This week, Bentley Motors introduced its new Continental GT Mulliner Coupé to the world during the Salon Privé 2020 event at Blenheim Palace. Production of the new standard Conti GT, if such a luxury product can be referred to as standard, began two years ago and now Bentley is offering a more bespoke version with an almost limitless choice of exterior and interior finishes.
Bentley, like many other premium marques, runs a named bespoke program to cater for those for whom exclusivity is the ultimate luxury. Think Q by Aston Martin, Ad Personam at Lamborghini, Ferrari Tailor Made or the ‘does what it says on the tin’ Rolls Royce Bespoke.
Rather than in some way be descriptive, Bentley chose the name Mulliner to brand its personalised offer. But have you ever wondered where Mulliner comes from and how it ended up on the side of a Bentley?
The Mulliner family’s association with wheeled transport dates back to the time of Elizabeth I, to a carriers and saddlers business. But it came to prominence in 1760 when Francis Mulliner was engaged to build and look after carriages to service the newly expanding Royal Mail network. In the 1850s, his son Robert Bouverie Mulliner established a coach-building company in Liverpool and then nearly twenty years later, another in Chiswick called Mulliner London.
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Robert’s son, Henry Jervis Mulliner, also established his own coach building business HJ Mulliner & Co in 1897. At this time both businesses were still building equine-powered coaches but, with Karl Benz having spawned the motorised carriage a decade before, it wasn’t long before Henry developed an interest in the burgeoning automotive industry and redirected production efforts to building bespoke bodies for cars. For many years, most motor cars left their makers’ factories as just an engine on a chassis and it was down to a coachbuilder to design and hand-craft a cabin and seating to the customer’s requirements.
Mulliner has a rich history and expertise spanning centuries of coachbuilding. These qualities of fine craftsmanship and visionary design are still evident in Mulliner’s latest products. Mulliner’s mission is to respond to the requirements of the most discerning Bentley customers, providing iconic and unforgettable bespoke Bentleys.
The three examples at Salon Privé demonstrate how traditional coachbuilding can be reflected through contemporary techniques, sustainable materials and shows Bentley’s design capabilities like no other luxury car manufacturer today.
From 1900, Henry took over his father’s Mayfair showroom to be closer to the wealthy London-based customers. One of those customers was a young man called Charles Rolls who had begun marketing and selling cars designed and made by another young engineer called Henry Royce. And so began an association between Mulliner and what soon became known as Rolls-Royce.
By the end of the decade, Henry had retired and sold the business to Edinburgh-based funeral undertakers and carriage hirers John Croall & Sons, although they appointed Henry’s brother-in-law to run the company.
Walter Owen Bentley
After the 1914-18 war, Walter Owen Bentley established his company making cars and in 1923, the first Mulliner-bodied Bentley three-litre was produced for the Olympia Show. Over 240 Bentley chassis were bodied by HJ Mulliner & Co during the 1920s and although they worked with other manufacturers too, by the 1930s almost all of their production was either for Bentley or Rolls-Royce. Mulliner soon became known as one of the best of the coachbuilding firms.
The 1930s saw the acquisition of Bentley Motors by Rolls-Royce and for the next seven decades, cars of both marques shared engine and chassis development and still continued to use coachbuilders such as Mulliner to design and build the bodies. Most notable from Mulliner were the 1952 R-Type Continental, the fastest four-seat sports car of its era, and the 1957 Flying Spur.
The last of the independents, HJ Mulliner & Co itself was acquired by Rolls-Royce in 1959, who then merged it with another coachbuilder, Park Ward which it already owned.
When in the final years of the 20th century the then owner Vickers sold off Rolls-Royce, its various assets and brand names were divided up between rival bidders BMW and Volkswagen. Whilst the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy and the famous grille went to BMW, Bentley’s flying-B went to VW along with Mulliner and its claim to be the world’s oldest coachbuilder.