It’s all change at Crewe – and I’m not referring to the railway station. Rather, it’s at Bentley Motors in Crewe, where the buzz – both in the offices and on the shop floor – is palpable. By Martin Derrick

Part of the excitement is undoubtedly due to the forthcoming Mid-Sized Bentley (MSB as it’s known in-house); but just as much it comes as a direct result of Volkswagen‘s takeover of the business and its subsequent massive investment in the marque.

It’s strange now to remember the furore that erupted when Vickers sold Rolls-Royce and Bentley to VW in 1998. Not only was there the ludicrous circus of various gung-ho shareholders determined to keep Rolls-Royce and Bentley British at all costs; but then there was the even more unedifying spectacle of Rolls-Royce plc selling the rights to the Rolls-Royce marque to BMW, who take over full responsibility for that side of the business in 2003.

Out of this mess there is little doubt that Bentley is now not only in good hands, but also in good shape for the future. As MSB designer Simon Loasby told me when I visited recently: “Volkswagen have done exactly as they promised: Provided the investment we needed to create new models; supplied the expertise and strength of a massive group when help is needed; and they have left us alone at other times to develop the business and to develop the new model ranges because, above all, Volkswagen understands the value of brands and how to maintain their value.”

VW bought Rolls-Royce and Bentley in 1998 – and there is little doubt that the company is in good hands

Volkswagen have done exactly as they promised: Provided the investment we needed to create new models

As to MSB, he’s not dropping any hints other than to say that the design team kept four ‘bloodline’ cars in mind when penning the new range: The 1929 Blue Train car that Woolf Barnato raced from Cannes in the South of France to Calais against the famous Train Bleu; the 1937 flamboyant Embiricos private Le Mans entry of 1937; the 1952 R Type Continental; and the 1991 Continental R.

In hyperbolic mood, Loasby said: “They are all animal, muscular, poised, predatory and competitive cars. MSB will be the same. It will have the presence and muscularity of a tiger and the balance of a thoroughbred race horse.” The only concrete fact I gleaned is that MSB will have Bentley’s trademark face of a distinct radiator grille and four circular headlights “from which the rest of the car is extruded”. Make of that what you will! VW’s £500m investment programme involves a five-year research and development programme to develop this new family of cars that will boost Bentley production from 1,500 to 9,000 units a year.

A little over two years on, the Bentley operation has already made startling progress. The results of applying the latest lean-manufacture philosophy, just one example of change, are readily apparent to visitors to the plant. There has been a series of major investments in facilities at Crewe alone, aimed at increasing the factory’s manufacturing and build flexibility, comprising a £3m engineering and test facility and completion of phase two of a £1.5m design centre. In addition new wood and chrome shops are being built at a cost of £13.3m with a further £56m being invested in plant and equipment for the assembly of the new MSB. The new body assembly and wood areas, paint processes, flexible assembly system and state-of-the-art test facilities are just some of the tangible achievements already on view.

Bentley took on more than 400 extra staff in the first half of 2000, a figure expected to rise to 1,000 over the next few years. New dealers have been appointed and more are expected to be added to the worldwide network. “The future has never looked brighter for Bentley Motors,” says chief executive Tony Gott.

Chief executive Tony Gott:
“The future’s
never looked

Interestingly, as a result of VW’s influence, Bentley is moving into the 21st century in appropriate areas of the business – the IT system has been radically upgraded and there’s even a robot on the shop floor. Just the one, which applies adhesive to the front and rear windscreens of four-door cars as they go down the assembly line; but it’s an indication of the way things are inevitably moving.

However, no amount of modern technology can displace the need for craftsmen and women when building cars like today’s Bentley Arnage and Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of a visit to the assembly floor is how many staff are involved in working the leather, carpets and wood; I couldn’t get specific numbers but my guess is that a full two thirds of the workforce are involved in trim, while just a third are involved in what you might call traditional car assembling activities.

Bentley is moving into the 21st century in appropriate areas of the business

Which raises a question about BMW’s plans for Roll-Royce. It hopes to get planning permission for a new assembly plant at Goodwood, a location which will imbue it with the right sort of associations for a British marque. But will the area be able to provide enough skilled craftsmen and women to create the sort of cars the top echelons of the market demand? BMW reckons the nearby South Coast yacht-building industry will provide a pool of the right sort of people, but I wonder whether this is any more than wishful thinking.

Last word at Bentley goes to Hans-Joachim Rothenpeiler, VW-appointed board member responsible for engineering, who has no doubts at all about the future. “Of course it is a major challenge for us all to bring the MSB out on time and to increase production from 1,500 to 9,000,” he told me. But Herr Rothenpeiler is not afraid of severe challenges. He was sent to Skoda five years ago, briefed to double production of a brand that was regarded as a joke in most European markets.

“We achieved the target,” he said, then laughed as he compared and contrasted that task with his present responsibilities. “At Skoda, we had to control costs at every step of the way. Everything we did and every component we sourced had to be at the lowest possible unit cost. Our job then was to mass-produce cars for the bottom end of the market. Now, at Bentley…this is a different challenge.”

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

The world’s car manufacturers: A financial and operating review

Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars Corporate Profile