Bentley has been making fine automobiles for 100 years now. For fully half of that century, Noel Thompson has been on the payroll in Bentley’s coach-trimming department, making leather interiors that are fit for a queen. Literally. Today, as part of the firm’s centennial celebration, Bentley honored Thompson, his craft, and his half-century of service to the storied British automaker.
Thompson hired into Bentley as a 16-year-old apprentice back in 1969, when the luxury brand was part of Rolls-Royce. He spent a year in the traditional apprenticeship program, rotating between various departments (including engineering), and picked up a variety of skills before specializing in coach-trimming, the traditional term for upholstering vehicles. Assembling and sewing up the leather-clad Bentley steering wheels became his specialty, and Thompson is known for using an old dinner fork’s tines to punch perfectly equidistant holes in the glove-soft leather for the thread. “If it works, it works,” he says.
Working at Bentley has been a bit of a family tradition in the Thompson clan. Noel’s father spent almost four decades as a coach-painter at Bentley, and his grandmother worked there during World War II.
Things have changed a bit in the 50 years since Thompson hired in at Crewe.
“When I first started, the factory was a bit old-fashioned,” he said. “We used to push cars around by hand on cradles in the production line. The floors were still bare concrete and the air raid shelters from the 1940s were still in place and being used for storage. We were only producing around 1800 units per year and with a very limited range.”
Then, in 1998, after a bidding war with BMW over Rolls-Royce’s automotive operations, the Volkswagen Group ended up taking charge of Bentley and started pouring in millions of dollars to modernize the British luxury marque.
“The factory is now bright and modern with an automated track and shows little resemblance to the old days,” said Thompson, regarding the transfer in ownership. “Virtually every aspect of the business has changed for the better—more models, more retailers, better customer communication. We now have people traveling from all over the world to visit the factory every day.”
A part of his job that the affable Thompson especially enjoys is demonstrating his craft and describing his work to the visitors to the Bentley factory, including VIP customers and members of the general public on the scheduled assembly plant tours. Recognizing that his skills went beyond sewing up steering wheels, Bentley has made Thompson a global brand ambassador. He now spends part of every year traveling to auto shows and British embassies and consulates to demonstrate his craftsmanship. This writer met him about 10 years ago while he was working on a steering wheel at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, next to a fellow member of the Bentley trim team who was demonstrating some exquisite marquetry and inlay work with exotic woods.
Thompson says, “I’ve been incredibly lucky, very few people have a job for life these days and I am able to meet new people from all walks of life and share with them what we do.”
When Thompson says he meets people from all walks of life, he’s not exaggerating. In addition to having trimmed the interior on Queen Elizabeth’s personal Bentleys, Noel was invited to Buckingham Palace to personally meet with the queen and other members of the royal family.
To this date, Bentley still hires in about 50 new apprentices every year who train alongside veteran artisans like Thompson.
Amidst all the changes at Bentley—from the revamped Continental GT range to the redesigned logo—Thompson is a reminder of the long-running, steady devotion to the automotive craft to which Bentley owes its current heritage.