In 1906 the journalist, politician, and outspoken socialist Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle," a novel set amongst a cadre of Eastern European immigrants toiling in the slaughterhouses of Chicago, a book intended to expose the cruelties and vagaries of Gilded Age industrial capitalism.
However, while documenting the era's treacherous working conditions, unfair labor practices and brutally unregulated commercial economy, Sinclair's masterpiece misfired. Americans, even then a gastro-centric lot, seized not on the novel's presentation of the Sisyphean struggle of labor versus capital, but rather on the grotesque details about how cattle become meat. And as the old saw goes, those who love sausage and obey the law should never watch either being made.
In this, Sinclair's polemical industrial exposé was precisely the inverse of our recent experience visiting the factory in Crewe, England, where Bentley produces its luxurious Continentals and Mulsannes. Here, on a 65-acre complex, in 75 year-old saw-tooth brick buildings, and along a trio of slow-moving, impossibly clean, and preternaturally organized quarter-mile long assembly lines, we watched as many hundreds of dedicated and cheery unionized craftspeople hand-assembled some of the most exquisite and over-engineered vehicles currently on offer.
There were no maggot-filled rivers of purulent blood, no festering mountains of offal or workers plunging unwittingly into superheated rendering vats only to be cooked down into Durham's Pure Leaf Lard. There was, however, a room piled high with bovine byproducts: Hide! But these were no cast-offs from some menial, Midwestern cut-up. They were the seamless skins of Bavarian bulls (bulls, not cows: no stretch marks) reared to maturity in wood-paneled pens, far from the pernicious pricks of barbed wire. Sucked to uniform flatness on the inverse of an air-hockey table, these skins are mapped for their utility by computer scanners, then cut by tiny robotic pizza wheels.
Not bespoke enough for you? There was also a stadium-sized area in which 154 handheld (and 7 robot-manipulated) welding guns attached the hand-hammered panels that constitute these cars' sculptural steel, aluminum, and polycarbonate-composite bodies. There was an immense and peet-reeking shop dedicated to completing the 100 hours of sawing, curing, sanding, layering, lacquering, baking, polishing, and cataloging of the dozens of mirror-matched veneer panels that line every interior. And there was a seemingly infinite series of stations where teams of workers were tasked with following the individualized build sheets that dangled from the mammoth hoods of each vehicle, installing the precise combination of custom wheels, trim, paint, piping, and fetal narwhal horn that Bentley's one-percenters request, and require.
In observing said fabrication process, we were fortunate enough to witness a rarity: the joining of a Bentley's immense body-shell with its equally elephantine chassis and drive-train. The former descended nimbus-like from above, while the latter waited below, in repose. "Lie back and think of England," we said, enunciating the obvious. Our guide giggled. "At other auto factories," he explained, "the workers call this The Stuff-Up. But that's not very Bentley. Here, we call it The Marriage."
All this apotheotic construction would have been considerably less meaningful — not to mention ungratifying — if we were unable to drive one of these cars. Fortunately, shortly after our tour, we jetted over to Germany and squealed on the autobahn in Bentley's fastest ever production model: the $215,000 Continental GT Speed, all 12 cylinders, 616 hp, 11 speakers and 15 m.p.g. of it.
Ours was painted a deep, moody color we call Conflict-Sapphire Blue, and once in it and properly conditioned to the bone-leather massaging seats, we headed toward Berchtesgaden. This location is not only unpronounceable to the uninitiated, it is also the site of Hitler's beloved Eagle's Nest bunker, just beneath which the Intercontinental Hotel chain has audaciously built a luxury ski resort.
During our departure, we accelerated to in excess of 172 mph, a personal best for us. Not so for the Speed: on a video, we saw it hit 205 mph, and hold. This made us curse the brevity of our voyage, the intrusive presence of drivers in Mercedes Ss and Ms and AMGs, and a pathological Teutonic road repair ethic that compulsively puts the build in Bildungsroman.
Endowed with the world's biggest disc brakes, we managed, narrowly, to avoid any high-speed collisions. Endowed with 70 cents Euro in coins, we were able to use the pay toilets at a roadside rest area. And, endowed with the Speed's new Google Maps-enabled sat-nav system, we were able to find a creepy Alpine town famous for its apfelstrudel and its elusive cat-headed serpent-bodied chimera, the Tatzelwurm.
But regardless of the manner from which our relief was derived, nothing in our voyage dissuaded us from our empathy for the workers of the world. More important, after everything we saw during this trip — including the local delicacy of square-cut liverwurst-on-a-bun, as interpreted by the aforementioned rest area — we do not, in any way, crave sausage. But we do think fondly of England.