In the Pursuit of Excellence, Even now Time has Little Meaning
Britain has long been regarded as home to a dying concept – something that is still revered in this, the 21st century; our ultra Hi-Def, autonomous, digital and hands-free world – craftsmanship
Article by Marc Stickley Photography by Andy Barnham
In the last few weeks I have been privileged to see how prime examples of this breed, pinnacles of their profession, are thriving at two of Britain’s oldest car manufacturers in two similar but different ways. The first, a trip to Morgan, that enclave of Britain’s automotive glory years and the second, bang up to date, producing on a much larger scale, was Bentley.
To reach Morgan’s factory, you must first penetrate the camouflage of a sleepy British town – Malvern. Driving through these streets, surrounded by rows of shops, terraced housing and the usual accompanying scenes, you initially miss the factory entrance – unobtrusively tucked at the side of the road, disguised as a turn of the 20th century brick shed complex. Once I’d turned around and driven through the gateway, it became clear that nestling in this brick and corrugated metal roofed site is something that borders on mythological. For here, in Malvern, is where Morgan has been producing versions of the same car since 1940 and some of those cars can trace a firm lineage back to 1909 – Morgan were one of the founding automobile manufacturers and are today the only family owned British manufacturer left.
The Classic range of sports cars and the recently revived 3 Wheeler are pretty much the same design as have been produced for the last 80 years, so slightly outdate this facility. It’s clear though when you tour the site that craftmanship and tradition sit side-by-side with modern techniques and engineering practices. The ‘Classic’ family utilise the latest Ford 4 and 6 cylinder powerplants in the 4/4, the Plus 4 and the Roadster, while the Plus 8 and the Aero range borrow their 4.8 litre V8 from those kind folk at the Bayern Motor Werks – yes, BMW donate the powerplant to these modern classics. So whilst the Morgan Classics look as if they fell off the back of the props lorry for a reboot of a WW2 RAF film, they go like they fell from a lot higher…
The 3 Wheeler is a similar story. Withdrawn from sale in the 1950s, the 3 Wheeler was re-introduced in 2011, following demand from overseas. It became a hit. This unconventional design by today’s standards was conceived when motorising a pushbike and then adding some comfort and stability evaded a number of tax brackets and gave a cheap, fun package. Today, the 3 Wheeler combines a modern Vee-Twin powerplant from US producer S&S (more normally residing in motorcycles – think Harley-esque cruisers) with a 5 speed gearbox from an MX-5 to give a little extra zest to this crazy looking car. In fact, in production, without the wheels and trim, these vehicles look like a bath tub…
The Morgan 4/4 was first designed in 1936, with a classic sports car stance – two seats, open top and fairings to cover the wheels and headlights. Later came the more powerful Plus 4 and then the Roadster (with a V6) and the Plus 8 (funnily enough, packing a V8, originally the venerable Rover 3.5). In 2000 a modern twist on the Classic’s design was showcased and received such interest that the Aero range was born. This saw the open fairings and lights sculpted into the bodywork to give a smoother skin – but underneath the old traditions were still present – ash frames on a metal chassis.
Traditional manufacturing techniques, honed throughout the evolution of motoring are employed at Morgan – leather, wood, metalwork. Where necessary, or simply better, modern technology and techniques are paired with those traditional methods to create unique motor cars. If you’ve never seen someone manipulating metal by hand to create exactly the right curve, or cut-out and panels of the right fit – at times by eye alone – then you would marvel at the metalwork shop at Morgan. As the component parts roll down the hill through subsequent sections of the complex, more and more detail is added, until the bare skeleton in wood and metal is ready to accept the finishing touches – leather for seats and trim, wood for dashboard veneer and other trimming, all added by teams of specialists before the body itself is painted. There are leather trimmers, sewers, polishers, adhesives experts – all brought together to create an iconic vehicle. If you looked upon the separate departments in isolation, you might mistake them for furniture upholsterers or French polishers, musical instrument repairers or watch makers. Which of course, in a way they are – these crafts are deployed in unison to a grander totale. The details are numerous and immense. Your average Morgan customer may well have dreamed of their car for decades, so personalisation is a must. Any combination of leather, stitch colour, wood or other veneer material can be provided, no matter what the combination might look like. That mix, together with the car’s paint scheme, ensures each will be one of a kind.
