One of the oldest car manufacturers in the UK, Bentley is celebrating its centenary in 2019. There have been periods of greatness, and times when the famous name was used for little more than sticking badges on cars which would otherwise have been known as Rolls-Royces. As it enters its second century, however, Bentley is as strong as it has ever been.
Walter Owen Bentley was born in September 1888. By the time he turned 30, he had first worked for and later taken over a dealership specialising in the now mostly forgotten French manufacturer DFP, produced aluminium pistons, designed an aircraft engine used in World War I and established a reputation as a fine racing driver.
Bentley’s own car company was created in 1919, and its first road-going model, the 3 Litre, went into production in Cricklewood two years later. Large and heavy, it was described by Ettore Bugatti as “the fastest lorry in the world”. Sporting versions won the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1924 and 1927.
More Le Mans wins
In the late 1920s it seemed that the only way to win at Le Mans was to compete in a Bentley. After the second victory for the 3 Litre, Bentley won again in 1928 with a 4 1/2 Litre and twice in 1929 and 1930 with a Speed Six. Five wins remained a Le Mans record until Porsche scored its sixth in 1981.
Beating the Blue Train
Between the two World Wars, a popular activity among rich motorists was to race the Blue Train through France from the Mediterranean to the English Channel. Woolf Barnato, chairman of Bentley and a three-times Le Mans winner, claimed that the challenge was too easy. To prove it, he left Cannes at the same time as the train in a Speed Six and, despite various delays and a sea crossing, was in London before it reached Calais.
The 8 Litre
Despite the enormous publicity created by the Le Mans wins and the Blue Train ‘race’, Bentley was in serious financial trouble. The last completely new model it created as an independent company was the enormous 8 Litre. Launched in September 1930, it was smooth, fast and comfortable, but by now this wasn’t enough. Bentley Motors stopped trading in June the following year.
Napier showed an interest in buying Bentley but was outbid by Rolls-Royce. The Cricklewood factory was sold, and Bentley production moved first to Derby and then to Crewe. Walter Owen Bentley, upset by the way things had turned out, left his own company as soon as he could and moved to Lagonda. He died in 1971.
The Embiricos Bentley
The first Bentley of the Rolls-Royce era was the 3 1/2 Litre, which led to the 4 1/2 Litre derivative. The most famous example of the latter was a tuned and rebodied version commissioned by Paris-based Greek racing driver Andre Embiricos. It could average well over 100mph for an hour and was comfortable enough for long road journeys. It also raced at Le Mans three times, finishing sixth in 1949.
Within a year of World War II coming to an end, both Bentley and Rolls-Royce introduced new models. The Bentley Mark VI and the the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith were mechanically similar, but only the Bentley left the factory with a body on it. Rolls-Royce assumed that its customers would want to have bodies specially built, while Bentley buyers would be satisfied with a standard one.
The first Continental
The Mark VI was replaced in 1952 by the R-Type, which was almost identical to the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn. A modified version capable of being driven at 120mph was the first Bentley to be given the name Continental.
The R-Type lasted for just three years. For the next decade, Bentley built three very similar models known collectively as the S-Series, all of them more or less the same as the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. The S2, launched in 1959, had a large V8 engine which, in modified form, is still being used in today’s Mulsanne.
Produced between 1965 and 1980, the T-Series was the first Bentley built around a complete bodyshell rather than having a separate body and chassis. The Rolls-Royce connection was now stronger than ever – the T-Series was essentially a Silver Shadow with different badging and a more understated radiator grille.
Named after the long straight on the Le Mans track where Bentley had once been so successful, the Mulsanne and derivatives were produced in the last two decades of the 20th century.
During this period, Bentleys became slightly more distinct from Rolls-Royces. Both the cheapest and the most powerful variants carried the Bentley badge. Market research suggested that Bentley customers were slightly under 55 years old on average and also owned a Ferrari, while Rolls-Royce owners were slightly more elderly and often had an art collection.
Around the turn of the century, when Bentley was producing the Azure (pictured), the company finally split from Rolls-Royce after seven decades. Volkswagen bought Bentley and kept it in Crewe, while Rolls-Royce was taken over by BMW and moved to a new factory at Goodwood in Surrey.
Back to Le Mans
Bentley returned to Le Mans in 2001, while the arrangement with Volkswagen was being sorted out, and made a serious effort to win outright in 2003 with the Speed 8, which shared a lot of technology with racing Audis. That race was not the most hotly contested in Le Mans history, since Bentley was the only manufacturer competing against privateer teams, but it did provide the company with its sixth win in one of the world’s most famous races.
The new Continental
The first brand new Bentley of the Volkswagen era was the Continental GT, a four-wheel drive model with a W12 engine (and later a smaller V8) related to the Audi A8 and the unsuccessful Volkswagen Phaeton. Now in its third generation, it is easily the most popular Bentley of the 21st century so far.
Racing the Continental
Although there has been no repeat of the 2003 Le Mans project, Bentley created a racing version of the Continental to international GT3 regulations. Despite its considerable size, the car has performed very well around the world, winning both individual races and complete championships.
Bentley uses the famous Mulsanne name for a car which has been in production for nearly a decade. This is the ultimate luxury model in the range, and the only one with a starting price above £200,000. Its engine is the famous V8 which first appeared in the S2 back in 1959, though it has been extensively developed since then.
Hardly any manufacturer nowadays can hope to survive without an SUV in its range. Bentley announced its intention to follow the trend by display the EXP 9 F concept car at the 2012 Geneva Show. Purists grumbled at the whole idea, and the car’s looks were heavily criticised. A redesigned version, now named Bentayga, went on sale in 2016.