Bentley at 100: The History of a Proud British Marque
The company has been through it all, as this view of its three major eras will testify.
As we look over Bentley's 100-year existence, we see a company that has weathered virtually every storm that can batter a high-end automaker. Yet the marque endures, and not just in name: You'll find a common thread running from W.O. Bentley's first experimental cars to the latest Bentaygas and Continental GTs, in their style, performance, even their mode of manufacture. Were W.O. alive today, he'd recognize and likely approve of the cars bearing his name—and he'd be amazed at the course of his company's history.'
We're celebrating Bentley's anniversary with a series of stories detailing the fascinating history of the iconic marque.
Continental GT Road Trip • A Century of Bentley Design • The First Beautiful Bentley • Breitling + Bentley • Blower Bentleys • Bentley + Racing • Classic Bentleys for Every Budget
1919-1931: The Cricklewood Era
Walter Owen Bentley was born in London in 1888. He dreamed of a railroad career, but an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway disavowed him of that ambition. A keen motorcycle racer, he saw great promise in the gasoline engine, and in 1912 he and his brother Horace began importing Doriot, Flandrin & Parant cars from France.
W.O. was an early proponent of racing as a way to boost sales, and the diminutive DFP 12/15 proved competitive. He realized the car's potential was limited by its steel and iron pistons, which would melt or break. Inspired by a piston-shaped aluminum paperweight, he began experimenting with aluminum-copper alloys and developed a lightweight, durable aluminum piston. His modified DFP set several records at Brooklands in the U.K., but the outbreak of World War I meant Bentley was unable to capitalize on that success.
Both Bentley brothers enlisted, and W.O. set about trying to convince aircraft engine manufacturers of the benefits of aluminum pistons. In France he investigated the alarming and deadly failure rate of Clerget rotary engines. Using aluminum cylinders with steel liners, he developed improved versions of the engines that could run for 40 hours between rebuilds rather than four. The solution reduced losses of machines and men and cemented Bentley's lifelong resolve that performance must go hand in hand with reliability.
Armistice ended Bentley's aero-engine activities, and in 1919 the brothers established Bentley Motors in the Cricklewood area of London. W.O. developed a 16-valve, overhead-cam, twin-plug four-cylinder engine that was extraordinarily advanced for its time. His first experimental cars established the Bentley ethos: tractable and reliable enough to drive every day yet fast enough to compete on the racetrack.
Bentley's 3.0-liter race cars reflected his conviction that strength and reliability were paramount, with pedals and levers drilled to save ounces while his overcautious engineering piled on the pounds. Ettore Bugatti famously described the Bentley as le camion plus vite du monde—the fastest truck in the world. Less well known (and unattributed) is a recorded comment that "Bentley always did want to design a locomotive. Now he's gone and done it!"
Bentley's racing success is well known, as are the Bentley Boys: Heady with their survival of WWI, these rich playboys lived large, drove fast, and gravitated toward Bentley cars. They raced purely for thrills, but Bentley himself saw the track strictly as a sales tool. "We didn't indulge in racing for 'the spectacle,'" he wrote, "or anything except what we could get out of it indirectly in the way of business; a scarcely sporting attitude, some may think, but to survive, racing just had to be related to sales and nothing else."
Competition in the car business was fierce, and Bentley's business acumen paled in comparison to his engineering skills. By 1925, Bentley had developed the 6½ Litre and the Speed Six, which would become his most successful race cars, but the money was quickly running out. W.O. approached Woolf "Babe" Barnato, heir to the Kimberley Diamond Mine fortune and W.O. 's favorite Bentley Boy. Barnato shared Bentley's conviction that victory was achieved by outlasting the competition.
"He drove to the book," Bentley wrote, "keeping perfect position in the field, and religiously within permitted revs, following all instructions to the letter." W.O. suggested that if he wished to continue enjoying Bentley vehicles, Barnato might consider injecting some cash into the company.
