Bentley History

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Bentley History


United Kingdom
The best known of the Bentley marque is arguably the 3 litre model, of which only approximately 1600 were built during the model's 8 year run. Of course, production volumes were a lot less back then, but when you consider that around 1600 Bullnose Oxfords and Cowleys left the Morris factory during a single month in 1925 and you could have bought a complete new Morris or Clyno tourer for less than the cost of the Bentley's skimpy tourer coachwork, you can better understand why, even then, the Bentley was both rare and highly sought after.

Born on 16 September 1888, Waiter Owen Bentley was the ninth of eleven children; he had served five years as a premium apprentice in the Great Northern Railway's workshops at Doncaster, only to decide that the financial rewards of a career on the railways were hardly worthwhile.

So he joined the National Motor Cab Company of Hammersmith late in 1910 at the recommendation of a friend, E. M. P. Boileau of The Autocar, charged with the task of keeping the firm's 250 Unic taxis running economically; he had already developed a taste for fast motoring which at that time he satisfied with competition successes on Rex and Indian motor cycles.

Doriot, Flandrin & Parant

In 1912 Bentley had the opportunity to go into the motor trade with his brother H. M. They bought out the partners of a business that imported the French Doriot, Flandrin & Parant (or "DFP"). The DFP was available in three models, the 10-12 hp, the 12-15 hp and the 16-20 hp.

The smallest and largest machines were unremarkable, but W.O. realised that the 12-15 offered better potential performance than any of its competitors, and instituted a competition programme to provide the necessary publicity to boost sales. On his first outing, Bentley broke the 2-Iitre class record for the ascent of Aston Clinton hill, in Buckinghamshire, and found that proven speed capability was a good selling point, even though keeping up a good competition record strained the meagre finances of Bentley & Bentley Ltd to the utmost.

The Aluminium Piston

At speeds of 80 mph-plus, the DFP proved to have a weak point - pistons - and it was while W.O. was visiting the DFP factory at Courbevoie, near Paris, that he noticed an aluminium paperweight in the shape of a miniature piston on M. Doriot's desk. Bentley had some full size alloy pistons made, found they gave more power and speed, and used them in a new 12-40 DFP Speed Model he had asked the factory to develop for the English market.

At the same time, and unknown to him, some Continental manufacturers were experimenting with alloy pistons, and the British scientist Dr A. M. Low had fitted a set to his Gregoire. But Bentley was almost certainly the first on the English market to use alloy pistons in a production model. At Brooklands, an alloy-pistoned DFP racer proved faster than machines of twice the swept volume, and the model put up a good showing in the 1914 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, being one of six cars to finish out of 23 starters.

Contributing To The War Effort

Eight weeks later war broke out. Bentley offered the alloy piston to the Government as a contribution to the war effort, was given a commission in the Navy and sent out to persuade engine makers that the aluminium piston was superior to those made of cast-iron or steel. First to make use of Bentley's discovery were Rolls-Royce, whose new Eagle aero-engine owed a good deal to the 1914 Grand Prix winning Mercedes, which Bentley had found covered in old sacks in the basement of the former British Mercedes showrooms in Long Acre.

Next, Bentley was assigned to Gwynne of Chiswick, who were building the French Clerget rotary under licence; but the Clerget was an unsatisfactory design, and W.O. was anxious to develop his own aero-engine. In 1910 he was given the opportunity, as Humber of Coventry were keen to produce something more exciting than the bicycles and field kitchens with which their factory was occupied.

Walter Owen Bentley
Walter Owen Bentley, pictured after retirement at a Bentley Owners club meeting in the UK.

1928 3 litre Bentley
A 1928 3 litre Bentley.

Bentley 3 litre engine
An engine photo of the Bentley 3 litre unit.

1928 Bentley 3 Litre, Driven By Barnato and Rubin at the 1928 Le Mans

In 1928 Barnato and Rubin drove a 4½ Litre to victory at Le Mans. The winning car covered the last lap with a broken frame and a dry radiator to earn a place in racing history.

