- 1998 (then VW owned)
The Bentley Mercedes Battle
Many of the cars that feature in the Unique Cars and Parts “Heritage” and “Lost Marques” articles would find their way to the race-track and in the early part of last century there was no bigger battle between manufacturers than that between Mercedes and the great Bentley.
The company was founded by Walter Owen (W.O.) Bentley, who had originally trained as an engineer in the Great Northern Railway workshops in Doncaster (UK); W.O. would eventually join the motor trade in London where he would import French DFP cars. His first design achievement was to produce light weight aluminium pistons for the 12/40 model, allowing the engine to rev much faster, and in turn develop more power.
Designing The Rotary Engine
W.O. then went on to become one of the key designers of the rotary engine as used in aircraft of the time, working with the British government during the 1914-1918 war. In 1919 Bentley teamed up with F. T. Burgess (designer the 1914 “TT” Humber’s) and Harry Varley (ex-Vauxhall) with a view to creating his own cars.
It would take nearly 2 years for development to be completed and production to begin, but the wait was well and truly worth it! The first Bentley production car was the 3 litre model; the 3 litres engine made extensive use of aluminium in its construction, and was distinguished by the use of a single overhead camshaft with four valves per cylinder. Peak output was around 70bhp and the car was good for a very respectable top speed between 70 and 80mph (112-129kmh).
The Bentley 3 Litre
The first of the 3 litres were only fitted with rear brakes
(common for cars being manufactured at the time), however to rein in the beast W.O. soon added front wheel brakes
(1923) – a move that would bring much praise from commentators of the day and quickly establish the reputation of the marque.
Each and every one of the famous “W O” Bentleys, as these cars came to be known, was developed from this original layout. A 4.5 litre model capable of up to 90mph (145kmh) was announced in 1927, the increased engine capacity obviously giving more power and torque. This engine produced about 100bhp at first, but for some of the select gentry able to afford a Bentley and having the right connections it was possible to obtain a car fitted with an engine good for 130bhp. But there was an even better Bentley – the famous “Blower” model of 1929. The engine had been redesigned by Amherst Villiers following encouragement from the racing driver Sir Henry Birkin.
The Bentley Blower
W.O. himself never liked the concept, but reluctantly allowed a few cars to be built so that the 4.5 litre could be raced as a 'production' car. Interestingly, it was a more standard 130bhp un-blown 4.5 litre that would win the Le Mans 24 hour in 1928 – perhaps giving away reliability issues associated with the supercharger. Bentley decided from the outset of manufacture that they would concentrate on construction of chassis and engines, and would never built their own bodywork.
The first Bentley production
car was the 3 litre model, Ettore Bugatti
described it as the fastest Lorry in the
W.O. soon added
front wheel brakes, a move that would
bring much praise from commentators
of the day and quickly establish
the reputation of the marque...
It was a more
standard 130bhp un-blown 4.5 litre
that would win the Le Mans 24 hour
in 1928 – perhaps giving away
reliability issues associated with
Bentley was unashamedly
targeting Rolls Royce with the 6.5
litre, hoping to enter what was at
the time referred to as the ‘carriage
The 8 Litre was
a final roll of the dice for W.O.,
hoping to lure purchasers away from
body styles such as the Vanden Plas,
the 8 Litre was somewhat unrefined
when compared to the equivelant Rolls,
and a lack of sales would see the
receivers move in...
The 1951 Bentley
Mk.6 shared much with the equivelant
cars such as the Bentley Continental,
who would dare say the marque was
This meant that some of their chassis were fitted with cumbersome, heavy and unattractive body styles, but it also meant that there would be a vast number of different styles to be found behind the unmistakable Bentley radiator. The most famous is arguably the Vanden Plas open four-seater sports style – usually painted in British Racing Green.
In 1925 a 6.5 litre six-cylinder engine and chassis were developed, both being extensions of the original design philosophy. Bentley was unashamedly targeting Rolls Royce with this car, hoping to enter what was at the time referred to as the ‘carriage trade’. But Rolls had a firm grip on the upper end of the market, and the Bentley engineering, while excellent, was no match for the refinement to be found in a ‘Roller’.
With considerable developmental costs attributed to the 6.5 litre, Bentley was naturally reluctant to scrap the concept altogether. Instead, he chose to further develop the chassis, and so evolved the “Speed Six” sporting chassis. The engine was now good for an astounding 160bhp in standard form!, and the cars could happily cruise all day at 90mph (145kmh). Racing versions were used by the 'works' team, where they would take out the Le Mans classic in 1929 and again in 1930. A “Speed Six” would also win the Double-12 Hour race at Brooklands
But despite these and many other racing victories, and the associated publicity such victories were creating, the company seemed unable to break free from financial shackles. Woolf Barnato moved into control of the company in 1926, and also continued to be the most successful and consistent of its racing drivers, who collectively became known as the 'Bentley Boys.'
The Rolls-Royce Era
Unfortunately Barnato was not able to arrest the downward spiral of the company’s financial fortunes, particularly as the magnificent 8 litre model had failed to generate sales. In 1931 Barnato withdrew his financial support, and the company was put into the hands of the receiver.
