Where as the all-new Rolls-Royce plant was cracked open in 2002, Bentley's heavily revamped facility in Crewe started life in 1938 as a factory for building Rolls-Royce Merlin Aero engines for warplanes like the Spitfire. At my last visit here in 2000, the place pretty much still looked like it was supplying the Allied war effort to beat those dirty Axis nations.
After the $750 million that VW Group poured into upgrading the classic structure on Pyms Lane, I was having difficulty believing my eyes. Whereas before it was a noble yet stuffy and ageing place, now things are industrial-modern-habitat slick. It's still very much the legendary brick factory on the outside--spit-shined--but the conditions inside are lab-coat modern and clean like never before. Efficiency screams from every corner. What's most amazing is that pretty much all 2,200 or so people working here in 2000 are working here today along with 1,500 new colleagues. But the mood has shifted 180 degrees so far as I can see. It's a feel-good fest and it infected me as we walked around.
One thing very funny happened right at our arrival. In the olden, pre-gazillion-dollar-improvement days you could just park what you brung in front of the main entrance and stroll in. There were no cars out front now, but we felt sort of entitled to place our two rides there even if only for old time's sake. Nothing doing, Jack. Everyone at Bentley has worked so many hours separating the two brands that used to live here that Crewe in particular is sensitive to anyone getting the perception that Rolls-Royce might still be here.
They asked us to move the Phantom off the entrance way.
After just two days in the seat of these special cars, I felt they were my babies to stand up for. Basically, after I whined and pleaded enough, some phone calls were made to various time zones and we were granted special dispensation. So feast your eyes on these exclusive photos as they may never be allowed again.
Bentley has also whittled down its product range in order to focus on an entirely repositioned image. See, the Phantom VI is awesomeness itself and a worthy continuer of the Rolls-Royce tradition. It cost a lot more to polish up Bentley because more actual production at greater volumes happens in Crewe. Also, it costs much more to update an old facility to glorious modern standards in a populated area than it does building exactly what you want out in a field from scratch. Thirdly, the Rolls-Royce image is intact and has an immediate awareness that has stayed mostly consistent since 1904, but the Bentley brand needs mucho definition as it has, since after WWII, lived in the hand-me-down shadows of Rolls-Royce and quality, image and brand distinction had a spotty history.
With a current production aim of 5,000 Continental GTs and less than 1,000 all together of the recently freshened Arnage R, T and RL, Crewe is actually only at about 60% capacity. This could easily reach 10,000 units if world demand for these masterpieces increases and stays there.
Painted aluminum CGT bodies arrive ready for assembly from the VW plant in Mosel, Germany. The modified steel architecture and the lion's share of all other parts structural and mechanical come from Germany as well. But the aluminum W12 bi-turbo engines are completely assembled to Bentley spec in Crewe.
As in Chichester, Crewe has also retained its famed leather and wood shops. For Rolls-Royce, the Park Ward brand for bespoke work has faded away and been replaced with a wide selection of standard personalization choices and a bespoke program. Bentley has its own vast standard personalization selection and has retained the Bentley Mulliner name for its bespoke program currently available only with the Arnage. With legendary Connolly belly-up, all Bentley hides are now provided from Austria by Boxmark.
Stats: Around 150 Continental GT bodies from Mosel are kept in a holding area at all times; it takes on the average 150 man hours to create one CGT; the complete wood veneer and metal set for the interior of the CGT takes 14 days to make ready and the all-wood set for the Arnage 17 days. Compare all this to about 20 hours to complete an entire VW Golf V in Wolfsburg.
When the Phantom VI first bowed, Rolls-Royce kept pushing the word "wafting" to describe the drive sensation. After five days in one, maybe a coddled, passive passenger in the rear parlor seat might feel wafted, but up front I felt in charge, guiding my glorious gleaming $321,000 ship over green waves. Silently we trundle along, gently coaxing the brilliant black steering wheel.
