“W O”, as he was universally known, was born the youngest of nine children of a comfortably-off late Victorian family. He began his working life at sixteen years of age as a premium apprentice at the Doncaster Locomotive Works of the Great Northern Railway in 1905. For the next three and a half years of ‘sweat and dirt’ (as he described them), W O learnt his engineering skills. By 1909 he was ready to experience his burning childhood ambition to get onto the footplate of a steam locomotive. Eventually he was firing express locomotives out of Kings Cross.
BR2 aero-engineBentley Landmarks
Shortly after the armistice in 1919, WO Bentley, together with a group including Frank Burgess (formerly of Humber) and Harry Varley (formerly of Vauxhall), set about designing a high quality sporting tourer, for production under the name Bentley. Colonel Clive Gallop, who had been flying planes on the Western Front, which had been powered by WO's aero engines, joined the team, specifically designing the four valve-per-cylinder camshaft arrangement for the first engine. With his brother, HM, WO established the first 'Bentley Motors', that same year. The first Bentley Motors Ltd was founded in 1919, and between then and 1931, W O created the motor cars which became a legend and remain prized and treasured possessions at the end of the twentieth century, something of which the intensely modest W O would have been surprised, but also very proud.
WO Bentley and his small team fire up the prototype 3 litre engine in a small mews off Tottenham Court Road in central London. This engine had, for its time, an extremely advanced specification - four cylinders, single overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder and twin-spark ignition via two magnetos (the latter introduced a little later). Upon receiving a complaint from a nurse caring for a dying patient nearby disturbed by the noise, one wag present commented "A happy sound to die to".
Work commences on construction of the Bentley factory in Oxgate Lane, Cricklewood, North-West London.
The decision to prove the cars in competition was always going to be an important part of the development process, as WO Bentley and his brother, HM, had achieved so much with this policy before the First World War when they held the UK agency for the French DFP car. So, when EXP 2 became the first racing Bentley, gaining a race victory at Brooklands in 1921, the policy clearly justified itself, and the anticipation of this new car by the motoring press was considerably raised.
This particular prototype car, the second Bentley ever made, is still in existence and is now owned by Bentley Motors
In May, another pre-production 3 litre driven by Douglas Hawkes finished 13th in the Indianapolis 500 Race at an average speed of 74.95mph. This result astonished the Americans, especially as the car was quick straight out of its crate, and was essentially just a production car, competing against the best local thoroughbred racing machines. The very next month, Hawkes and his car joined WO Bentley and Frank Clement in a three-car team for the TT race on the Isle of Man. Racing these fundamentally standard specification cars against the experienced and highly tuned teams from Sunbeam and Vauxhall, the Bentley team were the only one to finish intact - 2nd, 4th & 5th - thereby winning the team prize, as well as much valuable publicity. Much needed, because….
WO Bentley & Leslie Pennel in their '22 TT car On 21 September, the first production Bentley left the factory and was delivered to its owner, Noel van Raalte, who was to become one of the most faithful ever customers of the marque. The 3 litre in its short chassis guise, was capable of 90mph - a remarkable achievement for a standard production car at that time, especially as this performance was combined with unusually high reliability. The team racing versions would reach top speeds in excess of 100mph.
John Duff, an official Bentley dealer based in Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2, requested Bentley Motors to prepare his personal 3 litre, chassis 141, for a novel 24 hour race to be held for the first time that May, at Le Mans in France.
Duff and Clement returned to Le Mans and, with the benefit of their experience the previous year, won a famous victory, the first of many for the marque.
hilst the handling and performance of the 3 litre was a revelation, especially in its short chassis configuration fitted with the popular 4 seater touring body, the performance was seriously compromised for those chassis fitted with heavy saloon bodies, a style which was becoming increasingly desirable. Consequently, the obvious decision was more horsepower, hence the introduction of the 6½ litre, later to become the Speed Six. Using longer chassis' and a six cylinder version of the engine, plus other modifications, including a three-throw drive for the overhead camshaft instead of the vertical bevel drive of the 3 litre, the power output was approximately doubled.
However, despite the critical acclaim afforded Bentleys in their first four years of production, sales were unable to match Company targets, and the development costs of the new six cylinder car had left the finances of the Company teetering on the edge. Fortunately, Woolf Barnato, the son of Barney Barnato of Kimberley Diamond Mine fame, had not long received his inheritance and, to celebrate, had bought a 3 litre to compete in at Brooklands. When he learnt that the supply of what had quickly become his favourite sports car could well dry up, he bought the Company to secure its immediate future.
Following two very unsuccessful returns to Le Mans in the intervening years since 1924, Bentley finally achieved a second victory, but not without some drama. Their three-car team were all involved in an accident that put two of the cars out of the race completely, and seriously damaged the third. Fortunately, that car, known as 'Old No. 7', was able to continue and, in the final hour of the race, caught and passed the leading car to win at an average speed of 61.35mph.
