There’s no denying that modern technology has changed the car shopping process for the better. It’s never been easier to compose the car of your dreams via an online configurator, seeing each option come together in a virtual build, and send the specs off to a dealer for an order.
But convenient as it is, it’s cold and impersonal. Like online shopping, it lacks that enriching, deeply-personal element of the experience. Bespoke design is a journey — and the end result is a testament to both the choices you made along the way, and the guidance of the skillful craftsperson that brought your creation to life. And perhaps no automotive customization experience epitomizes that journey quite like the process found in Crewe, England, at the headquarters of Bentley — which is where I went to design a custom Bentley Continental GT.
Meeting The Crewe Crew
The automotive luxury market has never been more saturated. With competition offering opulence from all sides, Bentley manages to stay above the rest by emphasizing authenticity.
Those in the market for a Bentley will certainly be spoiled for choice when it comes to configuring their own car, but for those who are more discerning, Bentley offers the Mulliner experience, which opens up an entirely new catalogue of options. These go beyond simply expanding the palette of exterior colors; they also add custom hides, wood veneers and other materials unique to Mulliner customers. If even that is too limiting, the ability to commission custom colors is always on the table.
To see how the process works for myself, I took a trip to Bentley’s sprawling design and manufacturing facility in northwest England. Before I began, I was given a tour of each of the factory’s departments to see firsthand where the components of my custom car would come coming from. (For the record, my Bentley isn’t going to be “my” Bentley — it’s a car the automaker is going to build anyway, but has graciously permitted me to spec.)
The facility in Crewe has been producing Bentleys since 1946, and though much has changed since then, there’s a charm to the place that other auto assembly plants could never replicate. First off — and I mean this in the nicest way possible — it smells like a farm. The red-bricked buildings of the facility are nestled in a corner of England’s verdant countryside, and no matter how sophisticated the operation inside is, the entire compound exudes an unmistakably British character.
Approximately 4,500 employees work here, from those hand-assembling engine components to the folks stitching steering wheels. Many of them were born and raised in Crewe, and have been working at the facility for years. Indeed, there are generations of families that have been working at the company for decades. Bentley’s factory isn’t just in Crewe, it’s part of Crewe.
My journey begins with the leather. Sourced from Scandinavian cows, the hides can be color-matched with anything the customer brings to the table. Nine to 10 pieces of cowhide will go into my Continental GT, and about 70 percent of the material will be put to use. To be as efficient as possible, a computer scans an entire hide, but only after it’s been personally inspected by an expert who marks imperfections; a machine then cuts around these marks into the shapes used for assembly.
From there, it’s a short hop to stitching. While there is some computerization — for details like the quilting — everything seen in the cabin is hand-sewn. These computerized stations are dwarfed by the rows of seamstresses marrying the materials together — affixing them to seats and wrapping it around steering wheels. All told, 310,675 individual stitches and nearly two miles of thread will find its way into a Continental GT.
The “wood room” houses the material that will make up a Bentley’s veneer. Stacks of wood leafs processed from lumber sourced across the globe fill the room, from the popular Burr Walnut of Valencia to Valvona veneer — the rarest and most expensive on offer, since it’s sourced from Californian sequoias. (These trees are protected and can’t be felled, so wood can only be harvested when one falls naturally.) Craftsmen then take the decorative veneer and assemble it into a pack that is pressed, sanded, lacquered and hand-polished before assembly.
The main event is the assembly of the car itself. It takes 64 stations to assemble a Bentley Continental GT over the course of two days, with an average “tac time” of 12.6 minutes each station. On average, 55 cars a day across all model lines roll out the door; Bentley, after all, is capable of producing over 10,000 cars in a year. Each area of the factory has been carefully planned to maximize efficiency while remaining modular, which makes accommodating new models easier.
In engine assembly, an automated trackless mobile carrier shuttles an engine block through 28 stations, where each component is attached by hand. But don’t get the impression that this is a Luddite operation; the assembly workers follow a very specific procedure, using tools monitored by computers. Everywhere here, computers and engineers are working in tandem — one making sure every step gets done, and the other making sure it gets done right.
Finally, after the engine is assembled, after the body and chassis is married, after 8.1 miles of wiring is threaded throughout the car, and after every stitched, polished, and machined surface comes together — a Bentley is finally born.
Inspired By The Classics
Now that I know how vast and near limitless the customization options are, I feel spoiled for choice — so I look to Bentley’s collection of heritage vehicles. Some of the oldest surviving Bentleys are kept on display not far from the main entrance. I can’t hep but notice the S1 Continental Flying Spur, a car that informs today’s Continental GT. Nearby is a 3 1/2 liter Derby Bentley AXB 3; this elegant car was lost to history shortly after its delivery to its Scottish owner in 1934 before turning up as a literal barn find in America decades later, where a doctor restores it and then returns it to Bentley.
Bentley’s motorsport history is on display here, too. I’m stunned to be in the presence of the EXP Speed 8 — the Le Mans car that Tom Kristensen, Guy Smith and Rinaldo Capello drove to victory in 2003. This car mirrors a nearby car that is even more amazing, the 1929 Bentley “Blower” 4 1/2 liter supercharged racer. This particular example was one of a team of road racing Bentleys developed by Sir Henry Birkin that participated in races including the 1930 24 hours of Le Mans.
Incidentally, all of these vehicles are kept in running order. It warms my heart to know these can be rolled out at any time and driven as they were meant to be.
Let’s Get To Work
I’m inspired enough to finally sit down and put together my perfect Bentley, and it’s the image of the Blower that sticks with me the most. Though Bentley themselves will go on to make a limited edition GT directly honoring the “Number 9,” I want my car to be inspired by it rather than a modern interpretation.
Did you know 007 author Ian Fleming gave James Bond a Bentley in his novels? The secret agent went on to be associated with many other brands, but in the original tales, Bond was a Bentley Boy. With this in mind, I opt to configure the car in a way that honors British racing, albeit with a stealthy approach. The design specialists on hand and I pour through paint samples, leather swatches and sheets of veneer, collecting all the information — and finally sending the order in. I go home, and I wait.
Several months later, the car I designed comes stateside. It’s a Continental GT V8, the version with a bit more of a nimble character than one housing the monster W12 powerplant. The more-than-sufficient 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 produces a generous 542 horsepower to play with, routing power through an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox before sending it to all four wheels.
My stealthy tribute to Bentley’s racing heritage uses Midnight Emerald paint, a dark metallic green that almost looks black until the light hits it. This is accentuated by the Blackline specification that swaps out the chrome grille and other highlights to reduce the bling factor. 22-inch black and polished edge alloy wheels hide bright red calipers — the only pop of sharp color apart from the taillights, just as how the Union Jack on the Blower’s door does the same.
Inside, the veneer is the popular Burr Walnut, stained dark for a sportier edge. The hides inside are split between a dark gray Beluga and burnt oak. This only makes the metal hard-points of the interior stand out ever so more, particularly the Côte de Genève-machined center console. All of it is fantastic to behold.
And it still would be, had I ordered it like any other customer. But going the distance for the full Mulliner experience heightens every aspect of the car. I know who stitched the headrest, who installed the seats and who bolted together the engine. I know that though there are many Bentleys, this one is unique. Even if someone chooses to copy my spec, it still wouldn’t be the same; bespoke design is a journey, and every journey belongs to the person who embarked on it.