Bentley devoted the Ides of March this year to exposing its future design intentions to a selection of automobile magazines, one from each country in which Bentley has a long-term interest. AUTOMOBILE was invited from the U.S. for the intimate gathering in London’s Hospital Club, where a new production Bentayga SUV and its much-talked about 2015 Geneva auto show concept — the EXP 10 Speed 6 coupe — were displayed in a well-lit gallery along with paintings and renderings of recent work and physical presentations of materials and techniques used in the production of the company’s projects.
New chief designer Stephan Sielaff presented a clever little movie showing the barest glimpses of things his design team has been working on, stressing all the while the confidentiality of what was being portrayed. As propaganda, it was magnificent. As information, it was wonderfully obscure, with very little substance. In effect, Sielaff was saying he and his team are going to continue to do what they’ve been doing, only better.
A company like Bentley, or Porsche (or Boeing for that matter) is in a really delicate position in that every product they produce is tightly constrained not just by their market — customer requirements — but by comprehensive and intrusive external regulations. Once they have gone through the excruciating expense of getting a given product through all the regulatory hoops, they have to find a way to satisfy highly diverse customers without arousing concern from the regulators. In the case of a Boeing or Airbus, customers cannot change the external shape of the product in any way whatsoever. The only external differentiator for their customers is the paint scheme. Anything else will trigger recertification, and massive costs. Specialty car companies can make more products, and can make superficial cosmetic changes and change their engines but the crash structure can’t be involved.
In Bentley’s case, the greatest scope for change is in the interiors. It is theoretically possible to make 10,000 cars, each of which has a completely distinctive interior, without involving the certified specification. This means that there will be more and more individually created interiors, with materials — all of them certified with respect to fire resistance — approved by the company as to wearability, texture, and surface finish, selected from a vast armory of possibilities.
And some of those possibilities Bentley has developed are nothing less than amazing. The craftsmen who have shown themselves so skilled with wood and leather have been inventing new techniques for using ancient materials, specifically stone and glass, heavy materials that present use case challenges. One of the reasons car side windows have been cut down in height in recent years beyond style concerns has been to help reduce overall weight as fuel economy becomes an ever bigger focal point for manufacturers.
To me the most fascinating new Bentley technique is a method of cutting stone — granite in the specific samples on display — into thin sheets a tiny fraction of a millimeter thick. They are a bit coy about how they do that. Lasers? Water jet cutters? Your guess is as good as ours. This veneer is of course impossibly fragile, but by laminating it to a thick, flexible layer of material, it can be handled and bonded to thin alloy sheets. By using that process, the granite (or other stone material) can actually be bent around tight radii so that the resulting trim piece for the instrument panel or console appears to be a piece of stone with rounded edges an eighth or more of an inch thick. Once the veneer is bonded to its substrate, the flexible protective layer is removed. Bendable granite! It’s actually a very nice effect.
The treatment of glass in headlamps is another impressive effect, making the lighting assembly seem more like an elaborate piece of precious cut tableware or spectacular chandeliers than a blob of amorphous plastic. Glass has been used for the “Flying B” hood ornament as well, reverting to the practice in the ’20s and ’30s of putting Lalique glass sculptures on radiator caps. There are many kinds of glass, and some of them are as crystalline and transparent as diamonds, luxurious indeed. Bentley showed what it calls “whisky glass headlamps” and it seems likely that all Bentleys will benefit from such detailing in the future.
Less a visual element, although the technical pieces shown were quite handsome, were 3-D printed titanium elements, again things that can enhance interior structures like seat frames or make hinges lighter and stronger than anything possible through conventional metalworking, which typically involves slow, expensive material removal. Additive manufacturing, the proper name for such “printing,” is promising in many areas, and seems likely to turn up in all vehicle mechanisms, particularly in engines and transmissions, where there are many pounds to be removed without remotely reducing strength. Jet engine makers are already using this to produce convoluted parts like turbine blades that can be made only with extreme difficulty — and cost — by other means.
The most revealing illustration Bentley agreed to let us show you is of an eventual luxury interior with facing divans at front and rear of the passenger compartment, with a sliding table between them. On it stands a coupe de champagne and a holographic image, presumably a 3-D television. On the roof rail hangs a garment bag, presumably for carrying the owner or passenger’s garments. Significantly, there is no steering wheel, no operational controls or instruments.
Clearly Bentley sees autonomous vehicles in our collective futures, with its traditional clients being whisked along in utter luxury in company with myriad Googlemobiles, the proletarian occupants of which will be going at the same speed but in much less sybaritic circumstances. But to show its solidarity with the people who can’t yet afford the Bentley experience, the firm makes extensive use of the diamond-quilting upholstery patterns that characterized the suits of Chairman Mao long ago.