"We make armoured motor cars, not cars that have been armoured," says Trevor Gay, sales manager of Bentley Mulliner.
It is a key difference. Many other armour-plated vehicles have armour added to a standard vehicle. This makes them needlessly heavy, often makes them look awkward, and affects the quality of the engineering and durability.
Bentley Mulliner builds much of the armour plating and energy absorbent materials into the body at the initial production stage. The suspension, brakes, traction control/stability programme are also specially designed to match the armoured body shell. As a consequence, the whole vehicle is more durable than an after-market conversion, with better performance, road behaviour and durability. The cars also look absolutely normal, as opposed to being overweight and bloated.
As with all Bentley Mulliner clients, those buying protected vehicles can have their cars personalised. This includes the fitment of personal safety options, including an oxygen supply system and exploding door hinge bolts that blast open doors allowing a quick exit. Driver and chauffeur training are also offered.
Bentley Mulliner armoured limousines are engineered to the very high 'B6' or VR6 world standard. This dictates that the car offers ballistic protection when fired on by a NATO 7.62mm self-loading rifle or Kalashnikov AK47. It also offers blast protection from two DM51 hand grenades detonating simultaneously above the roof, and the same grenades detonating simultaneously 150mm below the floor.
The protected limousines are all offered in 250mm, 450mm and 728mm extended wheelbase guises, and can be individually tailored to the owner's choice.
For full B6 protection, the typical cost is £200 - £300,000 on top of the normal car - but this depends on the degree of interior personalisation.
The Mulliner Experience
All Bentley Mulliner customers order their vehicles through Bentley dealerships, but are encouraged to come to the Mulliner workshop in Crewe to specify their vehicles. There, as they chat to sales staff over a coffee, they can choose one of the 34 Bentley colours, or specify their own. "We have certainly had more than one princess who has given us a sample of their favourite nail polish and asked us to match it to the colour of their new car," says sales manager Trevor Gay.
Hide samples, different woods and carpets are also demonstrated, as are Bentley Mulliner's portfolio of fitted options.
"Most European customers do end up coming to Crewe, to specify their cars," says Trevor Gay. "We not only take them into the Mulliner showroom to demonstrate what's available and see examples of recent cars we have made, but go into the workshops to see our craftsmen at work. Watching our cabinet makers manufacture a folding table or a drinks cabinet is to see someone demonstrating an increasingly rare skill. In fact, you won't see it anywhere else, outside of the top-end furniture makers. It's the same with metal fabrication or any other Mulliner function. It's a dying art elsewhere - but one that is preserved and blossoming at Bentley Mulliner."
Customers get the chance to meet and talk to the craftsmen who will make their car, and are also encouraged to return to see their actual vehicle being hand-assembled. At any one time, about 20 cars are undergoing bespoke modifications in the workshop.
Those customers who can't come to Crewe are visited by a Mulliner representative in their home market. "Sometimes it takes a customer 10 minutes to finalise their order," says Trevor Gay. "And sometimes it takes four years."
Mulliner services clients around the world. In 2002, the USA is expected to be the biggest single market (30.1%), followed by Continental Europe (28.9%), Asia Pacific (11.7%) and the UK and Middle East (equal on 10.5%). China has been a particularly strong market in 2002, following the display of a Bentley Extended Limousine at this year's Beijing Motor Show.
Bentley's pre-eminence in the field of hand-made cars is partly due to the company's small production volumes. Says John Killick, director of Bentley Mulliner: "This small volume gives us a natural flexibility. Also, the motor industry's natural instinct is to do the exact opposite: to build as many cars as possible with as few variations as possible. That is old-fashioned mass production common sense. But we don't work by these rules."
Adds Trevor Gay, Bentley Mulliner sales manager: "We're good at hand crafted cars because these skills are so long-standing at Bentley. We have people with years of experience in wood, leather and metal. Many have been working at Crewe for 30 years, or more. But we also have a vibrant apprentice programme to bring on young people. These young people have a great aptitude in modern electronics. They also understand where to source, and how to specify, the very latest in visual and audio entertainment and in office equipment. It is a marvellous mix of old and new skills, and it's what makes the service at Bentley Mulliner so very special."Published 5 December 2002