Bentley seems to have gone full circle in recent years.
After spending far too much of its life as little more than an exercise in badge engineering, the upmarket British marque has started to regain its reputation as a purveyor of high-class automobiles (after a bit of a Cheshire footballer wobble).
It even enjoyed a glorious return to Le Mans in 2003 – and all this under German ownership.
So what makes Bentley so special? We trace its history from its birth in northwest London to the VW-owned modern incarnation.
The man behind the marque
There is no question that inveterate engineer WO Bentley was handier with a slide rule than he was an abacus.
Born in London to Australian parents in 1888, Walter Owen Bentley’s first job was with the Great Northern Railway, where he flourished as an engineer. During those years, he filled his leisure hours racing motorcycles before studying theoretical engineering.
WO’s first foray into business was a joint venture with elder brother Horace selling French DFP (Doriot, Flandrin & Parant) cars and putting the marque on the map by modifying examples with alloy pistons to secure Brooklands speed records.
The lightweight pistons, when adopted at Bentley’s behest by the likes of Rolls-Royce and Sunbeam for their aero engines, played an important part in the British war effort from 1914-1918 – an achievement which earned WO an MBE.
Immediately after the war, in early 1919, WO founded Bentley Motors Ltd – at which point the Bentley story starts in earnest.
Unfortunately, WO’s own destiny didn’t lie with the marque. He left his own company in 1935, having been marginalised by new owner Rolls-Royce, and joined Lagonda – and it was the 2.6-litre engine that he designed there that powered the early David Brown Aston Martins. His last berth before retiring was at Armstrong-Siddeley.
WO Bentley died in 1971.
Founding Bentley Motors in Cricklewood
Energised by his wartime efforts, WO wasted no time in setting up his own car company.
The intention was not to build and sell racing cars, but rather to craft a high-powered sporting car that was above all reliable. Nevertheless, the first Bentley, which broke cover at the London Motor Show in 1919, two years before deliveries started, soon found widespread fame in competition.
Not that it was all about racing. The 3 Litre, which was powered by a Clive Gallop 3-litre four-pot, came clothed in a wide range of coachwork – chiefly by Vanden Plas – and proved extremely popular, with more than 1500 units in total sold.
With the 3 Litre having established the marque, Bentley started work on new models. It was followed in 1926 by the 6½, then by the 4½ in 1927, the 8 Litre in 1930 and the 4 Litre in ’31, before the Rolls-Royce takeover ended the golden pre-war age of Bentley that same year.
The world’s fastest lorries
Despite the fact that his cars had already competed all over the world, including at the 1922 Indianapolis 500, WO Bentley was hardly blown away by the prospect of racing in the new 24 Hours of Le Mans announced in 1923, declaring the very concept of the race to be “crazy”.
The first Bentley to compete there was in fact a private entry by John Duff and Frank Clement, with only minimal factory support; WO allowed Clement, who was his test driver, to take part and also supplied two mechanics.
A last-minute decision by WO to watch the proceedings at La Sarthe changed everything, though. Duff and Clement finished an encouraging fourth in that first race, prompting the drivers to return and take the outright win the following year.
More importantly, the success at Le Mans persuaded London-based playboy Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato to prop up the ailing company for several years. Though two fallow years followed, a real mystique was growing up around the marque and its devil-may-care elite drivers, who became known as the Bentley Boys.
Those ‘Boys’ included Barnato, the Dunfees, Bertie Kensington Moir, Glen Kidston, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, Sammy Davis and Dudley Benjafield, but the term was applied to anyone racing a Bentley, and not just the core factory team.
The halcyon days of Bentley in competition started in 1927, when the company embarked on an astonishing run of four successive victories at Le Mans, quitting racing after the last and exiting on a high.
Not that everyone appreciated the cars’ achievements – Ettore Bugatti famously referred to them as “the world’s fastest lorries”.
The controversial ‘Blower’
Little known fact: the factory put a supercharger on a 3 Litre long before Tim Birkin launched a blown 4½ Litre Bentley, but, of course, it is the dashing Bentley Boy’s cars that are most famed now.
Backed by the wealthy Dorothy Paget and with engineering expertise from Amherst Villiers, Birkin supercharged a 4½ Litre with a Roots-type blower and showed it at the 1929 London Motor Show.
Even if WO disapproved, the project to build 55 cars to Le Mans spec won the support of Woolf Barnato. Competition results suggested that WO – who advocated that increasing capacity was always a more reliable solution than supercharging – was right.