A sordid courtroom battle ensued; the outcome saw nominees purchase Bentley on behalf of Rolls-Royce Ltd, who also obtained the services of W.0. Bentley. We can assume W.O. was not to fond of this arrangement, for as soon as his contractual obligations with Rolls-Royce came to an end he joined Wilbur Gunn at Lagonda.
The Silent Sports
The famous Bentley badge would re-appear on the Rolls-Royce designed 1933 3.5 litre “Silent Sports Car”. The 3.5 litre featured a new chassis, and although individual body styles were built by coachbuilders, the car featured a much-modified Rolls-Royce 20/25 engine and transmission. Unlike previous Bentleys the new car was rather elitist and far from sporting.
From 1936 the car's engine capacity increased from 3669cc to 4257cc, thus creating the 4 litre model. But the new car did not offer any performance improvements, although shortly before the outbreak of World War 2 an 'overdrive' was fitted allowing the cars to cruise happily and consistently at 90mph on any of Europe’s growing highway network. In total approximately 2400 3.5 and 4.5 'Derby' model Bentleys were built.
H. J. Mulliner
Following the war, a new generation of rationalized Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars were produced from the new factory at Crewe, the two types of car becoming increasingly alike. However one model, the R-Type Continental announced in 1952, was very definitely a sporting Bentley. Featuring rakish body lines usually crafted by H J Mulliner, the R-Type was good for a top speed of 120mph (193kmh) in both elegance and comfort. Between 1952 and 1955, 208 of these cars were produced, at first with 4.25 litre overhead inlet/ side exhaust
valves, later with 4566cc units, and finally from 1954, with 4887cc engines.
The second generation of postwar cars were the Rolls-Royce “Silver Clouds” and “S-Series” Bentleys. Continental versions were a highlight, some having convertible coachwork, while others featured the more 'traditional' two-door coupe style. From the end of 1959 all were fitted with the new light-alloy engine. But for us the Bentley marque finished long before the S-Series. It is difficult to put an exact time on it, was it when the company was purchased by Rolls-Royce, or when W.O. left for Lagonda – or do you think the marque lives on to this day?
The Bentley Boys
A group of wealthy British motorists known as the "Bentley Boys" (Woolf Barnato, Sir Henry Birkin, steeplechaser George Duller, aviator Glen Kidston, automotive journalist S.C.H. "Sammy" Davis, and Dr. Dudley Benjafield among them) kept the marque's reputation for high performance alive. Thanks to the dedication to serious racing of this group, the company, located at Cricklewood, north London, was noted for its four consecutive victories at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1927 to 1930.
Their greatest competitor at the time, Bugatti - whose lightweight, elegant, but fragile creations contrasted with the Bentley's rugged reliability and durability—referred to them as "the world's fastest lorries". In March 1930, during the Blue Train Races, Woolf Barnato raised the stakes on Rover and its Rover Light Six, having raced and beat Le Train Bleu for the first time, to better that record with his 6½-litre Bentley Speed Six on a bet of £100.
He drove against the train from Cannes to Calais, then by ferry to Dover, and finally London, travelling on public highways, and won; the H.J. Mulliner-bodied formal saloon he drove during the race as well as a streamlined fastback "Sportsman Coupé" by Gurney Nutting - he took delivery of on 21 May 1930 became known as the "Blue Train Bentleys"; the latter is regularly mistaken for (or erroneously referred to) as being the car that raced the Blue Train, while in fact Barnato named it in memory of his race.
- 1933–37 3½-litre
- 1936–39 4¼-litre
- 1939–41 Mark V
- 1939 Mark V
- 1946–52 Mark VI
- 1952–55 R Type and Continental
- 1955–59 S1 and Continental
- 1959–62 S2 and Continental
- 1962–65 S3 and Continental
- 1965–80 T-series
- 1965–77 T1
- 1977–80 T2
- 1971–84 Corniche
- 1984–95 Continental — convertible
- 1992–95 Continental Turbo
- 1975–86 Camargue
- 1980–87 Bentley Mulsanne
- 1984–88 Mulsanne L — limousine
- 1982–85 Mulsanne Turbo
- 1987–92 Mulsanne S
- 1984–92 Eight — basic model
- 1985–95 Turbo R — turbocharged performance version
- 1991–2002 Continental R — turbocharged 2-door model
- 1999–2003 Continental R Mulliner — performance model
- 1994–95 Continental S — intercooled
- 1992–98 Brooklands — improved Eight
- 1996–98 Brooklands R — performance Brooklands
- 1994–95 Turbo S — limited-edition sports model
- 1995–97 Turbo R — 'updated' Turbo R
- 1995–2003 Azure — convertible Continental R
- 1996–2002 Continental T — short-wheelbase performance model
- 1997–98 Turbo RL — 'new' Turbo R LWB (Long Wheel Base)
- 1997–98 Bentley Turbo RT — replacement for the Turbo RL
- 1997–98 RT Mulliner — Ultra exclusive performance model
- 1999–2002 Azure Mulliner — performance model
- 1999 Continental T Mulliner — firmer suspension
Also see: Bentley Car Reviews | The History of Bentley (USA Edition)