The History of Bentley Motors
of Bentley Motors
What Makes a Bentley Special?
The Man Behind the Brand: W.O. Bentley
Walter Owen “W.O.” Bentley was born to upper-middle-class parents in 1888 and was the youngest of nine children. Even at an early age, he was fascinated with the mechanics of movement. At age nine he bought a used bicycle and took it apart himself to understand how it worked. Trains were another of his obsessions. At age sixteen he left school to become an apprentice for the Great Northern Railway. Over the course of his five years there he learned (and had a knack for) design engineering and all the details and techniques needed to cast, manufacture, and build complex railway equipment.
During his time on the railway, he also became interested in motorcycles, acquired a Quadrant cycle, and along with two of his brothers threw himself head-first into motorcycle racing. He earned several gold medals in races, in part because he used his engineering knowledge to grow his skills in tweaking engines for better performance. After finishing his railroad apprenticeship, he went into business with one of his brothers to import and sell French cars made by Doriot, Flandrin & Parant (DFP). While visiting their offices one year, he noticed an aluminum paperweight and wondered if aluminum might be a better metal for engine pistons than cast iron or steel. He eventually created an alloy of 88% aluminum and 12% copper. His new pistons were a big hit in terms of boosting engine performance, which they demonstrated by racing and winning with their DFP cars at the Brooklands racetrack. The two brothers eventually bought out DFP and renamed the company Bentley and Bentley.
When WWI started, W.O. joined the war effort as a Captain in the Royal Naval Air Service by contributing his superior pistons to aircraft engines, resulting in fighter planes with more power and better reliability. Soon he was building whole aero rotary engines, including the BR.1 and BR.2, engines used in the Sopwith Camel biplanes that became the most successful British fighter planes in the war. But W.O. longed to start building his own sporting motor cars. Good news came when his war efforts were recognized by being awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) on the 1919 New Year’s Honors list. He also received a substantial monetary award from the Commission of Awards to Inventors, which became the capital he needed to fulfill his dream. On the very same day the Paris Peace Conference got underway to bring WWI to an end, W.O. founded Bentley Motors Limited on January 18, 1919.
The Bentley Vision: Best-In-Class Cars
In W.O.’s own words, his vision for Bentley Motors was surprisingly simple: “We were going to make a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” Autocar weekly magazine caught wind of what he was doing and noted in an article how W.O. was working on a new car “…intended to appeal to those enthusiastic motorists who desire a car which, practically speaking, is a true racing car with touring accessories.” This goal remains a top priority to the Bentley of today.
An exhibition chassis was made and displayed at the 1919 Motor Show and the first prototype was on the road in nine months. A second prototype was used in races at Brooklands in 1921, and the first production model made its debut in 1922, called the Bentley 3 Litre. From then on, Bentley cars won plenty of races and made their mark with four consecutive wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance in 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930, a record that stood until the 1960s.
After the initial success of 3 Litre came the six-cylinder 6½ Litre launched in 1926, originally called the Big Six but two years later changed to the Speed Six. Next came the four-cylinder 4½ Litre in 1928, and then the six-cylinder 8 Litre in 1930, W.O.’s final creation, and because of the growing economic crisis, only 100 were ever made. These cars were created first and foremost to be road cars that also happened to be so high-performance they could win races.
Trouble appeared on the horizon for Bentley Motors when the Great Depression hit. The company had always been underfunded, but with the economy in tatters, demand for luxury cars all but dried up and the company had to go into liquidation. It was purchased in 1931 by British Central Equitable Trust, which turned out to just be a front company for Rolls-Royce Motors.
W.O. wasn’t enthusiastic about how this takeover was playing out, and when his contract expired in 1935, he left the company and joined another British luxury car brand called Lagonda (acquired by Aston Martin in 1947). For the next 50 years, Bentley cars were basically “rebadged Rolls-Royce” models, with the exception of a few Bentley-only models such as the R-Type Continental of the 1950s. In 1982, Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motorcars began to resurrect the Bentley image as a sporting grand touring sedan with the launch of the Bentley Turbo, followed ten years later by the Bentley Continental R.
From 1999-2004, Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motorcars were slowly disentangled such that Rolls-Royce became a subsidiary of the BMW Group and Bentley became a subsidiary of the Volkswagen or VW Group. At last, both companies could finally set about designing new cars quite distinct from previous models. Bentley launched the new Bentley Continental GT, followed by the Continental Flying Spur, and then the Continental GT Convertible. The new models sold well and breathed new life into the Bentley Brand, selling in numbers never seen by the company before. The company even returned to racing for a period of time and added to the Bentley win list another win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Grand Prix endurance of 2003, 73 years to the day of the last time Bentley took the race in 1930.
Bentley Motors Today
Bentley vehicles are made at a factory in Crewe, England, originally constructed as a shadow factory by Rolls-Royce and the British government to build aero engines for WWII. More than 25,000 Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engines were built there. At its peak, the factory in the northwest of the United Kingdom employed 10,000 people. The Crewe factory today is staffed with more than 4,000 skilled workers. Some families have three and even four generations of workers at the plant, and some employees have been there for as long as 40 years.
Bentley continues to innovate as it also honors its past. The Mulsanne model Bentley launched in 2010 became the first flagship car to be independently designed by Bentley Motors 80 years after the last one, which was W.O.’s 8 Litre model in 1930. During the years between those two cars, Bentley vehicles mostly shared platforms with Rolls-Royce cars. The Mulsanne is a car frequently found on lists of the best luxury cars of all time. In 2015 Bentley entered new territory by launching the world’s first luxury SUV called the Bentayga, and it has stood up to some serious challenges, including the grueling Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and passed them all with flying colors.
Who drives a Bentley today? Anyone who takes pleasure in challenging accepted conventions in any field, and anyone who loves the brand’s unique combination of high performance and stunning luxury in cars that will continue to make their mark for decades to come. Luxury car enthusiasts around the world eagerly await what the next chapter in the history of Bentley Motor Cars will bring.