“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.
W O as a child
In 1906, W O acquired his first motor-cycle, a 3hp Quadrant. By
1907 the ‘lure of speed’ as he later described it, expressed itself
when he entered the 400-mile London to Edinburgh Trial, staged by the
Motor Cycling Club. After dealing en route with various problems
endemic to early motor cycles, he reached Edinburgh just before his
scheduled deadline, and so qualified for a Gold Medal in his first
WO astride his Rex motorcycle
From this modest beginning came W O’s life-long love of motor
sport, soon to evidence itself again in the D.F.P. car, for which he
and his brother H M bought the UK agency in 1912. The new company,
called Bentley and Bentley, eventually established a modest niche in
the motoring world with their much-improved D.F.P. 12/15 model. In
1913 came the aluminium piston, which W O is credited with developing
for automotive purposes. The 12/40 D.F.P. Speed model, with aluminium
alloy pistons, brought the brothers commercial and competition
success, including Brooklands Class records, before World War One
brought their business life to an abrupt temporary halt.
Lieutenant W.O. Bentley RNVR served his country well in World War
One. His BR1 and BR2 rotary aeroplane engines, designed and built
with his friends at Humber, proved to be some of the best aero-engines
of their day, with the BR2 continuing in RAF service well into the
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".
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
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
The prototype 3 litre engine
The chassis was the work of Frank Burgess, the
ex-Humber designer who WO Bentley had met during the First World War,
and recognised an engineer thinking along the same lines as himself.
The first completed chassis, EXP 1, was undertaking test runs by
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.
3 litre supersports
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.
Frank Clement cornering hard at Pontlieve
Having experienced some delays with breakages, resulting from the
terrible conditions at the circuit, Duff and his co-driver, Clement,
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.
Whilst 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.
6½ litre engine
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
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.
A 4½ litre at speed
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
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.
1929 winning team and cars - 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th
Later that year, at Brooklands again, a 4½ litre won the BRDC 500 Mile
Race, driven by Jack Barclay & Frank Clement. The BRDC (British Racing
Drivers Club), better known these days as the owners of Silverstone,
was formed from a core of Bentley team drivers this same year, and the
500 Mile Race was their inaugural event. Other notable results
Bentleys achieved included 2nd places in both the Double Twelve Hour
Race at Brooklands, and the Irish Grand Prix at Phoenix Park in
The other notable development in 1929, was the
introduction of the Supercharged 4½ litre. Sir Henry Birkin, arguably
the most glamorous and celebrated of the Bentley Boys, decided, with
the blessing of Woolf Barnato, to go his own way on the development of
a suitable racing Bentley. He was convinced, much to the displeasure
of WO Bentley, that supercharging was the way ahead, and set up his
own workshops in Welwyn Garden City north of London. These cars have
subsequently become the most iconic of the various Vintage Bentley
models, despite never winning a major race. Initially, five chassis
were built up in Welwyn Garden City, solely for racing purposes, to be
followed by a further 50 production versions built at Cricklewood.
A supercharged 4½ litre VDP
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
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
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
Dudley Froy in the Barnato Hassan
Birkin flat-out on the Byfleet banking
A single private entry of a 4½ litre entered and
failed to finish, and this pattern was repeated the following two
years with one of the 'Blower' team cars, now owned by a Frenchman.
Whilst at Brooklands, various privateers continued competing with
highly developed Bentleys with various levels of success. The most
significant of these achievements were 'Old Number 1's' victory in the
1931 500 Mile Race, and Sir Henry Birkin's lap record of almost 138mph
in 1932 whilst driving his Supercharged 4½ litre single-seater.
Another Bentley hybrid achieved the second fastest ever lap of
Brooklands in 1938 - a lap speed of just over 143mph achieved by
Oliver Bertram driving Woolf Barnato's Barnato-Hassan Special. This
car was the brainchild of ex-Bentley Team mechanic, Wally Hassan, who
went on to design the extremely successful Coventry-Climax GP engines
in the early sixties, and following their take-over by Jaguar, he had
much to do with the Jaguar V12 engine, eventually taking over as
Managing Director of that Company.
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 popular was this car with famous motoring
personalities of the day, the Company were able to publish a publicity
brochure with photographs and endorsements from such racing
celebrities as Sir Malcolm Campbell, Captain George Eyston, Captain
Woolf Barnato (Now a Director of the re-launched Bentley Motors), ER
Hall, Raymond Mays, Fl Lt CS Staniland, Prince Birabongse of Siam,
Captain Archie Frazer Nash, AC Dobson, Billy Cotton (of Band fame), T
Rose Richards, and H Rose.
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.
Eddie Hall in his 3½ litre at the 1934 TT
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 Brooklands
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 Saloon
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 race
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'.
'R' Continental Mulliner Fastback
The Company had also been working on a special
light-weight, tuned version, which would achieve 120mph - a quite
remarkable achievement for a full four-seater at that time. This was
the ubiquitous 'R' Type Continental, a stunning ultra-fast
trans-continental tourer, clothed in the most eye-catching of
coachwork designed by HJ Mulliner, the Fastback, and marketed as the
fastest production four-seater in the world. 208 were built, and they
represent a pinnacle for the marque post-war.
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.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd is sold to Vickers.
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
Bentley return to Le Mans with a works team for the
first time in 71 years, with the EXP Speed 8 - a purpose endurance
racer designed and built by RTN in Norfolk, and run by Apex Motorsport
at the circuit. A three year campaign had been announced, with the
intention of competing for the top honours in the third anticipated.
In the most appalling weather conditions, which caused the retirement
of one of the two Bentleys, the number 8 car finished 3rd.
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
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
The Continental GT
A two car team is planned for Le Mans, and details
emerge of the latest version of EXP Speed 8 being a fundamentally new
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.