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On Her Majesty’s service

The Queen’s Bentley state limousine, presented to Her Majesty in celebration of her Golden Jubilee, marked the start of a confident new era for the marque. Words by Nick Swallow

The Queen’s state limousine is arguably the most exclusive Bentley ever built. Just one prototype and one limousine were created in celebration of Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. Each was hand-built to a unique design by the craftsmen and women of Crewe. So, if you’re ever shown around the Mulliner design gallery at Crewe you will probably do a double take. For there, you’ll find what appears to be a third Bentley state limousine. It’s exact in every proportion, immaculately finished and every bit as regal as the car in which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is seen waving to the crowds on state occasions.

Only as you get closer can you spot the tell-tale signs that this is not a fully functioning motor car. The interior, for instance, features an unnaturally high “floor”, which is almost level with the waistline of the car with only the tops of the seat poking above its surface. A cautious rap on the pristine coachwork produces a dull, solid thud, not the sound you’d expect of a steel panel. It turns out that this is what’s known inside the motor industry as a “full-size clay”. This life-size model is milled to exact dimensions taken from Alias CAD software designs, hand-shaped by expert modellers, covered in a surface film called Dynoc and then painted to the precise shade of the real thing. The resemblance to a real car is extraordinary. It’s remarkable to think that this is a static metal superstructure, clad first in plywood, then in foam, before a final 2-inch coating of modelling clay is applied to be treated and finished as described above.

“I think Her Majesty was rather astonished,” recalls Crispin Marshfield, one of Bentley’s senior designers. “We had arranged to show the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh the full-size clay at a private viewing at Windsor Castle, some months before her Golden Jubilee celebrations. But as with most people outside the industry, the term ‘clay model’ probably conjured up a mental picture of a solid model in unpainted clay. I can still remember her smile of surprise as we whipped the covers off what looked, to all intents and purposes, like a finished car.”

The project to build a Bentley state limousine began as the answer to that age-old question: what do you give the person who has everything? Richard Charlesworth MVO, Bentley’s former Director of Royal and VIP Relations, explains how the quest for a suitable gift for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 led to a commission for the first-ever state Bentley. “Her Majesty had asked to be kept personally informed about the sale of Rolls-Royce and Bentley by Vickers plc in 1998,” he says. Both companies are standard-bearers for British engineering and, as the ultimate ambassador for Britain, the Queen clearly felt it important to be in the know.

The sale resulted in the two companies going their own ways for the first time since 1931, with Rolls-Royce moving to Goodwood under the BMW banner and Bentley remaining at Crewe, as part of the Volkswagen Group. As Richard points out, the Queen’s decision to accept a new state limousine from Bentley Motors, as a gift from a consortium of automotive manufacturing and service companies, was therefore highly significant and a real fillip for a workforce at Crewe newly united under the Bentley winged “B”.

The 2002 state limousine was not the first-ever royal Bentley. That distinction probably goes to a 3 litre speed model ordered by the Queen’s uncle, Prince George, in 1923. He also owned a standard 6½ litre later in the 1920s and his brother, Edward VIII, had owned a 4½ litre when Prince of Wales. But the Golden Jubilee commission was the first ever Bentley state limousine; George VI had favoured Daimler, and throughout Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign to date a succession of Rolls-Royce Phantoms had fulfilled the role.

Designer Crispin Marshfield recalls a period of intense focus for him and the tight-knit team of designers and engineers from the time in 2000 when the project received the go-ahead. “In automotive design, the current trend is towards higher waistlines and shallower glass – what we call daylight opening – to create an impression of a low, solid, sleek car. For the state limousine, we had to go in the opposite direction. Our brief was to create a car with a light, airy and open feel to the rear compartment so that the public could see the occupants on state occasions. We also had to keep in mind that the Queen and her guests needed to be able to enter and alight from the car with grace and dignity; the roof-line had to be correspondingly high, with doors that opened wide. That dictated a design with a relatively low waistline and large daylight opening.”

Previous royal limousines, such as the high-roof Phantoms V and VI used by the Queen until 2002, had been recognisably based upon the John Blatchley-designed Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. But from the outset it became clear that the state Bentley could not simply be based upon a stretched or high-roof version of the Arnage, Bentley’s four-door flagship of the time. It was decided that the design team would have free rein to create possibly the most exclusive Bentley of all time, a car with a unique specification built for one very special customer.

According to Richard, two design proposals were submitted to the royal household from a number created by Bentley’s design team. Once the preferred design had been chosen, Richard, Director of Design Dirk van Braeckel and a small project team travelled to Buckingham Palace. They presented the proposal to Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh in the palace cinema.

“We always welcome direct feedback from our customers,” Richard smiles. “Both Her Majesty and the duke were very interested in the process and were quite clear about what they wanted. For instance, the original sketches and renderings showed a lot of brightware – chrome bezels, window surrounds, body lines and so on – and the Queen asked us to tone that down a bit.”

Crispin – whose design proposal was the one presented to the Queen – agrees that Bentley’s royal customers knew precisely what they wanted. “Our first renderings were quite lavish, because we were proud of what we were capable of creating at Crewe and we wanted to showcase our skills. But the Queen directed us towards simplicity and understatement. Fundamentally, we were being asked to create a 21st Century ceremonial carriage – and as with all royal carriages through the centuries, the focus has to be on the occupants and not the car.”

For both the exterior and the interior designs, simplicity became the keyword for the state Bentley. “As part of the commissioning process, we presented our capabilities in marquetry and leather, and offered a choice of in-car communications, cocktail cabinets, televisions, DVD players and so on,” recalls Richard. “All of these options were politely declined, with the exception of a radio and CD player.”

