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A Tour of British Car Factories - Ladue News: Elegant Living

A Tour of British Car Factories

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Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2012 3:11 pm

Many people pursue their hobbies while on holiday. As a car enthusiast, I also like to pursue my automotive hobby when I travel, visiting car museums, race tracks and other car-related sites. So when I recently went to England with my teenage son—who inherited the automotive gene—we decided to visit several British automobile manufacturers.

Our first stop was 1936. No, actually it was the Morgan factory in Malvern Link, Worcestershire, where they continue to build sports cars based on a pre-war design using pre-war manufacturing techniques. When I toured the factory 12 years ago, the tour was an 8-by-11-inch map of the factory and an admonition to not cross the yellow lines as you wandered through a collection of several workshops. When the company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009, it built a visitor’s center and museum adjacent to the factory, and now gives guided tours.

Just to prove that what’s old is new again, our tour started with a viewing of the new Morgan three-wheeler, harkening back to the beginnings of Morgan when it started building three-wheeled vehicles in 1909. The new threewheeler has two wheels in front and one in back with an exposed air-cooled Harley-Davidson-derived motorcycle engine at the front. It seats two and has a regular steering wheel and manual transmission.

Next, we went into the front of the factory where they have several significant old Morgans on display. Through the doorway was the delivery area, where about 25 shiny new Morgans were waiting to be adopted by their new owners. Most of them were the old-style classic Morgan, but there also were several Aero coupes and supersports, an updated model with aerodynamic lines and V-8 engines capable of zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds, but with classic winged fender styling.

The next step was the first production area, where woodworkers were sawing and planing wooden pieces they were assembling into the frames of the cars. Metalworkers then hammer and bend pieces of aluminum to cover the frame and make the doors, body and bonnet—or hood, as we call it. The top-of-the-line classic Morgan and the Aero coupe now have aluminum frames but are still hand-built from the ground up. About the only process that looked modern was the paint booth, in which several environmentally safe coatings of paint are applied to the aluminum body panels.

It takes about two weeks to assemble a Morgan, and the finished product is a classic two-seater convertible British roadster that looks like it would be a blast to drive. Unfortunately, we can’t get classic Morgans in America due to federal safety regulations, but if your bankroll can absorb a six-figure price tag, the Morgan Aero is available here.

Our next stop was Gaydon, Warwick, to visit the new Aston Martin factory, built just a few years ago as a state-ofthe- art luxury/performance car manufacturing center.

The first thing that caught my son’s eye was a One-77 model sitting in the car park. It's not every day you see a $1.5-million car parked a few spaces away. The next thing we noticed was a bright yellow Aston Martin that seemed to be floating on the water in the small pool in front of the building. We later figured out it was sitting on an underwater platform just at water level. We met our tour guide, Mark Gauntlett, a distinguished-looking chap who clearly loves working for and being around Aston Martins all day. He first led us into a room where they had a curvy Italian-designed Zagato prototype model and a cut-away car that revealed the inner secrets of Aston’s manufacturing process.

From there, we entered the factory, which was so clean, orderly and quiet you’d think they were performing surgery there. Unlike mass production factories, the ‘line’ consists of only 30 stations, at which the car stays for relatively long periods of time while workers hand-build and install the components that go into the vehicle and take it from a raw body shell to a finished high-performance and luxury automobile. Because Aston's sports cars are relatively small vehicles, there’s a lot of technology, performance and luxury that has to be fit into a tiny space. There’s a full mile of wiring that goes into each car. The skilled assemblers make sure that every component fits just so, doing things with the dexterity and human touch a robot lacks, such as perfectly aligning the headlamp assemblies.

After touring the line, we went to see the craftsmen making the interior and other components of the cars. The leather workers who inspect and cut the hides of the small herd of cattle required to outfit an Aston interior use only the highest quality leather and make sure that the pieces they choose are flawless. The seamstresses sewing the leather seats together were clearly highly skilled, and they have one person sew all the seats for a particular car to ensure continuity. All this attention to detail pays off with gorgeous wood and leather-laden interiors that grace all Aston Martins, which also contain the latest electronic aids and devices.

Though not cheap, the Aston Martin is clearly an exquisitely built vehicle. As the company approaches its 100th anniversary next year, an astonishing 90 percent of all Astons ever built are still on the road—a true testament to the high level of quality with which they’re built.

Our last stop was at the Bentley factory in Crewe. Also the former home of Rolls Royce, the Crewe factory now only produces the Mulsanne and Continental Bentleys. Upon arrival, our host and tour guide, Nigel Lofkin, took us to the ‘living room,’ which contained historic photos of various Bentleys and a special area where prospective owners can choose a myriad of available options with which to personalize their car. Nigel and I bonded over our common appreciation of the ’54 Bentley Continental, one of the best-looking cars ever built.

After a spot of tea and a biscuit, we headed to an area where a new Continental GT convertible was on display. My son and I couldn’t resist the temptation to sit in it and pretend for just a moment that we owned this exquisite piece of automotive art. From there, we went to the museum where several cars and a number of exhibits displayed some of the highlights of Bentley’s past. Of particular note were a cutaway clay model of the Continental GT that was used in developing its original shape and W.O. Bentley’s personal 1931 sedan.

Then we went into the factory itself, which is an orchestrated beehive of activity. When Rolls Royce separated from Bentley, Bentley got to keep the factory and its workers, so many of the people working there have been there for decades. It was simply amazing to see all those beautiful cars in various stages of production.

I think the most impressive part of the Bentley factory is actually off the line, in the specialty areas where they do the woodwork, the leather upholstery and the engine testing. We got to witness the ‘birth’ of a Continental engine when the testers started it up and ran it for the first time. The measurements of tolerances are so precise that the littlest imbalance will alert the technicians that it requires a little something to make it perfect. After they’re built, each car is put through a 15- to 20-mile ‘shakedown’ run to make sure the all the systems are working properly. This ensures that every vehicle leaves the factory as perfect as it can be.

The leather and woodworkers are Old World craftspeople first, and car-builders second. The care that is taken to use only perfect hides for the acres of leather that envelops the interior is amazing, and the skill with which the seats and other interior pieces are assembled is impressive indeed. It takes five hours just to stitch the leather onto a steering wheel. Bentleys truly are rolling works of sculpture and art. Not only that, they’re a pleasure to drive, especially the sporty Continentals. Bentley likes to say it’s building a lifestyle, not a car.

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