The Rotary Nine-Cylinder BR1

In conjunction with Humber's chief designer, F. T. Burgess, Bentley developed a nine-cylinder rotary engine, the BR1, which reached production status by late 1916. By the spring of 1918 a larger rotary, the BR2, was being built at the rate of 120 a week for the new Sopwith Snipe fighter scout but the rotary was an evolutionary dead end and, by the Armistice, the RAF had begun to concentrate on the fixed radial engine, even though their first choice, the ABC Dragonfly, was an unreliable and temperamental piece of machinery.

In their few quiet moments at Coventry, Bentley and Burgess had roughed out a few sketches for a postwar car that would take over where the DFP had left off, a car designed for fast cruising on Continental roads. After the Armistice, Burgess and Harry Varley, formerly with Vauxhall, began detail work on this project under the leadership of W. O. Bentley.

Finance for the venture came from the sales of DFPs in the boom period after the Armistice, when annual profits soared to around £20,000, but, recalled Bentley many years later, 'to design and build a new motor car in 1919 without substantial capital was like being cast on a desert island with a penknife and orders to build a house'.

Bentley, Burgess and Varley

Nevertheless, in October 1919, ten months after Bentley, Burgess and Varley had started work, the first prototype engine was built and ready to run. In its overall layout, the new 3-litre Bentley power unit gave more than a hint of what the complex power unit of that GP Mercedes, which Bentley had un-earthed in the Long Acre basement in 1915, might have looked like translated into production terms. Instead of the separate machined-steel cylinders, with welded-on water-jackets, that had characterised the Mercedes, the Bentley had the cylinders cast en bloc, with water plates screwed on the sides and ends.

But the vertical kingshaft, at the front of the engine, which drove the overhead camshaft, was pure Mercedes, as was the layout of the valve gear and the four valves per cylinder. The chassis, on the other hand, had definite affinities with the 1914 Grand Prix Peugeot, with four-wheel Perrot brakes and cardan shaft drive to the back axle. The first prototype was complete enough to be shown at the November 1919 Olympia Motor Show where it attracted great attention and not a few hopeful orders, which Bentley turned away 'until we had something better to offer'.

Some time the same month the car made its first brief test runs. And almost exactly a year after the first rough sketches had been committed to paper, the first road test appeared, written by 'Sammy' Davis'; it was so enthusiastic that, once again, Bentley was besieged with orders which he felt unable to fulfil until the design was perfected, and the 'ear-splitting row' of the prototype refined. At this point, Bentley could easily have found outside backers to finance the venture adequately; instead he decided to go it alone, bought a site in Oxgate Lane, Cricklewood, North London and built a small factory, where the next prototypes were built.

The First 3 Litre Bentley Is Sold To Noel van Raalte

Though a comparatively large staff was taken on, it was not until September 1921 that the first car was sold, to the wealthy young socialite Noel van Raalte, who owned Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour and who had provided much of the backing for the KLG spark plug business. By that time the money was beginning to run out: for the rest of its lifespan the Bentley company was generally in financial difficulties, often unable to put aside enough money one week to meet the following week's wage bill. Already W.O. had been diverted from his original aim, which was to make enough money with the 3-litre to enable the company to break into the family car market with a smaller, cheaper model.

The Bentley was certainly expensive. At a 1923 chassis price of £895 for the standard long-wheelbase touring model, the 3-litre was far and away the most costly model of its size on the market, with a price tag up to three times as great as other 16 hp cars. By the time the model was ready to be marketed, its technical advances, such as four-wheel-braking, had been largely eroded as competing marques improved their specification; in any event the 1922 sales figure of 145 was hardly remarkable.

An Active Racing Programme To Promote The Marque

From the start, Bentley pursued an active racing programme in order to publicise their products: 'We were in racing not for the glory and heroics, but strictly for business', recalled W.O. in his autobiography. However, the first major event in which the marque competed, the 1922 Indianapolis 500, was a costly failure, as the car just wasn't fast enough to keep up with the locals, though it did finish. The company enjoyed better fortune a few weeks later in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, held in pouring rain: Frank Clement came in second, just behind Jean Chassagne's winning Sunbeam; W. O. Bentley was fourth and Douglas Hawkes was fifth, clinching the team prize.