Crewe’s craft skills in fine wood veneer and leather are world-renowned, but here too the team was given informed direction by the commissioning client. “Our first interior designs had shown extensive use of fine wood veneer, but the Duke of Edinburgh explained that in full ceremonial regalia he’s often encumbered by belts, medals and swords. He didn’t want to be bumping into the woodwork as he settled into his seat.” In the end, most of the wood inside the rear compartment, though beautifully finished and executed, has a functional purpose; large wooden grab handles, for example, to help the occupants enter and leave the Bentley with ease.

Her Majesty may have declined the luxuries chosen by many of Bentley’s bespoke clients, but a number of unique features were specified to create a Bentley perfectly suited to its special role. The rear seats, for instance, are electrically adjustable; not fore and aft, but up and down, so that when travelling with other heads of state both Her Majesty and guest can be seen and photographed with their heads at approximately the same height. Two detachable carbon fibre panels fit over the large backlight to create a smaller rear opera window, offering the choice between an increased level of privacy and an improved view of the occupants from outside the car. And the large, forward-opening rear doors were engineered to open to a full 81 degrees, with steps built into the rear sills to aid entry and exit. Unlike its predecessor the Phantom VI, the Bentley’s rear compartment has rear-facing occasional seats so that extra occupants do not show their backs to the Queen. Another unusual feature is the perfectly flat floor, 50mm higher than that of a normal Bentley limousine.

The car’s finishing touches include a mount on the Bentley’s roof for an illuminated crest and a pennant. These feature the Royal Standard, usually, although other symbols can be used for occasions such as a state visit. When Her Majesty is travelling in England, the Bentley “Flying B” hood ornament is replaced by Her Majesty’s personal mascot of St George slaying the dragon. A lion mascot, originally owned by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, takes its place when the Bentley is used on state occasions in Scotland.

Given that leather is nowadays considered to be the most luxurious car upholstery, it may surprise some that the Queen’s chauffeur sits on the flawless hide long associated with Crewe while the Queen and her travelling companions have cloth-upholstered seating. “That’s the traditional way round from pre-war coachbuilding,” explains designer Crispin. “Leather is hard-wearing and easy to clean, so that was always the standard upholstery material in the days before plastics and vinyl. Cloth upholstery indicated a higher level of luxury.” For the record, the upholstery chosen for the Queen’s Bentley is lambswool sateen produced by British textile manufacturers Hield Brothers.

Some key aspects of the specification for the state Bentley were the air conditioning, cooling and transmission. The rear compartment’s large area of glass creates greenhouse levels of heat on a sunny day, and although the tinted glass roof has an electric blind, a larger capacity air conditioning system was considered essential. The transmission, too, had to be programmed carefully to inhibit its tendency towards a higher gear when being driven at processional speeds. The cooling system also had to be upgraded to cope with long periods of slow-speed running. However, the state limousine is often driven at motorway speeds to meet the Queen off a flight or train, so the 6.75 litre V8 had to be capable of high-speed running too – a capability verified during testing with the Queen’s then chauffeur Joe Last at the wheel. While Bentley is unable to release details of any security features, the all-up weight of the state limousine is almost twice that of a standard Arnage. Yet this regal machine has, according to reliable sources, circled the banking at Millbrook at an impressive 120mph.

Once the interior, exterior and engineering specification was settled, there remained the small matter of building a car whose sole carry-over bodywork component was an exterior mirror. A full data scan of the approved full-size clay model was used to create a male buck over which panels were beaten to shape, using decades-old coach building techniques. Panels, once in place, were joined using lead loading along the seams – another traditional skill. Project engineer Steve Hancock takes up the story. “We had a fixed end date. After all, no one was going to postpone the Golden Jubilee. So whatever problems or hitches we encountered, they had to be solved and sorted fast.”

Steve likens creating the original prototype state limousine to “making a giant, 3D jigsaw. All these components were one-offs, and no one had ever assembled them before. We started with a team of five people at the design and approvals stage and brought in extra team members as the project went from design to production.” In this, Bentley had the advantage of the craft skills of the Crewe workforce, many of whom had worked for the company for more than 20 years on a number of bespoke commissions.

“We had a hand-picked team of around 35 in all. We worked weekends, we worked late hours, we worked right the way through Easter; Good Friday, Easter Sunday and all. Yet I’ve never known a team so happy,” recalls Steve. Once the prototype was built, tested and approved, work started on the state limousine itself. As Steve explains, however, the prototype limousine was worked on in parallel in case of any delays in the finishing of the Queen’s Bentley. Such was the level of craftsmanship achieved by the team that some months after the state Bentley had been presented to the Queen, the prototype was brought up to the same specification. This means that the Queen can be driven in her Bentley to a railway station in one part of the country and met at another, apparently by the same car.

For Bentley, Her Majesty’s obvious delight at her new state limousine, presented to her in May 2002 by Bentley’s then Chairman and CEO, Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, marked the start of a new and confident era for the company. Within a year of the ceremony, the company had launched the Continental GT coupé, a 200mph sports car that went on to become one of the most popular Bentleys of all time. Bentley had also triumphed at the Le Mans 24 Hour race with a one-two finish, the first win for the company since 1930. To go from more than 200mph at Le Mans to 5mph driving down Horse Guards Parade is quite an achievement, and Crewe has every right to feel proud of both extremes.

For some, the memories of that time are still vivid and personal. Inside the luggage compartment of the state limousine is a metal plaque that reads “Designed, Crafted and Built in Crewe, England” with the signatures of 34 Bentley employees, Steve Hancock’s among them. “My kids always say ‘look – that’s the car that dad built!’ whenever they see the Queen’s car on the news,” he smiles. “I’ll never forget that time. It was an amazing team effort.”