“WE GET crazy requests every day. People watch James Bond films and then come to us.”
That’s how Uday Senapati sums up his role as head of technical operations at Bentley’s in-house coachbuilding division, Mulliner. There, a team of 85 craftspeople build one-off, money-no-object Bentleys commissioned by individual customers to satisfy their every urge and impulse.
Senapati is sharply dressed, softly spoken and quite a lot younger than one might expect. He’s a man totally absorbed by his job, and it only takes a minute speaking with him to understand why.
“We’ve done ejector seats, swivel seats, all sorts of seats. In the old days before the legals became the legals they are now, we’d done all sorts of crazy things.
“Probably the craziest was an anti-theft thing in a place where crime was high. I can’t tell you where, but it worked at the press of the button.
“These people get inspired by watching James Bond films and the right kind of people know that James Bond used to drive a Bentley. So they want a Bentley that’s got some special capabilities, too.”
Of the 11,000 vehicles sold by Bentley in 2016, about 1800 of them went through a customisation process at Mulliner, from basic ‘feature packages’ through to the completely custom-made.
Bentley’s ‘regular’ car configurator offers more than 1.3 million combinations of paint colour, interior trim and optional extras for any given model at a base level. That’s before entering the virtually limitless world of Mulliner.
“Customers normally come to us saying they want to put their mark on their car, but don’t know how. Then it’s our job to start to learn about their lifestyle; what are they into, what does their house look like, what are the other cars they drive, have they got a yacht… and based on all those interests we commission a car based on them.”
It’s not all luxurious elegance, either. Senapati has become an unassuming expert in battle-ready Bentleys built to protect his customers who live in war-torn countries.
“Armoury is a big part of the business. There are 14 levels of vehicle armouring, called Vehicle Resistance levels. VR1 is very basic protection against hand guns or air guns – light level bulletproof glass and things like that – up to VR14, which means an almost ballistic vehicle. Above VR8 are vehicles that will go into combat zones.
“The most popular ones are VR4, which is urban protection against most reasonable weaponry, and VR6 or 7, which protects against AK47s and AK56s. Those are the two which are most popular and we’ve done all sorts of things within those levels.”
For other clients of Mulliner the attraction of a personalised vehicle comes from owning something nobody else can match. Senapati and his team invest huge amounts of time experimenting with alternative materials to create truly bespoke finishes.
Examples include dashboard inlays made from copper- or platinum-infused carbonfibre. Because regular carbon weave simply isn’t special enough, of course.
Then there’s sedimentary rock sourced from India that’s shipped to Germany and ‘peeled’ into layers less than a millimetre thick, before being sent to England and made into stone inserts that look like fine kitchen benchtops.
At the end of this year, Senapati says Mulliner will even launch the first vegan car – a car where every material used is sourced or produced by methods that eliminate animal products entirely. The upholstery, for example, will use processed cork instead of leather.
For the Bentayga, Mulliner crafted its own unique wheel design. Each wheel takes nine hours to be machined from a billet of solid aluminium. A floating centre cap with the Bentley ‘B’ insignia uses a counterweight and high-speed bearings to stay upright in the middle of the wheel even while it is spinning at speeds of up to 270km/h. Two and a half years were spent developing that centre cap alone.
There are relatively restrained options within the Mulliner portfolio, including a fly-fishing kit and a Linley picnic hamper, but Senapati says most customers start small and then take it to another level.
“More than certainly they never stop. Once they’re into it they keep going and keep coming back. These guys don't care. Money is no object.”
Mulliner can trace its heritage back almost 500 years to a saddlemaker of the same name. Coachbuilding began for Bentley in the 1920s, and Mulliner became a wholly owned subsidiary of the marque in 1959.
“I see my job as a privilege. Along with my colleagues in England we are the custodians of a phenomenal brand.”