Meet the skilled craftsmen who create Bentley interiors

EDGAR met with the superstar team to learn more about their thriving craft.

Robert Chilton May 8, 2017

David Maddock,and Noel Thompson have together worked at Bentley's HQ at Pyms Lane facility for almost 100 years. Is it a difficult job? “There are so many headaches,” Dave chuckles. “The car designers are always challenging us. In old Bentleys the wood veneer was put onto flat pieces, but with more and more exotic shapes inside the cars today, it becomes more difficult for us. It can be a long-winded process.”

EDGAR is meeting David and his colleague Noel in Bentley’s showroom in Dubai. Numerous, paper-thin sheets of wood are scattered around their temporary work benches. Walnut and oak are the most popular types of wood requested by customers and deliveries to Crewe depend on the time of year and availability. 

American oak is favoured, explains David because “British oak tends to grow not so straight, it twists.” Other types are chestnut, Canadian maple, liquid amber, varona US redwood, and the wonderfully-named smoked fiddle back eucalyptus.

Acquiring the wood is not a simple process. Once a walnut tree stops flowering after about 80 years of growth, it is cut down by Bentley’s veneer supplier and boiled for three weeks. The wood is sliced into leaves 1mm thick, which are bought by Bentley who sand them down to 0.6mm. “Buying the wood can be a long negotiation process,” says David. “We’ve had guys thrown out of veneer houses because of disagreements on price and quality.” 

The sheets, or leaves, are approximately A4 size and about 24 are needed for one car. The veneer is put under hot and cold tests in a lab for one month to see how it behaves. None of the veneer is bleached or stained.

David beckons us over to a gleaming Bentley on the showroom floor in Dubai, and opens the door of a car, He points to a very fine line in one piece of veneer. “We match the substrate on the inside of the driver’s and passenger’s door so that the joins are in exactly the same position,” he says proudly. “The car owner would never notice that – but we do. That kind of detail is important to us.”

Family business

Bentley runs in the family of Noel Thompson, whose association with Bentley stretches back to World War II. His grandmother worked in the Crewe factory when it was making Merlin engines for Spitfire planes and Lancaster Bombers. Noel’s father was also an employee, painting cars for 36 years. 

When Noel started his apprenticeship with Bentley in the late 1960s, its founder W.O. Bentley was still alive. Now aged 64, Noel has served 48 years at the car maker and has the job title of coach trimmer. “I started on September 1, 1969, so I’m older than some of the car designs,” he laughs.

Most of his days are spent on the GT Flying Spur and training the apprentices. “We have one guy who used to be in the Marines,” he says. “I said to him that working at Bentley must be a pretty boring job in comparison to what he was doing in the army, but he said, ‘No way, this is fascinating’.”

The leather used in the interiors comes from Arzignano, east of Milan, in northern Italy. Cows in northern Europe are preferred, Noel explains, because they get fewer insect bites, which means fewer blemishes on the leather. The leather is beaten to make it thinner, from 1.4mm to one tenth of a millimetre. One hide is about 50 square feet – a Mulsanne uses about 18 hides; Bentley’s Bentayga SUV requires only about 15. 

Noel is a big chap with large hands but watching him get to work on a steering wheel with two sewing needles simultaneously is mesmerising as his nimble hands swiftly move the coloured acrylic thread through the leather. 

It takes Noel about four hours to cover and stitch a steering wheel. A $150,000 machine stretches the leather tightly over the steering wheel. “The leather is deliberately cut to be undersized so we’re left with a 2mm gap between the pieces,” Noel says. “You don’t want the leather to overlap. The stitching does the rest.”

Noel’s 48 years of experience means he can stitch a steering wheel in about 50 minutes using two needles. “Most of the other guys go around the steering wheel with one needle, and then turn around and go the other way with another needle. I use two needles at the same time because that’s what I learnt years ago.” All the stitching is done by hand apart from the final line at 6 o’clock on the wheel, which is done by a machine because it’s so tight and difficult to push the needle through.

Among Noel’s tools laid out on his workbench is a plain old dinner fork. Is that from his lunch? “We press the prongs of the fork onto the leather to mark where the needles go through,” he says with a straight face. You’re kidding? “No, really,” he insists. “A fork is the perfect tool because the prongs make holes with the same spacing every time. We made a special Bentley for the Queen once and she came to the workshop. She saw the fork and asked me about it so I told her what I used it for. But I joked that, for her Bentley, I used a solid silver fork, and she smiled.” 

Customers can come to the factory in England and stitch the last centimetre of the steering wheel on their car. “Sometimes we get requests from people to stitch “I love my Bentley” on the inside of the steering wheel so that only they know it’s there,” Noel smiles. “I remember a customer who wanted to match the leather interior of her Bentley with her favourite nail polish.” He’s seen it all in 48 years.