Bentley über Alles

by Michael Wynn-Williams. Used by permission.

There is a corner of Crewe that is forever England. An odd thing to say one might think, considering that the entire town is within the very English county of Cheshire. However, it is in this uninspiring little town that we find one of the ghosts of Britain’ glorious industrial past. Gathered here is a humble collection of workshops behind a respectable brick façade. From these gates used to emerge the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that powered the Spitfire. It later became the home of those two most aristocratic of marques, Rolls-Royce and Bentley.

Sadly, the noble bloodline has been tragically diluted. This quiet corner of England is technically in the ownership of the Germans, namely Volkswagen-Audi Group. The company that produced Adolf Hitler’s personally anointed vehicle has owned Bentley Motors since 1998. The Nazis planned to put the German people on wheels and give them ‘strength through joy’. With a little help from the factory at Crewe we put a stop to the Nazis but now their progeny has taken revenge. Another nail in the coffin of British industry, and the hammer is made in Germany.

Perhaps someone should let them know at Bentley. An injection of £500 million has transformed the firm from a factory crafting high velocity leather armchairs into a centre of technological excellence. From the carpentry shop and beyond there has been a comprehensive reinvigoration of the traditional processes. History itself seems to be one of the first casualties of this new vitality. Despite the fact that this has always been a Rolls-Royce production facility, Henry Royce has been airbrushed from Crewe history along with the departure of Rolls-Royce Motors to BMW. The only authentic claim Bentley has on the building is that in 1946 the first complete car the company made sported the famous winged-B. That said, the vast majority of the cars wore Rolls-Royce badges, and W. O. Bentley himself had been squeezed out of the company some ten years before. Even so, VW asks us to believe that it is his spirit that pervades the fabric of the factory, a place he would only have known as a visitor. It all seems to be a cynical exercise in commercial pillage, a great British institution hollowed out and filled with foreign raiders. This is Wimbledonisation, a British venue but a foreign show. 

Yet there does seem to be a sense of enchantment enfolding this unremarkable collection of ageing workshops. If it is not the spirit of W. O. then perhaps it is the ghost of British industry past. Or it might be the ghost of British industry yet to come. Despite the vast sums that VW have spent the one thing they can never buy is Bentley’s soul. We should not allow ourselves to become too sentimental here but a little is appropriate when discussing cars like these. These are not simple modes of transport, more juggernauts of fantasy. This is the car of your dreams, the same dream where you keep a plush apartment in Belgravia, have your groceries delivered by Harrods and your own table at The Ivy. The reality is that you have a perfectly decent house in Basingstoke, Tesco’s usually deliver reliably, a curry is a treat, and your Toyota is really jolly nice.  That, though, is not really the point.

VW is buying into the same fantasy, but they have to underpin it with commercial realities. For example, the basic platform of the new Continental GT is based on VW’s own Phaeton saloon. The engine is developed from VW’s sophisticated W12 unit. Furthermore, VW must maintain the physical aspect of the Bentley fantasy, purveyors of fine British motor cars, and so everything you see, hear or touch has to whisper ‘Bentley’. The customers are far too sophisticated, or obsessed, to be fobbed off with something made in Germany and then given a quick polish in the showroom at Crewe. The customer needs to know that the car is designed and made in Britain. Yes, the engines are made in Germany but modified to a Bentley design. Yes, the bodies are shipped in from a German factory, but all the craftsmanship is done right here, from the hand-stitched leather to the deeply polished walnut dashboard. To do this any other way would be to wake us from the dream, and cars like this have no place in the real world. 

The one reality that does worm its way into our dream is that we are well aware that the German owners are succeeding where we Brits have failed. We should not be so hard on ourselves. With all the regulations and technological advances that manufacturers have to deal with these days it would be impossible for a company like Bentley to stand alone. By piggy-backing on the resources of VW it allows massive industrial scale abroad to do the donkey work while all Bentley has to do is sprinkle a little fairy dust on what it selects to use. Better still, it can extract advantageous terms from component suppliers who are more concerned with making a favourable impression on the main VW group. In a curious redistribution of wealth, this means that VW Polo customers are subsidising Bentley customers.

If this sounds like we should be grovelling in thanks to VW then prepare to stand up boldly and look them in the eye. Bentley is not simply surviving on charity, in fact it has got VW right where it wants it. While we have five hundred million reasons to be grateful, this sum is a relatively small outlay for a giant such as VW. In return they receive a trickle of profits and a chance to polish up the company halo. As long as these conditions are satisfied then there is no real reason for VW to interfere with the British brand. Indeed, there is not much interfering they could do. If VW run into trouble with one of their main products, as they are now with the Golf V, they could only save peanuts by cutting costs at Bentley. The British car may have a sophisticated engine and an advanced platform, but these are based on continuing VW projects that they are unlikely to ever shut down. In other words, as long as VW continues to make Audis, and it must because that is where it now makes its profits, then Bentley will be an affordable and charming off-shoot. Of course, it is possible that Bentley could simply be sold off but since the basic engineering is dependent on VW the Bentley brand and factory would be worth comparatively little. The Rolls-Royce brand was sold for £55 million and the Bentley name is probably worth the same without VW. The real cost for the new owner would be in engineering a whole new range of cars. If VW could not make this work, few others would be prepared to take on the challenge. Looks like Volkswagen is stuck with Bentley.

So what we are left with is a grand old British company revitalised with foreign money and hardware, breathing life into a collection of components. As long as Bentley do not get involved in anything silly, like a luxury people carrier, and they continue to make a respectable profit, then they are safe from outside interference. It would be nice to think that this could be applied to other British firms, and indeed it can if they are in the same high-status, low-cost situation. This means that we do not need to fret over such nostalgic names as Rolls-Royce, or dread the day that Morgan should fall from our clutches. We should welcome strangers bearing gifts, because there are some things that money just cannot buy.

Copyright © 2003-2005 Michael Wynn-Williams.