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The Bespoke Man: Bentley Mulliner

Bentley’s bespoke coachbuilding division, Mulliner, offers its clientele a world of luxury unlike almost anything else available in motoring. Ben Winstanley speaks to its director, Paul Williams, to find out more

Bentley Mulliner Bacalar – bespoke car from Bentley's Mulliner coachbuilding division

When it comes to buying bespoke, the devil is in the details. Whether it’s a carefully selected Italian cloth for your hand-stitched suit, or a one-of-a-kind fragrance concocted by your favourite perfumery, the joy of this growing section of the luxury market is the sometimes imperceptible flourishes that transform something from good into genuine greatness.

Just take a look at the Bentley Mulliner Bacalar. OK, ‘imperceptible’ might be the wrong word for a £1.5m, 200mph+ beast of British motoring prestige, but the fact of the matter is the secret to this car’s eye-watering price tag isn’t as obvious as its flashy looks or automotive excellence; it’s in the world of possibilities it opens up for its clientele.

Launched in 2020 as the flagship model for its coachbuilding division Mulliner, the Bacalar offers Bentley’s most wealthy and elite customers an opportunity to jump in the booth with the in-house team of craftsmen and create a car to their exact specification.

This isn’t about buying a car, it’s about creating a car to call your own. Want the colour to match your favourite watch? You’ve got it. In love with that rich mahogany desk you’ve been working from home on? We can get the veneers to match in the interior, sir. Want a personalised doggy chair for your precious pomeranian Killer? Consider it done.

Mulliner takes the smattering of options available from the customisation pages on its standard Bentley cars and multiplies it by a factor of a hundred; the only limit, really, is your imagination. For example, the paint job on the Bacalar is called Yellow Flame. I don’t need to tell you it didn’t come from your local Farrow & Ball colour chart: its incredibly metallic aesthetic doesn’t come from flecks of glitter, but ash from rice husks that create a 90 percent pure silicon-dioxide pigment platelet. (I don’t entirely understand it, either – but it looks amazing in the flesh.) Likewise, the wood veneer on the interior comes from hulking slabs of Riverwood, estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, while the quilted seats are kitted out in tweed and wool, and feature exactly 148,199 stitches across the pair of them.

There are three strings to the Mulliner bow: Coachbuilt, Classic, and Collections. The former encompasses cars like the Bacalar; the Bentley Blower Continuation series and other recreations are filed under the Classic arm; and the final segment sees Mulliner produce limited-edition takes on Bentley’s existing line-up of models, like the Continental GT Mulliner Convertible.

This is Bentley at its best. As you’ll learn from the director of Mulliner, Paul Williams, this division of the prestigious British car manufacturer walks a tightrope between engineering wizardry and artisanal craftsmanship to create its masterpieces. Buckle up, and enjoy the drive…

“We’re proud of the fact that Bentley was 100 years old last year – we made a big thing of our centenary – but Mulliner as a sub-brand is 261 years old. The actual Mulliner coach building company was formed back in the 1760s, so it has a much longer history than Bentley itself. (Ed: HJ Mulliner & Co was formed in 1897 from a continuing branch of a family business founded in the 1760s.)

In fact, you can actually trace that Mulliner name as saddlers or carriers back even before that as early as 1559, but the real association with Bentley directly began in 1923. In those days, the motor manufacturer produced a rolling chassis and the coachbuilder produced the body and the interior to go on top of that. H J Mulliner was doing the large portion of Bentleys – and some of the most beautiful ones at that – the R-Type Continental the classic example. That car is actually sitting in a beautiful glass case at the entrance to Bentley’s HQ at the moment. It’s a lovely sight to pass on the way into work every morning.

In the early days of carriages and cars, uniqueness was what people wanted. This Henry Ford thing where “You can get any colour you want as long as it’s black” wasn’t the founding principle of coachbuilding; it was quite the opposite. Mass manufacture has made the principle of cars being the same something that societies became used to but, particularly in the higher-echelon of customers, there is a very strong desire for personalisation.

You talk about why people buy Bentleys or why they might buy something else: for me, it is around personality; you choose a vehicle particularly that reflects your personality. You know, if you buy a Lamborghini, you’re in that out-there category where you want all that aggressiveness and the extreme feeling of driving a Lamborghini, whereas a Bentley is about that classic slightly reserved aesthetic, but still something that’s beautiful, something that’s extraordinary.

