“W.O. Bentley’s cars are simply the most desirable, charismatic, successful and dominant vehicles of the vintage era. Walter Owen Bentley won Le Mans five times between 1924 and 1930 with the “Bentley Boys” driving his large and vigorous machines”………Robert Coucher, “Octane” magazine, August 2004.

BENTLEY – THE MAN (1888-1971)

The continuing mystique surrounding the Bentley cars built under W.O. Bentley’s guidance between 1921 and 1931 is due in no small part to the man himself. He was born into a London family whose comfortable life-style was to some extent financed by the fortune made by his maternal grandfather, Thomas Greaves Waterhouse, during the mining boom in the early years of South Australia. His interest in motoring and motor sport started with his participation in motorcycle trials, graduating to motor speed events in which he competed in highly tuned French DFP cars which he and his brother (“HM”) sold pre-WW1 from premises in London. The performance of these cars was enhanced by W.O.’s ‘then innovative use of aluminium alloy pistons.

During WWI, W.O. was a junior officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves and promoted the advantages of aluminium pistons to aircraft engine manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce and Sunbeam, and other improvements to the Clerget rotary aero engines. His most significant contribution was the design of his own BR1 and BR2 engines, considered by some as the pinnacle of rotary aircraft engine design.

In 1919, he committed himself to the design and construction of sporting motor cars which would bear his name and he remained the driving force in the company for the next 12 years. Unlike many other sports car manufacturers of his day, Bentley strongly believed in the value of competition as a marketing tool and to advance the technology of his road cars.

Always severely under-capitalised, the company struggled to survive the early Depression years, while trying to sell cars whose prices exceeded those of a substantial London house. In 1931 Rolls-Royce acquired the company, including the unwilling services of W.O.

While W.O. had no technical input into the Rolls-Royce-built Bentleys (which were marketed as the “Silent Sports Car” from 1933), he patiently worked out his contract, immediately afterward departing to work for Alan Good’s Lagonda company in 1935. Here he dramatically redesigned the existing 4 ½ litre Lagonda cars (the LG45), improving handling, engine and performance. He also supervised the design of what was to become known as his masterpiece – the V12 Lagonda – that saw limited production between 1937 and 1939.

In 1947 he supervised the design of the new small 2 ½ litre Lagonda, which featured a dual overhead camshaft 6-cylinder motor with inboard brakes and independent suspension all round. This ground-breaking new design was to be the springboard for the success of the DB2 Aston Martin, after Lagonda was acquired by David Brown.

In the 1950s, W.O. continued to apply his inventive mind to new designs from his consultancy business in Weybridge, designing amongst other things a 3-litre sports car for Armstrong Siddeley, based on the 2.6 litre Lagonda, but the car never saw production. He also designed and built an air-cooled opposed four-cylinder motor which was installed in a Morris Minor for testing purposes.

BENTLEY – THE CARS 1921-1931

W.O. established his factory at Cricklewood and was one of the few car factories in London. His ambition was to build a rugged high quality, low-volume, medium-sized, comfortable sporting car capable of maintaining high speeds for long distances.

His chassis design was robust and conventional for the time, using channel section side members, with semi-elliptic springs front and rear, and using adjustable friction shock absorbers to control the ride. For its day, the engine was large (mostly 3 and 4 ½ litres) and powerful, with a distinctive exhaust note derived from the long-stroke 4 cylinder motor.

The motor was separate from the gearbox, connected to it by a cardan shaft. Initially an inverted cone clutch fed power to a close ratio gearbox, thence to a conventional yet massive rear axle. Initially with only rear brakes, brakes on all four wheels came in 1924. The long-stroke (80x149mm) engine had a gear-driven overhead camshaft operating four valves per cylinder, dual ignition by magnetos, and from 1924 the “Speed” models used twin “sloper” SU carburettors, as distinct from the Standard Model which continued with the single Smiths five jet updraught carburettor.

This was the era of the distinctive Vintage Sports Car, but not all manufacturers followed the same formula. Ettore Bugatti, one of Bentley’s main competitors, followed quite a different style and it was no doubt ‘sour grapes’ that prompted Bugatti to say that “Mr Bentley makes the fastest lorries in the world” (‘Le camion le plus vite du monde’) – a slogan that present day vintage Bentley owners are proud to display!

