History Of Bentley Motor Cars

by Bob Hagin

July 16, 2001

The British have a peculiar view of the automobile. In fact, it can almost be called a national reverence, especially about vintage iron. Anything old is fodder for a ground-up restoration no matter how prosaic or dull the vehicle. Spindly Austin 7's of the '20s are venerated like doddering old aunties.

With this attitude in mind, it's not difficult to understand the veneration the British have for the Bentley Motor Car Company. Although it has had many trials and tribulations in its 82-year history, British enthusiasts remain loyal. A prime example was the national exuberance displayed when one of the Bentley "prototype" race cars finished third at the recent 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car endurance race in France. Never mind that the company is now owned by Volkswagen and that the engines used in the two Bentley racers were the same as those powering the two Audi R8 racers that took first and second. The Bentley Speed 8 that finished third overall carried the "Winged B" on its bonnet and was painted the traditional British Racing Green. It was the first time that a Bentley had place in the top three in 71 years. Rule Britannia (almost)!

But like many of the pioneers in the auto business world-wide, the Bentley's road to this year's podium at Le Mans has been a rough one. W.O. Bentley began his "automotive" career as a railroad engineering apprentice at the turn of the century and immediately got into racing via the motorcycle circuit, a common practice among young Brits before World War I.

Bentley gravitated through an aviation engineering stint during that war and at its end, became determined to form an auto manufacturing company of his own. Bentley Motors, Ltd. was formed in 1919 with very little capital on hand, a plight that was to plague the company for the next decade.

Being a racer at heart, Bentley's first products were high- performance open cars that immediately established themselves as winners in the hectic world of European racing between the wars. Bentley cars won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times from 1923 until the demise of the company in 1931.

Actually "demise" isn't the correct word. W.O. Bentley had realized early on that there was a limited market for "sporting" and race cars, and to succeed, his company would have to make bread-and-butter vehicles that would pay the bills. To this end, his London-based company built rolling chassis that were fitted with very fancy coachwork bodies for wealthy clients. The last of the line was powered by a huge 8.0-liter six-cylinder engine. Besides the inevitable open sports car bodies, it was also fitted up with limousine, touring car and coupe bodies. Bentley had become a major competitor for Rolls-Royce and other British luxury car builders.

But the big Bentley couldn't have come at a worse time. The Great Depression was on and the privately-funded Bentley Motors, Ltd. was broke. Although Bentley himself was preparing a deal to sell the company to another firm, the deal was skated out from under him by Rolls-Royce in 1931. Although it was reported to have stuck in Bentley's craw, he became an R-R employee for a while. This began the era of the so-called Rolls-Bentley, cars that were more "sporting" than their R-R stablemates but by no means the Le Mans winners of the previous decade.

In the decade before World War II, the Bentley line became, in effect, the hot-rod Rolls-Royce. The Bentley chassis of that era started off life in the late '20s as a smaller Rolls that was originally conceived as a car for the up-and-coming executive. Aborting this concept as The Depression deepened, the company installed a slightly hopped-up 3.5-liter R-R engine and had more "sporting" body work installed. In this guise , it was quite successful and it quickly acquired the quasi-official title of "The Silent Sports Car."

World War II devastated the British industrial complex and Rolls-Royce suffered too. The post-war Bentley Mark VI became literally a Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn with a different grill. In 1952, the R-R hot-rod concept was resurrected in the form of the R-type and in particular, the R-type Continental, a high-speed coupe designed for touring in Europe. In the years that followed, this program was expanded upon and included a turbocharged V8 that provided top speeds in the neighborhood of 150 MPH and 7-second 0-to-60 MPH acceleration times. This from a full-sized luxurious Rolls-Royce spinoff.

The turbulent financial times of the '60s culminated with the company becoming part of the Vickers conglomerate which in turn recently sold the Rolls-Royce name to BMW and the Bentley name, factory and assets to Volkswagen. The resulting conflict between the two German giants has lead not only to massive law suits but corporate animosity between the two.

To its credit, the leaders of VW have resurrected the Bentley motorsports tradition in general and its return to Le Mans in particular. This, of course, pleases British auto enthusiasts immensely and helps to mollify the fact that a British automotive icon is owned by a German company.

But W.O. Bentley would be even more pleased that "his" company was finally wrestled away from Roll-Royce.


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