Barnato was every bit as shrewd in business as he was on the track, and the changes implemented by his staff led to several high-level departures, including Horace Bentley. But it was under Barnato's regime that Bentley developed the 4½ Litre, in which Barnato would win Le Mans in 1928—and which would later be supercharged as the Blower Bentley, much to W.O. 's chagrin.
The beginning of 1929 saw the company turn its first profit, and W.O. considered taking Bentley Motors public. But then the stock market crashed and the good times came to a screeching halt. In September 1930, Bentley introduced the fabulous 8 Litre, a large luxury car designed to compete with Rolls-Royce. But the market for such opulent cars had dried up overnight.
Barnato's board dictated that 8 Litre frames be paired with a low-cost pushrod-six to compete against the Rolls-Royce 20/25, a small car that helped Rolls weather the Great Depression. W.O. attempted to distance himself from the car, telling the board, "I don't know anything about pushrods, I'm afraid." As he predicted, the resulting 4 Litre was a disaster.
These rich playboys raced purely for thrills, but Bentley himself saw the track strictly as a sales tool.
"It wasn't a car that could be recognized as a Bentley at all," he complained, pointing to its poor performance, "ridiculous" power-to-weight ratio, and his insistence that "Bentley clientele wouldn't have anything to do with pushrod engines." He called the car "a cumbersome makeshift," and it was received just as poorly as he expected.
With the Blower Bentleys affecting the company's reputation for reliability, Bentley Motors was at its breaking point. "We did everything we could to keep things going," Bentley wrote, "but it was no good; the brakes were on [the company] hard, and trade was grinding to a standstill." Barnato withdrew his funding after losing some £90,000. Still, as Barnato later said, "On one diamond deal during that time I made £120,000, so I can't grumble." But Bentley Motors went into receivership.
The outlook was far from bleak: Aircraft engine manufacturer D. Napier and Son wanted to buy Bentley in order to get back into the car business. The deal seemed so certain that in July 1931, just as negotiations were announced, W.O. began working with Napier on a new car. When the November court date came, it seemed a mere formality for Napier's bid to be approved. "Instead," W.O. would later write, "that day turned out to be the most disastrous in my life."
READ MORE: The History of Bentley Design
Just as Napier made its offer, a lone gentleman stood and made a higher bid. A shocked Napier upped its offer. Not wanting to see his courtroom turned into an auction house, the judge requested sealed bids. Napier reportedly lost Bentley by only a few hundred pounds, and for days the buyer's identity remained a mystery. Bentley himself only learned his fate after his wife overheard a conversation at a cocktail party: Rolls-Royce now owned Bentley.
The agreement stipulated that W.O. remain under contract with Rolls-Royce, but he would have no hand in engineering; instead he was banished to the role of test driver. When his contract ended in 1935, Bentley fled to Lagonda. He reflected on Bentley Motors with sadness and disappointment, saying that if he could return to his youth, he might never have left the railways.
1931-1998: The Rolls-Royce Era
Some people like to pretend Bentley ceased to exist in 1931. The argument is not unfounded: It was W.O. Bentley's engineering that set his cars apart, a role from which he was unceremoniously banned after Rolls-Royce took over.
Still, there were synergies between the companies and their founders. Like Bentley, Henry Royce (above, right) got into the car business because he saw potential for improvement in the French cars he owned. Royce, too, was more concerned with engineering than administration. But unlike Bentley, Royce had a partner, Charles Rolls (above, left), who had solid business and sales expertise.
It's fitting that the first Rolls-era Bentley was a Royce design, though a questionable one: a small, austere car that ran counter to Rolls tradition. Code-named Peregrine, the car's early tests were catastrophic: Its 2.4-liter engine was underpowered and had an unhealthy appetite for bearings. The project seemed doomed until someone suggested fitting the Rolls 20/25 powertrain and marketing it as a Bentley. Royce designed a variable-control ride system to highlight its sporty nature, and in 1933 the Bentley 3½ Litre went on sale. The car was successful in both sales and racing, and despite his frustrations, W.O. deemed it the best car ever to bear his name.
