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Thursday 27th December 2012


BEST OF BRITISH: ONE COIN, TWO SIDES

We take a look behind the scenes at two car manufacturers which are quintessentially British, in two very different ways


When Caterham invited us to come and have a poke around behind the scenes at its Dartford factory, we'd just returned from a trip to the Bentley factory at Crewe, and taken the V8 Continental GT away to test. Driving the big Bentley over to Caterham's factory in Dartford seemed too good an opportunity to miss - two very different, but very British brands, brought together. What better way to end probably the most patriotic year in living memory?

Bentley line is high-tech these days
Bentley line is high-tech these days
Visiting Caterham so soon after Bentley really does bring the two companies' differences into sharp relief. Bentley is still proud that much of its production is done by hand, and to its credit, it is. Sure, you'll find a production line, and some of the less complex work has been turned over to robots, but traditional craftsmanship has been retained wherever Bentley felt it was needed - in the stitching of the upholstery, or the installation of most of the interior. Even the leather's caressed by hand to check for imperfections before being carved up around them. It's clear, then, that the evil hand of VW, as some would have it, hasn't affected these age-old (and not at all teutonically efficient) production methods.

Keep it simple, stupid
Down at Caterham, though, there really is a complete lack of mechanisation. Waist-high trolleys are used to wheel around incomplete chassis, which are moved from station to station, along a line which runs the length of one wall. As they progress, the interior is first bolted in, then the electrics wired up. Engines arrive from Ford on a crate, and if necessary, are taken apart and modified in-house by Caterham's technicians, before being fitted into the chassis. Then, if the car's to be completed in-house, the suspension and wheels are bolted on as the car progresses along the opposite wall. Otherwise, the car's packed off in kit form to its new owner. It is, quite literally, the 'group of men in a big shed' operation we'd secretly hoped it would be. If that sounds derogatory it isn't meant to be. There's an innate sense of efficiency and lack of frippery here. Nothing's superfluous and everything's stashed precisely where it's needed.

Less automated, but just as effective
Less automated, but just as effective
There isn't just one big shed, though. There are several, and in one of them lies the most interesting part of the Caterham production line. This is where the SP/300.R is put together. It's a decidedly slower pace of life in here, with each chassis being worked on slowly and methodically by hand. The construction methods involved here are notably different; the chassis actually stops at the cockpit rear bulkhead, and from there back it's built up like a single-seat racer, with the engine bolted up to the chassis, the gearbox bolted to the engine, and then the rear suspension and drivetrain located purely by their connections to the gearbox. It's a true racer at heart, this, and can't be used on the road.

Shared roots
Despite the differences between these two companies, there is one striking similarity, and it's how remarkably reflective these two companies' production methods are of the cars they produce.

Bentley has become a sizeable operation
Bentley has become a sizeable operation
The Bentley has loads of everything: weight, power, equipment, luxury, space - you name it, there's lots of it. It's modern under the skin, with huge reserves of power, a heavyweight wrapped in a shell that's redolent of times past. In the same way, the Bentley factory has obviously had plenty of money spent on it; there's a sizeable workforce working in vast spaces with cutting-edge machines. Yet there's still the art deco facade out front, and where nothing else will do, the hand-finished craftsmanship has been retained. It might be more cost-effective to do it another way, but it wouldn't yield the result Bentley was looking for.

The Caterham factory, by contrast, feels like it hasn't changed all that much in the last 40 years. Oh sure, it's moved from Caterham itself out to Dartford, and the tools and processes have been updated with time, but the basic fabric of the way they do things - just like their cars - is much the same as it ever has been. It's uncomplicated, efficient, and basic - but it ain't broke, so why fix it?

Caterham: smaller scale, but just as dedicated
Caterham: smaller scale, but just as dedicated
National pride
Fortunately, both companies' ways of doing things seem to be working. Bentley saw a 37 per cent increase in sales in 2011, helping the company to slash its losses from £292m in 2010 to just £21.4m. Meanwhile, despite a dip in operating profit largely attributed to the downturn, Caterham continues to keep its head above water, with new models like the Supersport R helping to boost the rest of the range.

Which can only be a good thing, really. Because although they're at two ends of the scale, these two brands still remain quintessentially British. Don't be fooled by Bentley's German ownership; cut through to the core and you'll still find Britishness at the heart of what the company does. It's at the heart of Caterham's operation, too - though this is a different kind of Britishness, the kind that manages to be efficient without being clinical, to be modern without forgetting its roots. To produce motorsport-inspired sportscars in a way that few others could. That might sound like blind patriotism, but it isn't. It's just genuine pride in the fact that these two British icons are still alive and well.

Photos: Prime Exposures / Bentley

Author: Alex Robbins