There have been three separate and quite distinct Bentley eras since Walter Owen Bentley founded the company. The first lasted only a dozen years but established the reputation that enabled 100 years of ultimately—and at times, painfully—fruitful existence. A private-entry Bentley raced in the first Le Mans 24-hour race in 1923, attracting W.O.’s interest, and that same 3.0-liter car won in 1924, the first of six total triumphs.
2019 marks Bentley’s 100th anniversary, and we’re celebrating with a series of stories detailing the fascinating history of the iconic marque.
The Major Eras • Continental GT Road Trip • The First Beautiful Bentley • Breitling + Bentley • Blower Bentleys • Bentley + Racing • Classic Bentleys for Every Budget
Most sports Bentleys were open four-passenger tourers best characterized as blunt, brutal, brawny, and rather British. There were closed cars, of course, but clumsy upright shapes with vertical flat-glass windshields hid their mechanical qualities. A few moderately stylish but rather graceless models were created, notably the “Blue Train” Gurney-Nutting Speed Six coupe now owned by Bentley (below), before the company went bankrupt in 1931. Many of the closed cars had Weymann-patent bodies, which were much lighter than conventional wood-framed metal bodies and were therefore suited for Bentley’s sporting reputation. But they, too, had little visual charm.
The second and longest-lasting version of Bentley came about when financier and three-time Le Mans winner Woolf Barnato—who had assumed ownership from W.O. in 1924—decided not to continue underwriting bank loans in the aftermath of 1929’s stock market crash. Rolls-Royce bought Bentley Motors and did some early badge engineering, with the Bentley logo and its distinctive grille on some smaller-series R-R models. Again, they were mostly dumpy, inelegant shapes with no sporting pretensions, but they helped sustain the combined car companies through the 1930s and again after World War II.
Toward the end of the ’30s, R-R managers recognized that a less blocky shape would be required if Bentleys were going to be able to keep up with their competitors—which were, of course, primarily British in those days. Today we tend to forget Armstrong-Siddeley, Daimler, Humber, Riley, Rover, Wolseley, and others that have disappeared forever. So R-R bosses ordered their Bentley satraps to prepare a lower-drag car, leaning on French coachbuilders then at their absolute peak.’
Risk-averse R-R management demanded that the car be sold in advance by its French agent to avoid any blowback at home. A Greek shipping magnate, André Embiricos, was intrigued and agreed to purchase the yet-to-be-designed-and-built experimental car. It is said that Rolls thought Jean Andreau—a well-known aerodynamicist who had done an astonishingly aerodynamic Peugeot 402 sedan in 1936—had been engaged and that the car would be built by Vanden Plas.
Instead, talented French dental technician Georges Paulin, who had designed the elegant Peugeot Darl’mat roadsters and coupes, was selected to create the form, and he chose Carrosserie Pourtout to execute the body. A 4¼ Litre chassis was prepared with bigger carburetors for the I-6, its power increased to more than 140 hp. Embiricos enjoyed the car (above) and allowed it to be used for subsequent tests—and even to set some records on the new German autobahns. Its second owner, who kept it for 30 years, ran it at Le Mans three times, finishing sixth in 1949 with 60,000 kilometers on the odometer. A bomb destroyed an equally intriguing aerodynamic four-door Bentley designed by Paulin as it awaited transport to the U.K., and the tendency toward modernity—the Corniche had a very ’37 Ford/Lincoln Zephyr front end—halted before it could be born.
Judged too radical for Bentley customers, the Embiricos nonetheless inspired the most important sporting vehicle of the entire 67-year R-R-era Bentley, the 1952-56 Continental R coupe by H.J. Mulliner & Company. At the time it was built, it was both the fastest four-seater in the world and the most expensive production car. It seems clear the fastback coupe styling was greatly influenced by the fastback Cadillac and Oldsmobile 98 coupes shown in 1948, with the blunt front of traditional Bentleys accreted to the modern body shape. Apparently the first sketch by John Blatchley had an inclined traditional grille, but the final shape was achieved by Stanley Watts at H.J. Mulliner after considerable collaboration with R-R designers and engineers, along with some serious wind tunnel work to reduce drag and increase stability while retaining the vertical grille.
The Continental R’s existence unleashed other efforts at modernity. Chicago industrialist Stanley H. “Wacky” Arnolt commissioned a Bentley from Bertone, designed by Giovanni Michelotti. Pinin Farina (then two words) built one Bentley Continental, Franay in Paris five, Swiss coachbuilder Graber did three, and Park Ward, owned by Rolls-Royce, did six. Even earlier, Jean Daninos of Facel Métallon commissioned a Pinin Farina design using a standard 1948 Bentley Mk VI chassis.
Pinin Farina built the Cresta, but former enemy nations were forbidden to exhibit at the Paris auto show, then the most important design event in the world, so it was shown there by Facel. Facel made 17 more before turning to Daninos’ own Bentley shape, which later evolved into the Chrysler-powered Facel-Vega line. But apart from grille and badging, most Bentleys were simply identical to what Rolls-Royce was building.
Despite its devastating diesel debacle, VW has had a ton of money for the past six decades, and what it has done for Bentley is quite amazing.
The third Bentley incarnation belongs to Volkswagen. The resulting separation of Bentley from Rolls-Royce has in fact been positive for both. Rex Parker, a good friend, had a long career as a product planner for a variety of companies and an even longer one as a car enthusiast. What he has told me again and again as we explore automotive history at Retromobile or Pebble Beach and other concours d’élégance is that “you can always tell whether a company had money or not.” That is particularly true for the first two versions of Bentley, and for that matter for Rolls-Royce once the cars were broken away from the aero engines. It is definitely not the case now.
Despite its devastating diesel debacle, VW has had a ton of money for the past six decades, and what it has done for Bentley is quite amazing, whether in terms of facilities, engineering prowess, or marketing. The shabby old works at Crewe are resplendent today, the custom finishing capabilities are superior to anything others offer, and the cars are equal to the best available anywhere.
READ MORE: The 25 Greatest Car Designers of All Time
The first Volkswagen-Bentley Continental, using the Piëch-inspired W-12 engine shared with Audi and the VW Phaeton, was styled by Brazilian designer Raul Pires, and it was a resounding success, selling well and gathering plaudits from a wide range of observers and critics. That model was developed into quite nice 200-mph four-door sedans, Audi-based V-8 engines were made available, and competition GTs were created and have been successful in racing. A Bentley-engineering modification of an Audi racer ran the 24-hour race in 2001, and a more complete Bentley-designed car won in 2003, followed by a second team car, marking a 73-year gap between wins—a longevity unequaled by any other firm.
Of course, it was the first Bentley company that scored the first five wins and the third Bentley that got the last one. Perhaps the first fully electric-powered Le Mans winner will be a Bentley from the next 100 years.