What’s next for Bentley’s coachbuilding division

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Mulliner hopes the Bacalar will spearhead a new era with more exclusive and personalised builds.

The Bacalar spearheads a new era at Bentley, one in which it hopes its coachbuilding division, Mulliner, will lead a personalisation charge to give customers ever-more exclusive cars (if the idea of ‘more exclusivity’ doesn’t sound like a paradox too far).

Mulliner claims to be the world’s oldest coachbuilder, starting out around 500 years ago when it was a saddle maker. Its links with Bentley date back to 1923, when it exhibited a two-seat 3 Litre Bentley at the Olympia Show in London. But the bond grew stronger from 1952, when Mulliner built the R-Type Continental, before the coachbuilders officially became part of Bentley in 1959.

Now Mulliner has three arms within Bentley: Classic (to recreate icons such as the Blower), Collections (where customers can specify unique personalisation options) and Coachbuilt (where Mulliner will build entirely different versions of series production vehicles). The Bacalar is from the latter.

Mulliner sees itself as more than a simple offshoot of Bentley. Instead, it believes it can drive development at the company, almost like a skunkworks department where new ideas are forged and tested quickly. As Omar Sheikh, project leader at Mulliner, says: “The advantage with coachbuilding is that we can turn around a project in a relatively short period of time. We can bring in new innovations and technology and trial them out in a very short period of time. If they’re successful, then they can be looked to be brought into future cars within Bentley.

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It’s a relationship that cuts both ways. “If there is a future technology that we know is being brought through in four or five years’ time, then we can bring that in on a smaller scale, at a higher unit cost maybe because it’s low volume,” adds Sheikh. “But we can showcase these features first on coachbuilding to prove them, trial them and see what the response is.”

Take the rice husk used in the Bacalar’s paint. Sustainability is a hot topic at the moment and Bentley isn’t immune to it – “With younger customers coming into the Bentley brand, more sustainability is a big theme for us” – so the otherwise wasted rice husk is an effective solution for all concerned. It’s unlikely to make it to mass production at the moment, but that’s not to say it can’t in the future. Its use on the Bacalar gives Bentley the “possibility to investigate whether these features can be made more efficient, to then go down our main production line”.

So what does the future hold? In short, more from Mulliner. Performance is something they’re looking at but Mulliner hasn’t yet had the ability to move into it. “With certifications and emissions, power increases are very difficult and costly,” explains Sheikh.

Restorations are on the radar, but for now you can’t take your S1 in to have it restored; the recreation Blower is in effect a ground-up new car, not a rebuild. But others within the Volkswagen Group do restorations – Porsche is one – so there’s no reason to suspect it won’t happen here. Sheikh is certainly keen on the principle.

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Even technology is something that Mulliner wants to look at. “The cars are getting more and more technologically advanced,” says Sheikh. “How can we bring personalisation into that world of technology, because it’s very expensive. But if you look at your infotainment screen, your combis, these are areas we’d like to get into to customise. But they’re very costly, so that has to be in partnership with our main Bentley engineering team. It’s a much bigger project.”

But Sheikh gives the impression that the size of the project doesn’t concern Mulliner. The firm is not wanting for lack of ambition. Nor, given the way the Bacalar and Blowers were snapped up, is it wanting for customers.

Piers Ward

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