In September 1969, 16-year-old Noel Thompson was one of 60 youngsters starting their apprenticeships at Bentley Motors in Crewe, England. Fifty years later, he’s become the longest-serving Bentley employee and has had a hand in the company’s products for half of its 100-year history.
Thompson is a “coach-trimmer,” the British term for producing the upholstery in a vehicle’s interior. His workmanship has provided a rolling throne for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
For his first 22 years at Bentley, Thompson worked in the same factory as his father, a “coach-painter,” who was a Bentley employee for 41 years. During World War II, Thompson’s grandmother worked in the Bentley factory.
“When I first started, the factory was a bit old-fashioned,” Thompson recalled in a corporate news release celebrating his long career. “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 1,800 units per year and with a very limited range.”
But much changed in 1998 after Bentley became part of Volkswagen Group.
“The factory is now bright and modern with an automated track and shows little resemblance to the old days,” he continued. “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.”
Thompson has always enjoyed talking with factory visitors and Bentley lately has sent him around the world annually as a representative of the brand, demonstrating the art of coach-trimming at motor shows and other events. He has been to British embassies and consulates around the world, and once spent four days at Buckingham Palace.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he noted, “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.”
During his career, Thompson has made all aspects of Bentley interiors. Lately, he’s specialized in steering wheels, hand-punching perforated lines into soft leather hides, then sewing and fitting them by hand.
“Noel famously uses a dining fork to ensure that the stitches are evenly spaced on each and every unique steering wheel that he creates,” Bentley noted in its news release.
“If it works, it works,” he responded. “So why wrap steering wheels any other way?”