The 1930s saw Rolls' engineering department struggling to address overheating problems brought on by Germany's new high-speed autobahns. Greek racer Nicky Embiricos endeavored to solve this problem with a lightweight wind-cheating body designed by Louis Paulin. Based on the upgraded 4¼ Litre chassis, the Embiricos Bentley was a stellar performer. The car inspired both customers and Rolls' engineering staff, which created a prototype based on the improved (but ultimately stillborn) Mk V chassis. The resulting Corniche was sent to the Continent for testing but was destroyed by German bombs in Dieppe, France, while awaiting a ship home.
During World War II, Rolls-Royce concentrated on the magnificent Merlin aircraft engine, for which a new factory was built in Crewe, England. As the war wound down, it was decided that Bentleys would be smaller cars that would maximize parts commonality with Rolls-Royces, the first example being the 1946 Bentley Mk VI. On the positive side, its light weight combined with the Rolls powertrain yielded sprightly performance aligned with Bentley's image.
The bright spot of the postwar period came in 1952. Project engineer H. Ivan Evernden was charged with designing a performance-oriented coupe but was ordered to maintain the Mark VI's wheelbase, track, and powertrain. Evernden reduced the weight, massaged the 4.6-liter engine, and, with stylist John P. Blatchley, created an Embiricos-inspired body with a minimized frontal area. The result was the R-Type Continental, a 120-mph beauty that was a true high-performance tourer. The pinnacle of the potential synergies between Bentley performance and Rolls refinement, the R-Type Continental was worthy of Bentley's marketing slogan, "The Silent Sports Car."
It was all downhill from there.
The Bentley S1 was introduced in 1955, followed by the S2 and S3. These cars represented a slow but steady erosion of the Bentley ethos, each one softer and more Rolls-like than its predecessor. When the T-Series made its debut in 1965, it was virtually indistinguishable from the Silver Shadow, completely lacking the sporting nature Bentleys had been known for.
Rolls-Royce Motors was acquired by Vickers in 1980, and although Bentley and Rolls models remained largely identical, there were legitimate attempts to revive the old performance image, chief among them the 1982 Mulsanne Turbo and '85 Turbo R. Still, there was little to counter the argument that Bentley had died in 1931—but all that was about to change.
1998-Present: The Volkswagen Era
In 1998, Volkswagen bought Rolls-Royce—except it didn't.
In the early 1970s, Rolls-Royce was nearly bankrupted by development of the RB211 turbofan engine. The British government nationalized the company and separated the car and aircraft-engine businesses. Vickers bought Rolls-Royce Motors in 1980, and when it decided to sell it almost two decades later, BMW—supplier of the marque's engines—was the presumptive buyer. But in a move that echoed the Napier upset of 1931, VW swooped in with a higher bid.
It was only after the purchase that VW realized what the sale didn't include: use of the Rolls-Royce name and logo, which many observers felt was the company's most valuable asset. The name still belonged to the aircraft-engine business, which had a partnership with BMW—and to which it promptly offered the naming rights, for less than a tenth of what VW paid for the whole company. In practical terms, VW had really only purchased Bentley and the Crewe factory.
Although some industry pundits predicted disaster—BMW stock rose while VW's fell—this was actually a good time to own Bentley. Vickers had been trying to restore the marque's luster, and the new-for-1998 Arnage, though closely related to the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, had its own distinct personality, which VW emphasized by replacing its BMW engine with an updated Rolls-Bentley L-series V-8 (a hedge, as BMW's agreement allowed it to stop supplying engines on short notice).
More promising was the Java concept. Built for the 1994 Geneva Motor Show and based on a BMW 5 Series platform, its smaller size and Cosworth turbo V-8 signaled Vickers' intention to resurrect Bentley's sporting nature. Although it wasn't intended for production, Bentley built 18 examples—six coupes, six convertibles, and six wagons—for a smitten Sultan of Brunei.