White House Crash.Not long after Le Mans, Bentley launched its third model, the 4½ litre. The 6½ was a refined chassis, designed for comfort rather than the more sporty aspirations of the 3 litre, which was now somewhat underpowered. Also, the early customers who had moved on to the 6½ were also missing the "bloody thump" of the four cylinder engine. The 4½ litre 4 cylinder engine mounted in a short (9' 9 ½") chassis has, arguably, become accepted as the best all-round package from this era - as comfortable carrying a saloon body as it is in a sporty package on a race track.
The real beginning of the 'Barnato' era. Despite having owned the Company for two years, it wasn't until 1928 that Woolf became a fully-fledged part of the group of rich amateur drivers known as the Bentley Boys, but it wasn't long before he was recognised as their principal Member. Whilst they had a reputation for the highest living, they were also fully committed to their racing, and Barnato in particular achieved spectacular success. The Company, with the backing of Barnato's millions, embarked on a packed racing programme. Out of five major races entered this year, Bentleys acquitted themselves well, with a 1st at Le Mans the best result of these, when Barnato & Bernard Rubin drove the prototype 4½ litre, 'Mother Gun', to a third 24 hour victory for Bentley. Other places were achieved, at home and abroad, cementing the reputation of these iconic motor cars as a world-beating sports car.
The victorious team.1929
The first year that the Speed Six was used in competition, when the Company built a special 11' chassis with a lightweight VdP 4 seater tourer body, and which became known as 'Old No. 1'. Leading the team, this car won two races in 1929 - Le Mans and the BARC Six Hour Race at Brooklands. This year saw the Team's best ever result at Le Mans, with Bentleys placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th.
A supercharged 4½ litre VDP four seater.1930
The previous year had seen the Wall Street Crash, the reverberations of which could be felt throughout the whole world, not least of all amongst the wealthy classes in England. Sales of Bentleys fell throughout this year and, if it wasn't for the deep pockets of Woolf Barnato, Bentley Motors would have folded before this year had had a chance to even get under way. Despite the gloom, Bentley Motors bravely launched the ultimate luxury motor car, the incredible 8 litre, with a six cylinder engine developed from the Speed Six, but fitted to a new chassis. These beautifully finished motor cars were capable of carrying the heaviest coachbuilt bodies at speeds in excess of 100mph, with no fuss and in complete comfort and safety - an incredible achievement for those days. The first car was delivered in October to the famous actor, Jack Buchanan. Only 100 were ever built, but their survival rate is excellent. Nevertheless, competitions still played a major part in their activities, and Old No. 1 managed to win Le Mans for the second year in succession. It's sister Speed Six also triumphed in the Junior Car Club's Double Twelve Race at Brooklands, and Birkin gained the most important result for the Supercharged 4½ litre cars, when he finished 2nd in the French Grand Prix against pukka GP cars, and on a notoriously twisty circuit. His car towered over the competition, and the result was nevertheless a very significant achievement.
Due to the ever-worsening financial situation, the important decisions within the Company were being taken by new Directors brought in by Barnato, and WO was becoming less and less pivotal in strategy. The most significant development was the introduction of the unloved 4 litre model - the engine was very much the brainchild of Harry Ricardo, but it was handicapped by the cost-cutting measure of mating it to a shortened version of the very heavy 8 litre chassis. 49 were built, but they have never captured the imagination of fans of the marque, mainly due to being underpowered. On 10 July, the Company found it could no longer meet its financial obligations and, with Barnato unwilling to continue baling it out, it was put into receivership. Following a brief battle with Napier, Rolls-Royce, hiding behind the British Equitable Central Trust, bought the Company and its assets for £125,275. Only the Service Department at Kingsbury remained, and continued to service and maintain Bentleys produced at Cricklewood continuously up until the War. There has been constant speculation about why Rolls-Royce bought Bentley Motors, but undoubtedly a primary motivation was to remove their most serious competitor in the luxury car market. The 8 litre, which was a direct competitor to the Phantom II Continental, had clearly demonstrated an overall superiority in performance, and, in the depressed market at that time, they could little afford a competitor of that calibre in such a restricted marketplace.