The cush-o-rama lamb's wool floor mats from Rieter in Switzerland up front had me driving barefoot half the time. Hardly the image Rolls intends, but there you have it. In the past, chauffeurs were required to learn how to execute shifts without their blue-blooded cargo ever feeling a lurch or clunk. To aid this, the Phantom VI starts out in second gear. The six-speed ZF 6HP32 automatic transmission with this programming is like butter on a perfectly warm toasted bagel. You can press the silver button on the right of the steering wheel to use first gear and I tried it only once but it felt brash to be in such a hurry.
Torsional stiffness on this buff chassis with its massive magnesium bulkheads is incredible. We were having to make a little time on Day Two on our long way up to Crewe and I was pushing the Phantom pretty hard with lots of passing on two-lane primary A-roads. Though I could feel the car not really adoring this sort of treatment, it was thoroughly game. Had there been m'lady in the back, however, I would have been an out-of-work chauffeur. By Day Four on an easy drive into central Wales, I kept the long, leisurely Phantom at the speed limits and just enjoyed the sheer cruise of it all. Phantoms are not for overtaking in their heart of hearts. Better to be polite and have plenty of time, since comfort and aplomb should be your goals in this cozy rolling fortress.
The 22-in. wheels with 265x790 R540 A 111 W Michelin Pilot Primacy PAX run-flat tires add much to the ride quality quotient. You feel nothing, yet the car seems firmly planted. One tech trick to the wheels: the company "RR" badge in the center can turn independently of the wheel so that whenever it is still or at very low creeping speeds the company brand is upright and readable. A touch that goes a long way, especially if you're a photographer, and Bentley will apparently be introducing a similar feature soon. Even at over 19 feet in length and with this bodacious tire set, 11.7-ft wheelbase and 45.3-ft turning radius, the Phantom is very maneuverable in tight spots once the corners are located and you pay heed to the beeping fore and aft distance sensors.
This 453-bhp 6.8-liter V12 engine can haul the Phantom VI to 60 mph from a stop in just 5.7 sec.s, kids. Torque hits its 531-lb-ft peak at a sensible 3500 rpm. Hence my confident feeling during that day on which we needed to make time. The key is, however, to be able to reel in all that momentum and pull up in between passes with comfort and sometimes the help of really good brake platters. Huge ventilated discs--14.7-in. front and 14.6-in. rear--are perfectly matched to this big job. The feel at the pedal, too, is far less squish than I was expecting.
That gas mileage on this large a car is better than that possible in the Bentley Continental GT is a clear testament to direct injection. It's a cherry on the top of this beautiful sundae since it allowed me to drive up to 430 miles without pauses so long as I kept things civil.
There was only one item that turned both our noses completely the wrong way while driving the Phantom. The design and execution of the center console armrest compartments is heinously out of sync with the genius and detailing seen in the rest of the car. Its buttons are right where the elbow rests and so one or the other compartment is regularly opening by accident and the discomfort for the elbow is always annoying. Then the very cheap plastic used for this whole compartment section is frankly appalling. We were bowled over by this inconsistency in such a frequently touched and used part of the driving experience. Why not a sturdy wooden base and beefy lid with one button closer to where the fingers naturally fall? The plastic gas filler cap and rear removable ash trays (oh, yeah, we thoroughly nosed around) are also strictly worthy of a $15,000 car.
Several people have lamented the face and tail on the Ian Cameron/Marek Djordjevic exterior. First, the tail with proportionately small lights and the trunk lid falling away and tapering is part of the core Phantom design history and it didn't bother us a bit. The large trunk lid that snaps up so fast when remotely activated did raise our eyebrows, though. As for the face, I have to say that, after a few days seeing it in the Bentley rear-view, it looks just fine. The headlights could be just an iota taller, but the stately grille is good stuff. And, man, has it got a great profile.
A good quirk? The "Power Reserve %" meter at the left of the instrument binnacle cracked us up. It's there to show, in lieu of a tachometer showing you revs and the 5750-rpm redline, what percentage of power is still available to you at any time. The needle rests at 100% and moves right-to-left as you utilize a higher percentage of the power. Utterly useless and better off for it, we say. If you're driving it correctly, you won't need a rev counter anyway.Now we need a new Corniche inspired heavily by the 100EX concept car and a new smaller sedan that significantly updates the Seraph.