red woods. That’s because exotic veneers from around the world, such as Vavona and Tamo ash, are wrapped around solid timber substrates.
For instance, lightly colored Birdseye maple or Chestnut is bonded to solid oak that is formed in a dedicated woodshop to cover a door trim or instrument panel. Dark veneers get mated with walnut, red veneers with cherry wood. Bentley assures all the timbers and veneers come from sustainable forests.
The auto maker insists on solid timber throughout the Mulsanne because it is warm and feels and sounds like the real thing with the rap of a knuckle. Besides, if a piece of trim extends all the way to the end of the door, Bentley wants to ensure the buyer notices the authentic end grain.
With so much attention devoted to timbers no one sees, imagine the craftsmanship dedicated to the finished surface, comprising seven layers of veneer or adhesive.
Consider what it takes for the plant to execute piano black, a high-gloss surface. Bentley starts with solid walnut, then applies black lacquer – 20 coats of it, making the grain barely visible. Why so much? To ensure a smooth, even surface and no orange peel – of course, after fastidious sanding and polishing by hand.
Every piece of wood for a Bentley is finished in this way, with 20 coats of lacquer. And it’s one of the few operations performed by a robot in an airtight room, because it’s a miserable job no one wants to do by hand.
Parts are loaded into a carousel that passes through the spray booth once every five hours. Each time, the robot sprays four coats wet-on-wet.
Afterward, the parts cure in a room controlled to 104º F (40º C) for up to four days before the sanding begins.
Upon completion, every car is driven out the plant gates and along local roads to ensure it is ready for delivery. Each car is wrapped in protective sheeting and shipped in an individual container.
In the plebian world of manufacturing cars for the masses, this is crazy stuff.
Continental coupe and convertible account for about 70% of plant output, and Mulsanne builds represent about 10%. The previous-generation Flying Spur made up the difference, but company executives say the new Flying Spur could reach about 40% of plant production.
The mix between W-12 and V-8 engines is roughly even.
Bentley is off to a fine start in 2013. Through the first six months, the auto maker delivered a robust 4,279 vehicles.
German managers have convinced the locals that VW indeed can be a proper steward for the steeply British brand.
“They actually work with us in maintaining what makes the brand distinctive, what makes it special, what attracts our customers to it,” says Oliver Whitlock, Bentley’s senior tour guide.
Does anyone here find it ironic it was the Germans who saved their jobs and plant?
Perhaps this was the case initially, until word spread that German management wanted a memorial in the shape of a large British Spitfire propeller – made of wood and trimmed in leather at the plant – to hang in the corner where the 17 workers died.
“Everyone accepts the past is the past,” Whitlock says.