Dudley Froy in the Barnato Hassan
Birkin flat-out on the Byfleet banking
After a period of reflection and prevarication, Rolls-Royce decided that a sportier version of their 20/25 model could establish a niche for itself in the marketplace as a luxury sports tourer. Having explored various options, it was decided to power the new 'Bensport' with a more highly tuned version of the 20/25 unit - a six cylinder, pushrod engine fitted with twin S/U carburettors, increased compression, improved con rods and modified cam profiles, with a capacity of 3,669cc. Built at Derby alongside Rolls-Royce, and launched in September as the 3½ litre Bentley, this car possessed excellent handling characteristics, and could achieve a top speed of 97mph when fitted with lightweight bodywork. However, like all products designed under the influence of Sir Henry Royce, it was imbued with some of the most complicated design solutions for any car of the period. Nevertheless, it caught on and proved immensely popular, without affecting sales of its parent marque. Very soon, this new Bentley was christened 'The Silent Sports Car' - a name it is still closely associated with.
3½ litre Mulliner Sports Saloon.
So impressed with the potential of this latest Bentley after using his personal example as a practice car for the Mille Miglia that year, ER (Eddie) Hall decided that it could provide him with a suitable entry for the Ulster Tourist Trophy races, held each year in Northern Ireland. He, therefore, set about modifying it for the purpose. Hall had Offord fit a lightweight body, liberally utilising aluminium and electron materials. Despite setting its face against racing, Rolls-Royce, reasoning that this car was a private entry and so not potentially a source of adverse publicity in the event of failure, assisted Hall by improving the output from his engine from the standard 120hp, to a useful 131hp. Eddie Hall finished a very creditable 2nd in the race, a result he repeated with the same car in 1935, and again in 1936, when it was fitted with the enlarged 4¼ litre version of the engine. He also entered the car for Le Mans in '36, but the race was cancelled with a weeks notice owing to excessive industrial and civil unrest in France at that time, a situation that resulted in Ettore Bugatti being locked out of his own factory elsewhere in France.
Rolls-Royce introduced the enlarged capacity 4,255cc engine to the model, in response to a perception that the model was underpowered. The new model was called, not unsurprisingly, the 4¼ litre Bentley.
4¼ litre chassis B27LE, fitted with the streamlined body manufactured by the Parisien coachbuilders, Portout, left the factory during that summer. This car, better known as the Embiricos Bentley, later achieved a maximum speed of 118mph on a German autobahn the following year.
The Embiricos at Brooklands1939
The Mark V model was launched at the Motor Show. Sadly, the war intervened and only 15 examples of this promising model were ever produced, making them something of a collectors item today. Four of these cars were to be the high specification 'Corniche' version - the fore-runner of the Continental family.
Mk V Bentley
As the country slowly reverted to a peacetime economy, Rolls-Royce moved its Motor Division out of Derby in May, to a facility it had established at Crewe in Cheshire, for the purpose of building Spitfire engines. Pyms Lane was to become the longest ever serving home to the marque, as it so remains today. The motor manufacturers of Great Britain woke up to a new reality, with a completely new and ultra-punitive taxation culture - a direct consequence of the massive debt that the country had run up in order to defeat fascism. In this austere climate, Rolls-Royce were faced with a massive challenge, to which they rose with great credit and foresight, when they launched the MK VI. This model employed a six-cylinder 4¼ litre engine of 'F' head design, in a hefty chassis fitted with independent front suspension The MK VI was designed, in as much as this is possible with R-R, as a mass-production model in order to earn the Company as much hard currency as possible. With this in mind, for the first time ever, they produced a model with a standard steel saloon body, although rolling chassis could be purchased and delivered to ones coachbuilders to be fitted with a body designed to your personal specification, as every Bentley produced prior to 1940 had been. The great success of this model ensured sufficient breathing space for the parent Company to re-establish its philosophy in the post-war world.
Mk Vl Standard Steel Saloon1949
24 hour Racing returns to Le Mans after a ten year break, and with it a Bentley joining the other 36 cars entered. After a faultless and unflurried run, Soltan Hay and Tommy Wisdom bring the 1938 Embiricos 4¼ litre home in 6th place. This car returned in both 1950 and '51, finishing 14th and 22nd respectively. Eddie Hall brought his Derby out of retirement in 1950 and, fitted with a streamlined coupe body, they finished 8th.
Embiricos on its way to 6th in the 1949 Le Mans race1952
Having bored out the MK VI engine to 4½ litres the previous year, a revision for the model resulted in the launch of the 'R' Type variant, named on account of the chassis number suffix range had reached the letter 'R'.
The launch of the 'S' Series, utilising at first the six cylinder engine, now up to 4.9 litres, mounted in a new chassis, with a 'Continental' version for the more sporty-minded customers. However, this model marks the use of the automatic gearbox as standard, with very few chassis now fitted with a manual box.
S1 Continental drophead
With the introduction of the new, in-house designed V8 of 6.2 litres displacement, the 'S' became the 'S2', which incorporated yet more changes to the basic chassis design.
