A Brief History of Bentley Motors


a black and white photo of WO Bentley
WO Bentley

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bentley so I figured it was a good time to explore their history. Bentley has long held a reputation for building solid, reliable luxury cars that also happened to be fast. While they don’t possess as many race wins as Bugatti or Ferrari, they do have a history steeped with racing. They entered two of the biggest races in the world, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Bentley carries on this tradition today where you will still find their cars in the Endurance and GT3 classes. In fact if you want to buy one, you can visit the Bentley website and put your money down! WO Bentley would be proud!

The Formation of Bentley Motors

a Bentley that raced at Le Mans in the 20's and 30's
One of the Le Mans Bentleys – photo by Craig Howell

Walter Owen Bentley, or W.O., formed the Bentley Motors Limited in Crinklewood, North London in January 1919. At the time W.O. stated the goal of the company was “To build a good car, a fast car, the best in class.”  He formed the company from the capital he received from the Commission of Awards to Inventors. What I really found interesting about their approach is that Bentley sought to create a race car with touring accessories. W.O. wanted to create a car that would be dead silent at 100 mph. Hell most manufacturers can’t do that today! Many modern Bentley’s exemplify this philosophy hitting 200 mph while barely making a noise. W.O had that vision 100 years ago.

Like any good automaker, Bentley sought to make their name in auto racing. Their first entry was the 1922 Indianapolis 500 where they finished 13th. Entering the biggest race in the world and finishing it is a feat for any automaker. Doing it as your first endeavor into racing is pretty incredible. The Bentley Boys really put the automaker on the map. The Bentley Boys were wealthy British motorists who raced privateer Bentleys. They’re mostly known for their four consecutive victories at Le Mans from 1927 to 1930. They beat out the fast but fragile Buggati’s with their superior reliability. These victories at Le Mans helped but Bentley on the world stage and set the foundation for their reputation.

Rolls Royce Buys Bentley

a 1956 Bentley Continental S1 Drophead Coupe
Bentley S1 Continental (#BC31LAF) Park Ward Drophead Coupé. 1956 – photo by Anton van Luijk

Unfortunately, Bentley couldn’t parlay facing success to financial success and they racked up debt. Rolls-Royce stepped in and purchased Bentley in 1931. The partnership would continue for the next 40 years producing some of the most iconic Bentley models many of which are still in production today. In the 1950’s they introduced my favorite model, the Bentley Continental. The Continental was a fastback coupe with coachwork from H.J. Mullinger & Co. and Park Ward. Bentley still uses the Mulling Park Ward name today to signify an upgraded interior. During the ‘50’s they also introduced the Continental Type R which had a more powerful engine and lighter components. Bentley still had that racing spirit despite producing large, luxury vehicles. The Type R would return in the 1990s.

In 1970, Vickers lpc purchased the struggling Rolls-Royce including Bentley. During this period, Bentley produced the Bentley Mulsanne, a four-door twin-turbo V8 harkening back to the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. While the name evoked Le Mans where they had racing success, the car was anything but fast. It only made 300 lb ft of torque which wasn’t enough to propel the car to any sort of speed. The Bentley Brooklands eventually replaced the Mulsanne and made a bit more horsepower. Bentley continued to make the Continental which started to take on many design cues that would follow through to today. This would include the emerging boxy look and the now famous big, bold Bentley grill. Unfortunately, Bentley sales declined in the 80s and 90s.

Volkswagen Buys Bentley

Bentley Continental Flying Spur
Bentley Continental Flying Spur

Volkswagen when on a buying spree in the 90s snatching up Bugatti and outbidding BMW for Bentley. This turned out to be a godsend for Bentley and really turned the company around. VW used their money and prowess to really spruce up the Bentley lineup. They added trim lines such as the Bentley Flying Spur and Continental GT. Both cars featuring a twin-turbo W13 and AWD making north of 500 horsepower. Even though they weighed 1,000,000 pounds, they still hit 60 miles per hour in just 4.5 seconds and had a top speed near 200 miles per hour! Not bad for a giant luxury barge! They also started to smooth out the design creating beautifully understated exteriors and supple interiors.

VW looked to the past in order to bring Bentley back to their former glory. W.O. Bentley wanted to make a car that was dead silent at 100 miles per hour. Volkswagen topped that and made cars that were dead silent at 200 miles per hour. They also revived the race team support five teams including the New Bentley Boys. In fact, a Bentley won Le Mans in 2003.  Bentley also introduced their first SUV the Bentayga. You may hate giant luxury SUVs but it turned Porsche around and makes enough money to keep the company afloat. They also started introducing some wild Super Sport models sporting over 700 horsepower. Bentley is back and somewhere W.O. is smiling.

What I Love About Bentley

a Bentley GT3 GT3 car
A Bentley GT3 Car – photo by Tokumeigakarinoaoshima

There you have it, a quick rundown of the history of Bentley. The Bentley Boys were really pivotal in setting the path of the company. It’s a shame that Bentley pulled out of racing after four consecutive wins at Le Mans. I’m glad to see that they are back racing and winning. Typically I love loud, fast cars but there is something special about a large luxury car doing insane speeds while making no noise. My friend and I have a life-long game of car bingo and buying a used Bentley would net me three spots. It would be the first British car either of us has owned, the first W12, and the first AWD car. Must stay off the Internet…

the Mullinger Park War interior on the Bentley Continental GT
The Mullinger Interior of the Bentley Continental GT – photo by The Car Spy

But if I were going to buy one it would be a 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed with the Mullinger interior. The GT Speed makes over 600 hp, is lower, and has stiffer sway bars than a normal Continental. The Mullinger interior also has the gorgeous quilted leather look which I love. I love it so much I actually bought bar stools for my beer store with the same design. I think this would be the perfect daily driver. It’s smooth, fast, and luxurious with AWD. You could drive this in any weather at any speed and be completely at ease. The only downside is the atrocious gas mileage. But if you’re driving a Bentley I doubt you care much.

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