Sales picked up slowly: in 1923, 204 Bentleys were produced, but in 1924 3-litre output peaked at 403, the largest annual production of any Bentley model. Much of the 3-litre's popularity was due to word-of- mouth recommendation and competition successes by customers, most accomplished of whom was John Duff, son of a missionary and born in China. He had bought one of the first production Bentleys and taken it to Brooklands where, on 28 September 1922, he took class records from three hours to 1000 miles, at average speeds around 88 mph. When he heard that the French were planning a 24-hour race at Le Mans, he asked Bentley for backing for a solo entry.

Partnered by Frank Clement, Duff managed to come fourth, in spite of a petrol tank punctured by flying stones and patched with chewing gum. In 1924, Duff came first at Le Mans, a victory which set the pattern for Bentley's competition motoring, though the 1925 and 1926 Le Mans events brought the company no honours. Meanwhile, W.O., who felt that the increasing number of customers who wanted long wheelbase 3-litres with saloon coachwork were causing him to debase the models' sporting integrity, had developed a new, larger model for the carriage trade. This new six-cylinder was originally planned as a 4½-litre, but a chance encounter between the prototype and the new Rolls-Royce Phantom on French roads led to the decision to enlarge this car's engine to 6½ litres.

The Bentley 6½-litre

The 6½-litre was introduced at the 1925 Motor Show. To cure the rough-running of the engine, Bentley had mounted it on rubber pads, possibly the first time this system had been used on a British production car (though in France Mors had rubber-mounted their engines as far back as the late 1890s). The power unit was basically a six-cylinder version of the 3-Iitre, except for the camshaft drive, by a triple-throw crank and connecting rods rather than the kingshaft.

Sales of the 6½-litre were never over 129 in a year; in the model's first twelve months only 58 were produced. By that time the big Bentley was available in three wheelbase lengths - 11 ft, 12 ft 1t in, 12 ft 7t in - 'and it was possible to fit anything from a two-seater to a hearse body with complete comfort', recalled W.O. The launching of the 6½-litre coincided with a series of financial crises, caused by the new car's escalating development costs, and it was only a massive injection of cash by the wealthy Bentley aficionado Woolf Barnato which saved the company from disaster.

Though the 3-litre had been Bentley's most successful model and was available in several forms including a short-chassis 100 mph version, W.O. now decided it was played out. As the 6½-litre had been intended as a town car, a new four needed to be developed, to give enthusiasts the 'bloody thump' that the six lacked. So once again the company scattered its fire when the financial situation dictated that they did the exact opposite. In 1926 work started on a 4½-litre four - the Big Six less two cylinders - which was announced the following year, early enough for one of the first models to compete at Le Mans.

There it was eliminated 5½ hours after the start in a multiple piIeup at White House corner, which also involved the other two works cars - both 3-Iitres - and two French cars. The story of how Sammy Davis and Dudley Benjafield managed to beat the crack French teams with the only 3-litre capable of running after the accident - though badly damaged - soon passed into motoring folklore; the episode also proved that the 3-litre was still competitive.

1929 - The Bentley Swansong

In fact in the 1928 Le Mans, the team of three 4½-litres was all but eliminated by chassis weakness; Clement retired and Barnato's winning car covered the last lap with a broken frame and no water in the radiator, while Tim Birkin had crashed early on and lost too much time to stand a chance. The Bentley swansong came in 1929 - just when the company was finally showing a profit, mostly due to the modest sales of the 6½-litre, now available in sporting "Speed Six" guise - and the works team had their best-ever season, culminating in an impressive 1-2-3-4 victory at Le Mans, with Barnato's Speed Six leading three 4½-litres home.