With sales of Bentleys experiencing something of a gradual decline, the introduction of the Silver Shadow, and its Bentley variant - the 'T' Type, the following decade and a half probably marks the lowest fortunes ever for the Bentley marque. The 'T' Type could only ever be described as a badge-engineered option to its parent model, and sales reflected this situation, when compared to those of the Silver Shadow. However, the important step forward was the introduction of a monocoque constructed chassis, all-round disc brakes, independent suspension at both ends with hydraulic self levelling, and much more. However, the Company recognised, as it still does today, what a gem of a powerplant it has in the V8.
The 'T' series became the 'T2' in 1977, and variations on this model included the Corniche.
Due to severe loss-making within the Aero division, the motor division is separated from the parent Company under its own management.
The original monocoque design of the 'T' Series is re-worked, the engine bored out to 6.75 litres, and, for Bentley, the new model is launched as the Mulsanne. Sales of the Mulsanne are, initially, slow, but salvation was just around the corner.
Marque afficionados would generally agree that this period saw the revival of the Bentley marque. Principally due to the efforts of the then Chief Executive, David Plastow, and the development team under John Hollings, the engine in the Mulsanne acquired a turbo to attribute it with some special performance attributes, which it most certainly did. However, whilst this massive car could be propelled to very high top speeds extremely quickly, it was not capable of carrying that speed comfortably enough through corners, as little work had been done on the running gear of the standard chassis.
In response to the criticisms levelled at the Mulsanne Turbo, dramatic improvements to the running gear were implemented, and the Turbo 'R' was born (the 'R' stands for 'roadholding'). Initially producing around 320bhp, 400 lbs ft torque, combined with ever-improving roadholding capabilities and enhanced tuning packages as the model was developed, this car put 'respectability' back into the name 'Bentley'. Sales, now comfortably outstripping the parent marque testify to this.
To take full advantage in the revival enjoyed by the marque, the Company re-launched the 'Continental', building a two-door, two-seater of dramatic proportions on the Turbo R platform.
These employed a 385bhp, rising to 420bhp tuned version of the V8, and the two-door concept led, in 1995, to the drophead 'Azure'.
A pivotal year for Bentley. The first major event was the launch of the new model, the Arnage, powered by a 4½ litre BMW engine, a reflection of the increasing closeness of the German Company to Rolls-Royce. Vickers, the owners of the car Company, put it up for sale and, after a two-way battle, Volkswagen win, albeit losing the Rolls-Royce marque to BMW in a curious twist to the takeover, and resulting from Rolls-Royce plc's ultimate ownership of the name 'Rolls-Royce'. The terms are that VW gain control of Bentley, the factory at Crewe, and all the company assets, along with Rolls production for four years. However, BMW will take control of Rolls-Royce on 1 January 2003.
Having announced a major investment in Crewe of some £500 million, the first outward impact of their ownership is the re-introduction of the original V8 into the Arnage, becoming the 'Red Label' version. This is a popular move with customers, despite the practical difficulties endured by the engineers at Crewe to achieve it. News also starts to leak out about their plans for a new model to be launched in 2003.
The 2001 Exp Speed 8
Due to the financial constraints imposed by a serious downturn in the world economy, and the subsequent drop in sales of new cars, Bentley only ran one car, a developed version of the 2001 car, finished 4th after an almost trouble-free run. The latest version of the Arnage, the 'T', is launched, with a considerably improved package, including the ever-reliable V8 tweaked to produce 440bhp,
The new Continental GT breaks cover at various motor shows around the world, with deliveries expected to commence in the autumn. This is also the last year that the Continental 'R' Type will be built.
The Continental GT
The two team Bentleys finish 3rd & 4th in their warm-up race at Sebring 12 hour race in the US. In April, Bentley Motors announce that more than 3,200 firm orders have been placed for the new Continental GT. At the test weekend at Le Mans in early May, the EXP Speed 8 racing cars finish with the fastest and third fastest times. After a gap of 73 years, a Works Bentley returns to the top step of the podium at Le Mans - the spiritual home of the racing Bentley. Tom Kristensen set an unbeatable target in qualifying with a lap of 3:31 in the No. 7 car, with the No. 8 car securing the second grid slot. The start saw the two Bentleys make a rapid start, whilst the three Audis were hemmed in for the first few laps by the Dome of Jan Lammers, giving our lads the opportunity to put some 'daylight' between themselves and their pursuers. In point of fact, they were never under any real pressure, with the ultimate winners never experiencing any hiccups on their way to a dominant win. The second car suffered only from two failed batteries, but Johnny Herbert did manage to set the lap record for the race on the Sunday. As a spectacle, this was not a classic - as a demonstration of superiority, it was superlative. Well done, Team Bentley, and congratulations to everyone at the Team and Bentley Motors! In their third year of return to motor racing at Le Mans, Bentley Motors Limited succeeded in the 2003 Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans taking 1st and 2nd places.