So, workmanship, craftsmanship, engineering all combined in what feels a lot like a glorified backroom workshop – a throwback to yesteryear – when people built cars, assembling components, using hand tools and mechanisation only where necessary. That is Morgan’s USP – a dinosaur that is yet prepared to evolve, to augment the crafts and techniques of yesteryear with the high-tech of today to uplift and drive forward an exemplary product.
Bentley. In motoring terms, quite an evocative name. Of course, the crews at Crewe have been employing similar methods to Malvern’s Morgan for almost as long, creating vehicles with a similar ethos – performance and luxury at their hearts. But in recent history, Bentleys have stood for more than simply as a symbol of gentlemanly leisure apparatus – the Bentley boys of today don’t enter themselves into Trans-Continental road races, or double up as secret agents (remember James Bond had a Bentley Blower in Fleming’s novels). Bentleys have become grand tourers and limousines, the partnership with Rolls Royce for many years diluting brand originality. That originality was wrenched back in the ownership split, with Rolls Royce now part of the BMW empire and Bentley under the VW stable – but able to very much be their own brand.
With such a prestigious benefactor – at the forefront of mass production and selling vehicles for all – how has Bentley remained a true luxury producer? By evolving and intelligently employing modern techniques to sit alongside the craftsmanship expected in the luxury market. In isolation, the techniques at Bentley would be instantly recognised in the Morgan workshops to the South West, but they are evident on a much different scale. For where Morgan is producing a few thousand cars a year, Bentley clicked over the 10,000 marker this year for the first time in its history. The new big seller will be the Bentayga – the Ultimate SUV – originally earmarked for 3,000 units in the first year of production, but already with 5,000 orders to complete, the production methods at Bentley needed to be reviewed. It wasn’t a given that Crewe would win the bid to manufacture the Bentayga; in fact they faced stiff competition from another VW group plant at Bratislava. By reviewing the processes already in use, refining some, adding others and still maintaining traditional luxury craftsmanship, Bentley won the competition and is expanding the production footprint.
And what craft techniques – in the wood veneer section, the incredibly precise methods of layering paper thin slices of wood to veneer backing packs, that are then applied to the structural components of the car to create what looks like a coffee table insert mounted on a dashboard. The processes needed to be refined – the complex and staged technique of layering, aligning, gluing and pressure treating, all precede polishing, buffing, lacquering and more polishing. Those steps take time, lots of time. So robots have been bought in to assist and augment – not replace – to do the repetitive actions that can be automated whilst maintaining quality. The production line has been tweaked and reordered. That’s just the veneer processes – the leather line takes mostly Spanish bull hides (bulls are bigger – providing more usable leather) and takes them through a rigid inspection process to leave only the finest leather. The hides, marked in a variety of coloured chalks to highlight imperfections, creases and useable areas that shouldn’t be on visual display (so can be on the underside of seats, or behind panels) are reminiscent of cloth at a tailor’s. Each Bentayga takes at least 14 hides – more than other Bentley models, but the techniques are the same.
Bentley bucks the trend for a motor manufacturer – they are first tier suppliers to themselves and 80 per cent of the manufacturing process is sub-assembly, the remainder production. For most, it is 20 per cent, with component parts being delivered pre-assembled, then combined into the finished vehicle. This disparity to the segmented norm enables Bentley to control quality and ensure the highest standards are maintained. There is great importance placed on the materials and the people – wood for veneer is sourced worldwide, the hides for the leather components the same. Crafts are trained at Bentley, with 42 new apprentices recently taken on for a three and a half year tenure, learning the required skills to take their place on the Bentley line. This is ensuring the skills and quality will be maintained and carried forward – preserving the heritage and traditions of craftsmanship expected of such an exclusive brand. At the Crewe factory, high volume robotised production meets hand-crafted techniques to provide the same exacting standards as ever at Bentley, but on a larger scale.
This is how Bentley are spreading in the luxury segment worldwide – not by sacrificing quality to create volume, but by utilising technology and modern techniques to enhance the traditional crafts of yesteryear. The attention to detail is mind boggling and properly held my attention for the whole factory tour – I wanted to see more, to learn the next secret. Hell, if it weren’t for the extended commute, I’d have taken an apprenticeship if it were offered.
So these two quintessentially British manufacturers manage to produce truly special cars, employing craft techniques seen since the dawn of the automobile – wood, leather, hand-beating panels. The cars don’t need that level of detail. Similar results could probably be churned out by machines and installed a bit faster. But the Best of British choose to work in the old ways and the sublime results are worth the wait.