The seeds of disaster sewn by Bentley's undisciplined marketing tactics - another model, the 8-litre six, was already on the stocks - were beginning to sprout: though production of 3-litres had ended in 1929, the 4½-litre failed to come anywhere near its predecessor's sales figures and output of this model tailed away from the start. The need to build 50 supercharged 4½-litres - a 'go- faster' version devised by Sir Henry Birkin - was, according to W.O., a 'perversion' of the model, but he built the Blower Bentleys all the same, when the company's delicate finances should have persuaded him to refuse to have anything to do with it.

The worldwide slump had, judging by the sales figures, less effect on the company than is often claimed, as both 1929 and 1930 were outstanding years for the 6½-litre, with sales of 129 and 126, while the 4½-litre output in the period was 260 and 138. However the firm was rapidly running out of money and Barnato had lost interest, even after his spectacular victory in the 1930 Le Mans, when he beat Rudy Caracciola's Mercedes with a Speed Six, marking the last appearance of a Bentley works racing team.

The 8-litre Replaces The 6½-litre in 1930

The new 8-litre, which replaced the 6½-litre at the end of 1930, was probably Bentley's most successful model, but it arrived too late. The stop-gap 4-litre, introduced at the demand of the Bentley Motors board to combat the Rolls-Royce 20/25, was a flop which just absorbed much-needed capital. The blow fell on the 11th July 1931, when it was announced that the London Life Assurance Company had applied for a receiver for Bentley Motors, as Barnato had refused to meet mortgages totalling £65,000. Total output of Bentleys was 3051 - ten more were to be built after 1931 from spares.

For a while it seemed certain that the company would be taken over by Napier Motors, who were considering re-entry into the luxury car market, and W. O. Bentley even went as far as designing a 6½-litre Napier-Bentley six-basically a lightened, refined 8-litre - but when the time came for the receiver to apply to the Court for approval of the Napier contract, Rolls-Royce stepped in with some high-power horse-trading and acquired Bentley, lock, stock and W.O., at the very last minute.

The Sophisticated 4½-litre V12

For a time he helped with the development of the 3½-litre Rolls-Bentley, a mildly tuned version of the 20/25 which the Bentley 4-litre had been intended to beat, but his heart wasn't in it and as soon as his service contract expired in 1935 he resigned, joining Lagonda of Staines, which had recently been saved from liquidation (and a Rolls-Royce takeover) by a wealthy solicitor named Alan Good. Given a free hand, Bentley first refined the existing 4½-litre Lagonda six, then, in the space of eighteen months, designed a sophisticated 4½-litre V12, with torsion bar front independent suspension, capable of putting over 100 miles into an hour; it was this model which gave Bentley his last Le Mans success, third and fourth places achieved after a steadily unspectacular drive at a predetermined average of 83 mph.

After World War 2, Lagonda decided that the V12 was designed for too limited a market, so Bentley designed a new 2½-litre machine for a wider clientele. It was to have been sold as the 'Lagonda-Bentley', but Rolls-Royce stepped in to prevent the use of the Bentley name and the postwar Labour government refused to allocate steel for more than 100 cars, thus stifling this new design before production had even begun. The Lagonda company was put up for sale and passed into the ownership of the David Brown organisation.

Before the sale, Bentley had been working on two advanced, but still-born projects, a radial- five-cylinder-engined 1360 cc model and an air-cooled flat-six with torsion bar suspension. After the takeover, W. O. Bentley established a consultancy; among the projects he was involved in was an air-cooled flat-four, which was tested in a Morris Minor, and a 3-litre car-an enlarged version of the 2½-litre Lagonda - for Armstrong Siddeley. The latter model was shelved on grounds of excessive cost, the Sapphire being introduced instead. After this, W.O. was content to retire, retaining only his connection with the Bentley Drivers Club. He died in 1971.

The very first 3-litre Bentley was shown at the 1919 Olympia Motor Show. Although there were plenty of buyers, Walter Owen decided to hold off until 1921 until he thought the product sufficiently developed to be worthy of sale.
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