Bentley likely isn’t the first name in the automotive industry you associate with going green. But the green is all around Bentley. Pop by their headquarters in Crewe, England, and you’ll find a factory surrounded by verdant fields and farmlands; sheep graze in pastures across the road from the gate, test cars dodge tractors on the country roads nearby. It’s more Smallville than Metropolis — a sharp contrast to most carmakers’ facilities, which tend to be surrounded by cities and suburbs and roads as far as the eye can see.
But green doesn’t just surround Bentley; it’s been coming in lately, too. Sales-wise, 2020 proved to be the best in the company’s 100-plus-year history — only to see that record shattered in 2021. That same year, the company made a record €389 million ($391 million USD) in profit — an average of more than $26,000 in profit per car sold. (For comparison, General Motors averaged just $2,270 in profit per new vehicle in 2021.) Yet while some brands might be content to sit pretty under similar circumstances, Bentley is instead shaking things up — by going all-in on cars with plugs and battery packs.
“We want to have a completely ethically and environmentally transparent brand,” says Adrian Hallmark, chairman and CEO of Bentley Motors. “We don’t want to complain, we don’t want to explain, we don’t want to whinge — we just want to fix a date, make it happen, lead, and show it can be done.”
From the product side, the first step in this journey is plug-in hybrid vehicles, or PHEVs, which combine aspects of both internal combustion (petroleum-burning engines, multi-speed gearboxes) with those of electric vehicles. While Bentley may have built its current reputation on the shoulders of giant gas-powered engines, its next step will see those power plants grow smaller — and gain the help of electric motors. In just four years, every new Bentley with a gasoline engine will be a PHEV.
“Plug-in hybrids can be a bridge,” Hallmark says. “And we’ll make some really exciting ones, with loads of power — even more than we offer today. But that’s just a transition.”
Inevitably, those PHEVs will give way to purely electric vehicles. While the brand has yet to formally reveal them, it’s served up hearty helpings of hints — first with the EXP 100 concept car revealed in 2019, and then with this year’s Bentley Mulliner Batur, a limited-edition coupe that presages the design language of the brand’s electric cars.
Brands like Porsche, Tesla and Rivian have already proven electric cars and trucks can be as quick and capable as anything powered by gas, if not more so. Bentley aims to prove they can live up to and even exceed what ultra-luxury buyers expect of a car with a quarter-million-dollar price tag.
“These electric cars will be [on] another level,” Hallmark says. “Everything we do today will step up. Craftsmanship, digitalization, comfort, refinement, performance, handling, agility, safety — everything.”
Inevitably has a fixed date: 2030. That’s also the year the brand aims to be not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-positive, according to Christophe Georges, president and CEO of Bentley Americas.
“[Sustainability] is the objective we need to reach,” Georges says. “People are generally more and more concerned about sustainability, [and] our customers are no different. It’s about supporting the environment. All these great values where we as a luxury brand need to lead. This is the responsibility of luxury brands.”
The company has already performed yeoman’s work to make its production facilities in Crewe carbon-neutral. Stroll the grounds and you’ll see that commitment woven into every aspect with the same attention to detail the company’s 60-plus sewists bring to the stitching that goes into every Bentley; the company is expanding, upcycling, reinvesting and reinventing its infrastructure at Crewe as part of a $3 billion investment into upgrading its facilities.
Bentley is also pioneering new ways of upping its sustainability game, often in ways you might never consider. Case in point: the paint shop where every new Bentley receives its coat. To apply automotive paint, you have to heat it — to such a degree that it’s not efficient to do so with electric heaters. Which means you need to use gas — but using gas plumbed out of the ground would go against that whole “carbon neutral” bit. “So, we buy renewable gas,” Hallmark says. “[But] the renewable gas that we need to run our paint shop — which is a tiny paint shop — is 11 percent of the total available capacity of the UK.”
Which is where, perhaps counterintuitively, being a small piece of the giant Volkswagen Group empire is a strength. While a brand like Audi that paints hundreds of thousands of cars a year can’t realistically take advantage of such a small amount of carbon-neutral product, Bentley’s limited production numbers enable it to do so — and support the small renewable gas industry in its homeland. Plus, as a super-luxury brand, Bentley can afford to make investments that other carmakers operating on tighter profit margins might shy away from.
“We can help to accelerate that industry,” Hallmark says. “You need these accelerators, and we can be part of that movement.”
That’s true in microcosm even within Bentley. The company’s Mulliner division is both custom shop and skunkworks; to put in the form of a tortured SAT analogy, what Bentley is to ordinary luxury cars, Mulliner is to Bentley. The nameplate is behind everything from limited production models like the aforementioned Batur to handbuilt replicas of early Bentleys to custom tweaks to the brand’s existing lineup.
“Our role is to try and pilot some of the things we’re working on [at Bentley as a whole]," says Paul Williams, director of Mulliner. Sustainability, as he points out, is in large part about materials, and any new materials need to be tested. Mulliner’s customers aren’t just the brand’s most enthusiastic fans; they’re also among the most interested in being on the cutting edge of Bentley’s progress — and they're the most willing to experiment with their specifications. (After all, many of them buy new Bentleys with the frequency most of us do iPhones.)
Take leather trim, for example. While Bentley strives to ensure the ranches its hides come from are as green as possible, the livestock industry as a whole isn’t great for the planet — and using leather still means bulls have to die. (The brand only uses leather sourced from bulls, since cows have stretch marks.) So Mulliner is developing alternatives. “[We have] quite a few vegan options we’re testing at the moment,” Williams notes. One interesting pick: grape skins, which can be treated and dyed to replace the leather buyers know and love.
Then consider another integral element of a Bentley’s interior: wood. The company dedicates an entire wing of its manufacturing complex to woodworking, complete with a room that holds a million dollars worth of some of the finest pieces of koa, walnut and other tree meat you’ve ever seen — or smelled. But culling all that requires pissing off the proverbial Lorax. “We don’t want to chop down the rarest trees and make a car with it,” Williams says.
So the brand is exploring other options. Stone trim is now available as a substitute, for instance. For another, Mulliner’s Bacalar roadster — created for just a dozen of the brand’s best customers — boasts trim made from riverwood, pulled from a deceased oak tree found sitting under a bog for thousands of years and absorbing color from the surrounding murky water like Scotch from a bourbon barrel.
Still, while the crew in Crewe is driving full-throttle toward a sustainable automotive future, the car industry as a whole is too big a juggernaut to turn away from internal combustion overnight — or in eight years, for that matter. So work must be done to make those ICE rides as eco-friendly as possible.
Bentley’s corporate sibling Porsche has already announced a $75 million investment into renewable synthetic petroleum, which — remarkable as it sounds — can be made from thin air. (The process involves smashing together carbon dioxide from the air and hydrogen separated from water to create a fuel that can be burned by gas-powered cars and, if done using green energy like wind or solar power, can approach carbon neutrality.)
Hallmark, for one, believes such fuel can help keep a limited number of formerly fossil-fuel-powered vehicles around even after the industry has followed Bentley’s lead.
“You’ll still see [internal-combustion] cars on the road for 30 to 40 years — maybe 60 to 70,” Hallmark says. A good number are likely to bear a flying B logo, if past is any prologue; as he notes, 80 percent of all Bentleys made since the company’s founding in 1919 are still on the road today.
“For me, that is still one of the main principles of sustainability,” Hallmark concludes. “Make less, and use it longer. And then keep reusing it.”