Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficiionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

We are independent restoration, repair, sales and service for Audi, BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Rolls-Royce automobiles.

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The meaning of bespoke in today's auto world

Here are three generations of Crewe-built motorcars, yesterday at Robison Service. The blue car is a soon-to-be-on-sale 2015 Flying Spur, courtesy of Bentley USA. The black car beside it is one of the last long wheelbase Turbo R - Bentley's most iconic modern car. The grey car in the background is a Seraph - the BMW designed Rolls Royce that bridged the gap between the others.

All three are what's called bespoke editions. The blue car is a Bentley factory custom. The black 1996 car is a bespoke restoration from our shop. The grey car was the first coach built Seraph, commissioned by us for a local client in 1998, and customized by Mulliner Park Ward.

Bespoke is the process of taking a stock vehicle, and making it something special - beyond what one can do with an option and color list.  

Impressive as the 2015 car was, it lacks the majesty of the older designs from Crewe.  It's surely a fine upgrade from an S-Class Mercedes or an Audi A8, but it's not a replacement for the Corniche S, below, which will always stand apart.

We spent quite a bit of time talking about the meaning of bespoke, and what it means in today's world.  We see bespoke as a Savile Row suit maker.  You can buy a fine pre made suit in a store, or you can have an artisan tailor create what you imagine.  Pinstripes not quite right? - no problem.  There may be ten styles of pinstripes on the suit rack, but there are a thousand fabrics in the mill, and if that's not enough, a custom pattern may be woven.  Wide lapel? Narrow? Three buttons? No problem.

We do the same to make our restoration and custom work one of a kind.  We assume a level of quality that's superior to the original product, and employ bespoke materials that are not available anywhere "off the rack."  

We can do straight "by the book" restoration, of course, but works of automotive art are my preference.

This creative philosophy is somewhat at odds with those who believe a factory build sheet is the one and only definition of how a car should be restored.  At Robison Service, we instead ask, "What was possible for the coach builders in the year this car was made?"  From that jumping off point we create something truly one of a kind in keeping with the era.

Might the car have cabinets in the doors?  Would today's owner want a modern stereo, run by remote control, hidden in back?  How about other convenience features we take for granted today, like pushbutton locking?  Are those systems compatible with the technology of the car?  In some cases we will fit (invisibly) things that were not available in the day to make the car more usable in the modern world without detracting from its vintage look.

Then we have the "look" itself which is founded in paints, trim, fabric, and of course, wood veneers. In a bespoke job we might employ different woods, or unique shapes or inlay patterns.  Wood paneling in older cars was cut and shaped in the wood shop, and work to a client's drawing was not unheard of. That means modern craftsmen can cut and shape their own interpretations, and hold those up as equally valid.  That's harder to do on new cars, where the wood veneers are glued to molded plastic and aluminum backs for crash safety, but it's still possible.

We could do a lot with the blue Bentley in the photos.  You would be amazed how wood and leather alone would transform the car.  

There's a similar flexibility with other interior fabrics and trim.  Your headliner may be vinyl today, but who's to say it should not be suede, leather, or wool broadcloth instead?  Any of those materials would have been available to 1960s coach builders.  

Then you have paint and brightwork.  There again you have a lot more flexibility than looking at a simple color chart.  Would you do the car two-tone, or with a stripe down the center (like a racing MINI?)  Would you want the straight color of the 60s or the modern clear coat look?  Do you want metallic or solid?  Would you paint things like the grille and wheels, and if so, how?  

The first owner chose the custom white pearl color on the Corniche S in the photo above. It's a complex multilayer formula from Glasurit, the premier maker of auto paints. Who's to say his choice is the only right choice for that car today?  Rolls Royce only built one car in that color - ever - and I'd have no hesitation making a different choice for an owner today. The only thing I'd ask is to make the change properly.  If you hold to the standard of "better than new" that is seldom a problem.

Here's a bespoke Range Rover, with woodwork from Will Rau.  The wood is just magnificent - it transforms the whole car.  Sometimes a bespoke change is as subtle as this.  The owner of this car loves the Rau woodwork we'd done in his Bentley, and we replicated that for him here:

Contrast that with the stock Supercharged Range Rover interior and it's like we've switched from color to black and white photography:

Here's some more bespoke woodwork, from Will Rau and others, to give a sense of the range of possibility.  But it's only a sense . . . the limits have yet to be found.

How does that play out in a car? Take a look and see . . . 

On a vintage car we have the freedom to do most anything with the mechanicals and electrics.  We can fit a bigger alternator if needed, and do many invisible updates that make the vehicle safer or more usable.  On a newer car (like the blue Bentley) the process of mechanical and electronic customization is tougher, and in some cases restricted by laws and rules, but it can still be done.  There's an opportunity there for factory customs, and I wonder if Bentley will exploit it.

If you liked this story, please leave a comment.  And if you want more . . . here are some of my other RR/B essays

Thoughts on buying a used Rolls Royce or Bentley - applies to Silver Cloud and newer series cars

More thoughts on Spur - Spirit - Turbo era car buying

Thoughts on restoration - applies to all cars

Evolution of the RR/B models - Silver Shadow through Arnage/Seraph - original article from the Robison Service website

Inspecting a Rolls Royce or Bentley - Applies to Corniche, Continental, Azure, Turbo R, Mulsanne, Eight, Turbo R, Silver Spur, Silver Dawn, Silver Spirit

More Things to Look For in a 1981-2000 Rolls Royce or Bentley - this is the original article from the Robison Service website

The last Crewe built Rolls Royce convertibles - applies to 2000-2002 final Series Corniche

Repairing convertible top hydraulics - Applies to 1996-2004 Rolls Royce and Bentley Corniche and Azure cars

Head gasket failures in Bentley Turbo cars - applies to Turbo R, Continental R and T, Azure, Arnage

Checking engines after head gasket failure - Applies to all cars

Checking and inspecting Rolls Royce hydraulic systems - all cars after Silver Cloud and print to Silver Seraph. Applies to all Shadow/Spur era vehicles

Case Study - brake failure in a Shadow - Silver Shadow era cars with RR363

Rear suspension gas springs - Applies to all 1981 - 1999 cars prior to Silver Seraph

Changing batteries in seat and ECUs, Applies to 1980s-1990s Silver Spirit / Silver Spur / Mulsanne /Eight / Turbo R

Changing alarm ECU batteries,  Applies to 1980s-1990s Silver Spirit / Silver Spur / Mulsanne /Eight / Turbo R

Servicing Shadow and Spur series brakes - applies to 1966 - 1999 cars after Silver Cloud and prior to Silver Seraph

Alcon racing brakes for Continental and Azure - Applies to all 1990s cars but most particularly to the final series Azure, which had these brakes fitted at the factory - a unique variant

Fixing Power Steering Leaks - applies to 90s cars with the reservoir above the alternator

Questions and answers on collector car storage - Applies to all cars

Evaluating paint - Applies to all cars

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service, independent restoration and service for Bentley, Rolls Royce, Land Rover, and other fine motorcars in Springfield, MA  Find him online at or on the phone at 413-785-1665

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