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To buy the perfect Bentley, call a Bentley designer

Cabin parts from the Bronze Age and seats with hundreds of thousands of stitches are just some of the wild ideas Bentley's coachbuilding division is bringing to market.

Bentley is building a new revenue stream with Mulliner, a division with 40 designers and craftsmen who bring custom requests to life.

Bentley is building a new revenue stream with Mulliner, a division with 40 designers and craftsmen who bring custom requests to life.

Crewe, England

ALL Bentleys are assembled in Crewe in northwest England, but the Continental GT is the car that built Bentley.

A strikingly fast coupe with 12 cylinders, plenty of room for four adults and exquisite cabin quality, the first Continental GT pointed the way forward for Bentley under Volkswagen ownership - namely, make'em strikingly fast, roomy and exquisite.

The latest variant has a V8 engine, and costs S$869,000 without a certificate of entitlement. It glides on air suspension to do a credible impression of a magic carpet, and its engine makes 550 horsepower sound like bubbling cream. But select the Sport driving mode and it snarls, turning the Continental GT into something more like a rocket than Aladdin's transport of choice. Having produced 11,006 cars last year, Bentley has seen its annual volume grow elevenfold since the first Continental GT burst from the factory loins in 2003.

2020 was shaping up to be a record year, thanks to a fresh product line-up and a revamped version of the Bentaya, a model that accounts for nearly half of Bentley's total sales. But the Covid-19 crisis arrived, delaying the new Bentayga and closing the factory for seven weeks.

Yet, while its core business slowly gets back on track, Bentley is building a new revenue stream with Mulliner, a division with 40 designers and craftsmen who bring custom requests to life. Want your company's crest embossed on the upholstery? It's the Mulliner crew that makes it happen.

The name has its roots in a saddlery business that started in 1559 and pivoted to building horse-drawn carriages 200 years later. Mulliner eventually crafted opulent bodies for Bentley's early cars, and was brought in-house in 1959.

In March, Bentley Mulliner signalled its return to coachbuilding with a flamboyant new machine. The Bacalar, a two-door, two-seat open car, went on sale at £1.5 million (S$2.6 million) apiece before taxes, with a production run of just 12.

The tiny volume allowed designers to show off Mulliner's most intricate abilities. The embroidery on each seat has exactly 148,199 stitches, for example. Wood for the dashboard came from a tree that fell 5,500 years ago. That means a part of the Bacalar dates back to the Bronze Age, says Darren Day, the head of interior design at Bentley.

"My favourite detail on the car is the one we didn't do," Mr Day tells The Business Times. "There's no roof."

Dispensing with a roof allowed the car's exterior panels to blend seamlessly with the interior, and with no need to accommodate a folding top, the Bacalar has a fetchingly slender rear end. "Not having a roof gave us all the freedom we could possibly have," Mr Day explains.

It also means the Bacalar is more plaything than transportation, but that hasn't put off the collectors that Bentley invited to buy the car. All 12 sold out immediately.

The Bacalar will add at least £18 million to Bentley's top line. That's only around one per cent of 2019's turnover, but custom cars tend to have much fatter margins than production models. In fact, if a customer writes a large enough cheque, Mr Day says the division could be persuaded to build them a one-off car. "The long term goal would be to rejuvenate and reinvent Mulliner, to be able to coachbuild vehicles for customers," he says.

Meanwhile, Mulliner is revving up on other projects. Its team acts as Bentley's classic car division, reproducing or restoring significant models from the brand's past. It also creates Mulliner Collection cars, which are tastefully designed editions of current Bentleys, limited to no more than 10 per cent of production volume.

One reason Mulliner's designers put their own stamp on Bentley's cars is because customers are often bewildered by a practically limitless array of options. To help, Bentley is rolling out a service it calls Co-Creation. It lets buyers sit down with a designer who actually had a hand in shaping a current Bentley, so that they can customise a car together.

Customers sometimes travel to Crewe to collaborate with their Co-Creation designer in person, and they're encouraged to be as painstaking as they want; one such buyer took two years to get his car just right.

Co-Creation isn't yet available in Singapore, which lags the rest of the world in terms of customisation. Only around 30 per cent of Bentley buyers here choose special options, compared to 50 per cent globally. That could change once Bentley executes a plan to put the service on a digital platform. Your next Bentley will be made in Crewe, but the company would prefer it if you were one of its creators.

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