As was the case with most builders of quality motorcars in those days, Bentley only made the ‘rolling chassis’, that is a complete car, but without any bodywork. The choice of body style was left to the buyer. Vanden Plas was probably the most popular coachbuilder among English owners, although Barker, James Young, Park Ward, Thrupp & Maberley, Harrison, Freestone & Webb, Gurney Nutting, Mulliner, and Hooper, were also highly respected. There were dozens of other equally fine smaller bodybuilders. Local craftsmen were often used when cars were exported. James Flood and Martin & King of Melbourne were two of the more popular Australian coachbuilders.

The prototype Bentley was ready for test in 1919, when “The Motor” waxed lyrical about its handling and speed. However, the first car was not delivered until 1921, when its originally-estimated price had risen by nearly 40% – a difficulty that was to plague the company all its life.

The “3-litre” Bentley was made between 1921 and 1929, some 1624 cars being completed. Built in “standard” (long chassis), “Speed” and “100 mph” (shorter chassis) variants, these cars still form the backbone of the international vintage Bentley movement. Some 100 years after they were built, they remain capable of cruising at today’s legal limits and will reach in their third gear a speed which most of their contemporaries would struggle to reach in top.

In 1926 the need for a car to carry heavier saloon and limousine coachwork, while maintaining the marque’s reputation for swift transport, brought the 6 ½ litre model into production. Bentley’s first six-cylinder car, it was built on a massive scale, powered by an overhead camshaft engine which, even in touring form, would tour silently at 75 mph. Some 363 examples were built. In 1928 a high performance variant, the Speed Six, was introduced and by the end of 1930 a total of 182 had been produced. One saloon driven by Bentley Motors chairman Woolf Barnarto, gained fame by racing the fabled ‘Blue Train’ across France.

Competition was regarded by W.O. as being invaluable to promote the breed, his 3-litre cars having enjoyed many successes on the track including 4th place (after running out of fuel and setting a lap record of 66.7 mph) in the very first LeMans 24-hour race in 1923, and taking first place in the following year. But by 1927 (when Bentley won Le Mans again with a 3-litre) the competition was even fiercer, so W.O. designed the 4 ½ litre four-cylinder car. Following the established pattern of ohc engine, separate gearbox and conventional chassis, some 664 of these cars were built, and were capable of topping 100 mph (160kph) in open form.

The work’s competition ‘Speed Sixes’ were possibly the most successful of the racing Bentleys. They swept all before them to win at LeMans in 1929 and 1930. The same car, known as ‘Old Number One’, won both races and in 1929 lapped Brooklands at more than 126mph (200kph).

At this time, one of the famous “Bentley Boys”, Tim Birkin, sourced private backing for a short run of supercharged 4 ½ litre cars – spectacularly fast while they were going, but with a reputation for unreliability, they enjoyed few competition successes. W.O. reluctantly agreed to build 50 such cars for homologation purposes and they are now regarded as perhaps the quintessential vintage Bentley.

Still eager to satisfy the demands of the “carriage trade”, W.O. designed the fabulous 8-litre, intended to transport passengers at the magic “ton” (100 mph) in unruffled silence. Only 100 of these magnificent cars were built, commencing in 1930, when the clouds of the Great Depression had already gathered.

Management control had passed from W.O.’s hands by 1931 and it was neither his decision nor his wish that a cheaper version of the 8-litre should be marketed in competition with the smaller 20-25hp Rolls-Royce. Using the same heavy chassis as for the 8-litre, but with a 4-litre inlet-over-exhaust valve 6-cylinder motor, that was largely the responsibility of Henry Ricardo (not WO), only 50 cars were built, mostly with heavy saloon coachwork which reduced their performance to levels unacceptable to the market of the day. The firm passed into the hands of Rolls-Royce, and in 1933 the Bentley name was carried by Rolls-Royce-built cars, fine in themselves, but they bore scant resemblance to the Bentleys of old.

Vintage Bentley 3 Litre

Vintage Bentley 4 ½ Litre

Vintage Bentley 8 Litre

THE BENTLEY BOYS (1924 – 1932)

Much of Bentley’s prestige in the 1920s came from their many sporting successes and their often flamboyant drivers, generally referred to as “The Bentley Boys”. The best known of these were Dudley Benjafield, Sammy Davis, Woolf Barnarto and Tim Birkin.