66 Magazine Issue 3 Spring 2018 - Page 63

It looks exactly like the sort of fork you’d find in a cutlery drawer. Probably because it is. The bent and battered item of silverware Noel Thompson is holding is at once both perhaps the most low-tech, as well as the most famous piece of equipment in the entire Bentley factory. Rather than a curious cafeteria cast-off, Thompson uses this specific fork’s tines to place the stitching holes on the steering wheel rims of every Bentley built here. He does this freehand and he must use this particular fork, because it was this very fork that his father started measuring out stitch spacing with when he worked in the factory. This is, what I come to realise, a very ‘Bentley factory’ sort of story. Thompson celebrates his 50th year at Bentley next year and he is currently the longest serving employee. To put that length of service into perspective, when the young buck turned up for his first day on the job back in 1969, company founder WO Bentley was still alive. “I remember vehicle bodies being wheeled around on trolleys,” says Thompson, who doesn’t look old enough to have been here that long. “The factory has certainly changed, but there are plenty of old traditions that still form part of what we do, and part of every car we build.” While Thompson reckons every steering wheel is different in the amount of time it takes to build one, it’s a three-to-four-hour job on average. He cuts the leather undersize then stretches it across the rim, makes his fork-based perforations and starts the stitching process. Something of an icon within the busy factory, Thompson has toured the world with his fork, demonstrating what is undoubtably an art not seen in other car factories. “In Brazil once at a function where I was demonstrating what I do, a bloke comes up and asks to have a go at stitching the leather. He does very well too; turns out he’s a heart surgeon. Left A 1:1 scale Continental GT on display as part of the design process detail at the Bentley factory. Top Every hide used for the interior of Bentley models is meticulously checked for defects. Above Right The new Bentley Continental GT features an incredible 310,000 individual stitches inside the cabin. Above The Bentley ‘Winged B’ of a headrest is stitched out in an automated process. 66 MagAzine SPRING 2018 61