While the naturally aspirated 4½ cars cleaned up, Birkin’s ‘Blowers’ never lived up to expectations and the two-strong team entered for La Sarthe in 1930 failed to finish. The ‘Blower’’s moment in the sun did come, though, when the Honourable Mrs Victor Bruce averaged almost 90mph for 24 hours in one at Montlhéry.
Enter Rolls-Royce and the move to Derby
With debts mounting and competition abandoned, Barnato found he was no longer willing to bail out Bentley and in 1931, the Cricklewood company went into receivership to be bought in cloak-and-dagger fashion by Rolls-Royce.
Rolls-Royce immediately stopped production of the cars that it considered rivals to its own Phantoms, sold the Cricklewood premises and revived its sporting subsidiary with the tag-line ‘The Silent Sports Car’ two years later in Derby.
This was the start of Bentley’s long years as a badge-engineered marque: from this point, every one of its cars was based around a Rolls-Royce chassis and engine, right up until ownership changed again in the next century.
The Derby Bentleys, as they are known, were stately and successful cars. Between them, 2422 examples of the 3½ Litre, 4¼ Litre and the Mk V were produced in the East Midlands, before WW2 caused the company’s focus to change again.
After the war, Rolls-Royce moved its motoring interests to the former aero engine factory in Crewe and revolutionised its production by offering its own coachwork (or a bare chassis) and, for the first time, off-the-peg turnkey cars.
The resulting MkVI was derived from the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith and went into production in 1946. It was a fabulously versatile car, with variants ranging from the Standard Steel saloon. Thanks to the flawless eye of designer John Blatchley, the MkVI morphed into the sensational R-types and Continental.
A return to the Bentley spirit?
The Continentals were followed in the mid-’50s by the Silver Cloud-derived S1, which in turn gave way to the Silver Shadow-based T1 and T2 as well as the Corniche and Camargue. The latter two overlapped another (technical) change in ownership for the marque, when Rolls-Royce collapsed and its car-production side was taken over by Vickers.
With Bentley sales diving towards oblivion, the new custodian did a remarkable job of reviving them via a succession of big, bruising sporting saloons such as the Mulsanne and Turbo R that in some senses recaptured the spirit of Bentley in its heyday.
A proper rebirth under VW
This is the other side of the coin to the confusion that embroiled the sale of Rolls-Royce at the turn of the millennium. In short, when Vickers decided to sell up, Volkswagen won the bidding war with BMW and thought it had acquired both Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
It transpired, however, that it had not got its hands on the Rolls-Royce car division, which was then snaffled up separately by BMW. Resigned to its fate, VW just got on with doing what it could with Bentley, which meant mammoth investment and proved a boon for the marque.
The introduction of the all-new W12-powered Continental GT was a massive achievement and a watershed moment for the Bentley marque.
The car may have been sullied by its reputation as the footballer’s favourite, and they may be a bargain to snap up today as a modern classic, but in selling by the bucketload (in Bentley terms) and offering immense performance – under 5 secs to 60mph and roughly 200mph in even the most base form – it re-established Bentley as a major player.
A victorious return to La Sarthe
One footnote to Volkswagen’s takeover of Bentley was the huge marketing exercise that was taking the marque back to Le Mans. There is no question that it was a PR masterstroke that raised patriotic spirits in the UK and Bentley’s profile globally, just when its new owner most needed it.
Even so, in 2003 when Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith pedalled the Bentley Speed 8 (really just a re-liveried version of the previously dominant Audi R8) to victory in a team managed by British Le Mans legend Derek Bell, it ticked all the boxes!
With Audi not fielding a factory entry, the space was clear for the second Bentley (the car of Mark Blundell, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert) to come home in second place, two laps behind.
And just to emphasise how much this was a victory for Audi as much as Bentley, customer R8s also came home third and fourth.
The centenary and today
Today, Bentley continues to blend traditional British craftsmanship with modern mechanicals courtesy of the Volkswagen group.
The Continental has remained the mainstay of the company since 2003, available since that time in a dizzying array of generations and variants.
But although VW has relied on that model for the bulk of its sales, it has not offered a one-car range and, as well as the pre-VW cars that limped on under the new ownership, the Conti has been joined by the four-door Mulsanne and Flying Spur, plus most recently the Bentayga SUV – itself related to Audi’s brilliantly engineered Q7.
Earlier this month, the marque announced that it would finally be retiring its famous V8 engine – present in 60 years of Bentleys stretching right back to the S2 in 1959.
But it won’t be the end for Bentley itself, and having celebrated its 100th birthday last year, we imagine it will be around for a lot longer yet.
Images: Drew Phillips, Bentley, Haymarket Automotive, James Mann/LAT/Motorsport Images