What we are seeing more of is that people want that next step of extraordinary. There is a desire for some of our customers to do something just a little bit special. The demand is ever increasing.

Owning a Mulliner brings you closer to Bentley on a personal level – it's a creative process

It’s a little bit like turning up at a party and you’re wearing the same clothes as someone else – for our most esteemed clients, they want something unique to them. But, more than that, owning a Mulliner brings you closer to Bentley on a personal level. It’s more than just ticking options on a list; it’s a creative process. If you take it up to the level of the Bacalar, for example, then you get even closer to this.

We talk to our Mulliner customers one-to-one, we spend lots of time with them deciding exactly on the finishes and the particular aspects of each car. You really get to become part of the Bentley family in a way that is quite rare when you choose to have a car personalised to this level. I think people desire that human contact – I’m not going on an online configurator and ticking some boxes and your car arrives six months later; it’s around a personal human interface and having something done which takes hard work and engineering specific solutions for you. That’s what is special to people.

You’re not just the client of the producer of that product, you are very much the catalyst that spurs Bentley’s team of craftspeople into action. Customers for these types of cars love to come in and see some of that process themselves. I think without exception, they will be at the Mulliner factory at some point in the creation of their car to be part of that journey – they want to touch it and feel it, and meet the people who are working on their car. It’s an interactive experience. It’s a process they enjoy and interact with. They’ve bought into a concept and they get what’s more artwork than a car at the end of it.

The typical Mulliner customer is not simply a wealthy individual looking for their latest toy, because it’s not just about the prestige of owning a Mulliner. Of course, there’s always exceptions but overwhelmingly 90-something percent of our clientele tend to be more reserved, and they’re buying something which is incredibly personal.

The cost is not the point, the point is that it’s something which is not only unique, but an exciting experience. Time is very precious to these people and so you want to put your time and use your money to create something beautiful, to enjoy that luxury experience. We recognise, we’re not really selling cars here, we’re selling experiences, we’re selling a brand connection, and we’re selling art.

Bentley Mulliner Blower

How does the Mulliner experience begin? The first thing to note is, in the world of a car like Bacalar, you don’t just step through the door. You don’t pitch up on a weekend like your average dealership. Quite often the first meeting will be in the person’s own home or in their office or in a restaurant somewhere. That’s where we have that initial discussion about a concept and a dream.

With cars like the Bacalar, we will start interfacing with customers, when the car is still a concept. It’s born out of a customer’s desire when somebody says to us, “I would love to have something like this.” Those are the best ones because you then can work in that co-creation process with the customer. These tend to be people who are already close to us, who have a personal relationship with Bentley, and they approach us saying, “Look, we’re considering doing something like this. What do you think?” The process starts there and then we mature the concept, we think about what we know we can do in terms of materials and processes and the uniqueness of these types of cars.

Customers will buy into that concept and put their name on one of these cars long before we’ve even had something physical to look at, some of the early models we might do or CAD design. So they’re engaged already at a very early point in the process.

The process of coachbuilding is quite fascinating today compared to what it used to be, even when I started at Bentley. It’s a balancing act between the engineering aspects and the craftsmanship elements. As you get into the specialism of modern cars, what you have to do is you have to have specialist engineers and specialist craftsmen, and you’ve got to find a way to have these people working as one. The benefits we get nowadays with these types of cars is that you can combine that hand-built, hand-finished approach together with some very good modern techniques.

Things like rapid prototyping: nowadays, you can do a lot of components with high materials very quickly, which means we can make in very refined ways, exactly what the customer might want, or exactly the type of component that you couldn’t do if you were trying to mass-produce it. The flexibility we get in making pieces stronger, more lightweight, and very unique that standard tooling can’t achieve.

Coachbuilding is a careful balancing act between fine engineering and craftsmanship

For example, on the Bacalar, one of the things that makes that car look so good is, if you look closely, you see the whole front right around the side of the car is all one piece – you could not produce that normally because you couldn’t get everything to line up. So what we do to achieve that is we use a combination of CAD processors, modern carbon-fibre manufacturer, and then we have a process which then hand-finishes those parts along all the joint lines.