The Java's BMW bones made it a nonstarter for VW, but the car's size and mission influenced what would become the first VW-era Bentley, the 2003 Continental GT. Our own Georg Kacher opened his first review by saying, "The Continental GT coupe is the first truly outstanding Bentley since the classic Type R Continental."
Indeed, it seemed to embody VW's aspirations for both Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Styling recalled the classic R-Type Continental, and the car's heft, speed, and big 6.0-liter W-12 would have appealed to W.O., even as he scoffed at the turbochargers. The interior displayed craftsmanship that would have been required to carry on the Rolls-Royce tradition; it was, indeed, a less recognized aspect of Bentley cars, which were, after all, hand-built just like Rolls-Royces.
More amazing was the transformation of the Crewe factory. Automobile editor emeritus, the late David E. Davis Jr., visited it in 2003. "It's changed dramatically, with German light and fresh paint and new machinery replacing rundown British charm," he reported. "To a several-time visitor over the past three decades, the difference is startling. About all that's recognizable are the fabric, leather, and wood areas, where the tools are higher tech, but eyeballs, fingertips, and experience still play an important role."
Today, leather hides are still hand-stitched, and wood is still hand-sanded. Parts built traditionally by external facilities, things like dashboards and engines, are assembled in-house. And while slick machines transport cars from station to station, nearly everything is attached by hand; robots are responsible only for windshield adhesive and application of lacquer to wood. Buyers recognize the changes: Bentleys are no longer seen as cut-rate Rolls-Royces but instead are appreciated for their own rich heritage and craftsmanship.
Of course, it's never smooth sailing for Bentley; 2018 saw U.S. sales drop, prompted by economic uncertainty and a delay in Continental production. But such setbacks are nothing new to Bentley, and we'd never wager against the company weathering the latest troubles and coming out ahead. Just as it has for the past 100 years.
Bentley employment is often a familial affair. We caught up with father and daughter Mark and Chloe Ellis, who represent two of three generations to work for Bentley.
"My father was a welder," Mark says. "When you left school as a young lad, you either went to work at Rolls-Royce Bentley or the railway. Now the Crewe Railway Works has closed, and we've reduced our hiring dramatically. So for Chloe, it was very different in terms of the opportunities."
Mark joined Bentley's craft apprentice program in 1987. "We had our own training school on site," he says. The company made its own tools and jigs in-house, and he became a toolmaker. "This was before AutoCAD. The guys upstairs used to do all the drawing. I did that for a period."
Things changed after the VW purchase. "All our core competencies, things like wood and leather, started to grow," he says. "Where there were two or three people in those departments, all the people from the engine line started to take on these newfound core competencies."
Mark worked his way up through the wood shop, then became a module leader, charged with ensuring smooth communications between manufacturing, finance, logistics, purchasing, and engineering. "I was a module leader on the first, second, and third generation of GT and Bentayga," he says. "Today I'm a manufacturing project leader on the third generation of GT and Continental GT."
Chloe's career path followed a similar course but in a different part of the business. "I started as my dad did, as an apprentice straight from school when I was 16," eventually settling in marketing, she says. Bentley sponsored Chloe as she completed her business degree. Named Apprentice of the Year in 2015, she spent time in Wolfsburg, Germany, working with her counterparts at other VW brands. "When I returned, my manager put me up for a promotion. Now I work in the fleet management team, taking care of the cars that go to events. I'm looking at that car from when it's built to when it reaches its end customer."
Bentley employment was an obvious choice for Mark, but Chloe's motivations were different. "Seeing other people my age going to university and struggling afterwards to find a career path," she says, "whereas Bentley were offering such a valuable proposition—not only will we train you, but we'll provide you a salary whilst you're doing it, and we'll give you valuable business insight, as well."
Asked about the changes they've seen over the years, Mark offers, "When I first started, the business was very autocratic. My manager would come out of his office once a day, do a lap, and that was it. Today, managers sit in the office amongst everybody. Our CEO, Adrian [Hallmark], is always visible. The world has changed. Not just Bentley, but the world has changed."