Some of the parts are specifically designed to be a little bit bigger and then the hand-finishing coachbuilding process we then absolutely match and profile everything together. What is completely impossible in a normal even a Bentley-type production environment you can achieve in the Mulliner division. Your ability to create something with even more visual appeal and even more uniqueness is enhanced by being able to → → use these specific hand-built processes. The downside of course is that every single car takes months and months to complete. You can’t walk in and say “I want that one,” and then have one tomorrow. You have to be patient if you want to be in this world.

There’s some crazy stuff that we’ve been asked to do in the past. I think some of the most interesting ones you find are around colours and materials. One of my favourite ones is a chap who has salt and pepper shakers, very ornate wooden ones, and he wanted his veneers in the interior to match these shakers. They were really precious to him, it was part of the history of his family and it was something which was unique to him. But you get some really interesting requests like people who desire to hide things in the cars in some way, so you need special hidey-holes and things like that so you can put things away. We never ask what they intend to hide – that’s at the client’s discretion.

There’s also been quite a few things in the past with people’s pets; how the pet is looked after in the vehicle environment; where they sit. It’s amazing how precious people’s pets are to them and how they’re prepared to customise their vehicle to accommodate that.

Colour matching is something I always find very interesting – for example, there was a car we matched to a sequinned dress. And the other side of it, of course, is the array of interior colours, woods, stone, leathers, stitching, etc. Some of the combinations would not be what I’d choose, but they’re spectacular in their own way. People love the individuality of putting something together which nobody else would ever had.

Bentley Mulliner Colour Visualiser

Some of our clientele are motorsport fanatics, and if you look around, you can find quite a few cars which have some sort of a heritage in classic motor racing. We’ve done some limited-edition cars like the Bentley Blower Continuation Series. That’s a direct tie-in to that historic motorsport car. What’s phenomenal about that is that it’s an out-and-out racecar. Quite a few of our motorsport engineers have been working on that project because when you get into it and you start understanding the original design and what the original engineers did, you recognise that it’s a pure thoroughbred racecar, but a race car designed in a way that reflects what we believe in as Bentley – it’s about grand touring. You can jump in, drive all the way to Europe, race in it, and drive it all the way back.

Of course, one of the most important aspects of recreation cars is staying true to the historic nature of that original car as you can be. You don’t necessarily know the original intent behind some of the design so you have to infer from the knowledge of what the engineering standards were at the time as to why they did certain things, so you want to be as true to the design as possible. But you also recognise that today with modern materials, methods and designs, you can be a lot safer and more efficient in what you design. The thing is, though, the second you start to say, well, look, knowing modern engineering techniques and materials we can improve on that 1929 Blower, if you start going down that road before too long, you suddenly realise you presented yourself with the Continental GT! That’s what almost a hundred years of progress has done, after all.

So there’s some very careful choices to be made around the recreations in terms of taking away maybe some slight risk of something that existed at the time but doesn’t destroy the original intention of the car. Things like, we’ve done some very small things to the fuel system, which makes it quite a bit safer, but we’re always in consultation with the customer to ensure they’re happy with every decision we make. It’s a balance:
if you’re going to do a recreation, you’ve got to look at what’s good practice engineering-wise, and what’s the original intent.

I think it’s fascinating. I appreciate some people are really against these continuation cars and some people are really for it. For me, I think if you do it in a way which respects the value of the originals but at the same time replicates the recognition and enjoyment of what those cars were about then I think it can be a very good thing. You have to respect the history, you have to respect the owners of the originals, and you have to remember that you’re trying to create something that reflects and enhances what the original was.

Colour matching is very interesting – there was a car we once matched to a sequinned dress

For us, one of the great things through this process is just how much we have learned from recreating that car. You have to understand that era and those cars and those engineers much deeper than you thought. Until you get into this level of detail and you try and build one of these from scratch, you start to understand what they did and how they had to do things.

I suppose the secret to Mulliner is being able to come up with a solution for the varied requests of our clients. We hate saying no to people. For us to create that process, to manufacture those yeses for your clients, I love it – and I get paid to do it!

I fully expect the Mulliner division to go from strength to strength in the future. People value experiences today far more than goods and simply owning something. Experience is what modern society is interested in. Getting something bespoke is more an experience than the actual product at the end of it.

We all love to be creative, we all like to think of ourselves as being imaginative, that’s where bespoke really comes into its own.”

For more information, see bentleymotors.com

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