By Frans Elsass
The story of Walter Owen Bentley and his amazing cars is the story of tradition, triumph and trepidations.
Say the name Bentley and lie back and enjoy the images and sensations the name evokes – stately cars, the aroma of fine leather, hardwood panelling and not least the sense of *noblesse oblige and exclusivity.
You do not have to be a motor enthusiast to have an understanding of the exclusive Bentley brand. After all, it is steeped in tradition.
There is a royal air to Bentley. But not only does Bentley hold the rank as the preferred car for state use in Denmark, Bentley is also a king of the racetrack.
Current generations probably only recognise Bentley cars as luxurious coupes for the elite – and their chauffeurs – but that is far from the case.
Purveyors to the Royal Court
Walter Owen Bentley – among friends and contemporaries always referred to as W.O. – came from a comfortable background and served his apprenticeship as a railway engineer on the Great Northern Railway. During the First World War, Lieutenant W.O. Bentley developed lightweight engines for the RAF Sopwith Camel fighter. After the war, he combined his interest in aero-engines with his passion for racing. This resulted in the founding of Bentley Motors Ltd in 1919.
W.O. Bentley wanted to produce cars – the fastest and the best. The models were to be developed and marketed at the racecourse. The project was ambitious, but W.O. Bentley and his business partners were all experienced and highly trained technicians.
However, with a liquidity of £18,575 Bentley Motors Ltd. was underfinanced from the start. And despite success on the racetrack, this lack of capital proved to be fatal further down the road.
Nonetheless, Bentley experienced a flying start by gaining a race victory at the Brooklands racetrack in 1921 with their EXP 2 – a car now exhibited at Bentley Motors in Crewe. This victory had a colossal impact on the young company, which soon became the focus of the press and the darling of the royals. The same year, the first 21 Bentleys were delivered to customers including Prince George, the later Duke of Kent.
The Danish Royal Court would also become a loyal Bentley customer. Among the most famous of their Bentley fleet is a 1969 Mulliner Park Ward Drophead Coupé. This magnificent veteran is still in service at the royal palace, Amalienborg. And the Royal Family still refer to Bentley Motors in Crewe when purchasing State Limousines.
The 1920s racing cars have little in common with contemporary Bentley track runners. In comparison they are big and heavy with large, narrow wheels. But there is one thing that veteran Bentleys have in common with the EXP Speed 8 – taking both first and second place at the *24 heures du Mans in 2003 with, among others, Danish Tom Kristensen behind the wheel – and that is superior technology and steadfast reliability. When Bentleys set out to win, nothing can stop them.
Bentley’s first 1921 victory was followed by numerous triumphs at race circuits the world over, not least in the USA and at Le Mans in France where Bentley took gold for the first time in 1924.
Bentley and Le Mans became almost synonymous in the years to follow when The Bentley Boys became both admired and feared for their domination of the track.
However, success at the race circuit placed an astronomical burden on the cost of developing the cars. Adding to this, falling sales resulted in near bankruptcy for Bentley Motors in 1926. Salvation came in the form of a young South African called Woolf Barnato, whose father had made a fortune in diamonds. Woolf Barnato supplied the necessary funding to allow Bentley to continue, and Barnato soon became one of the Bentley Boys himself – even triumphing at Le Mans.
But the Great Depression loomed, and well-heeled Bentley buyers suddenly had other things to consider than cars and racing.
W.O. Bentley’s farewell
The first chapter in the story of this illustrious company came to an end when Bentley Motors Ltd, failing to meet its financial obligations, went into receivership on 10 June 1931. After a short struggle over ownership, Bentley was purchased by Rolls Royce. W.O. Bentley still belonged to the company although he had little say over the cars that carried his name. Four years later, he left Bentley Motors and joined Lagonda. W.O. Bentley wielded great influence over the British motor industry in the years to follow – but not at Rolls Royce-owned Bentley. W.O. Bentley died in 1971 at an age of 83.
On taking over the reins at Bentley, Rolls Royce immediately stopped the Bentley racing programme. And a few years later, Bentley models lost their sporty image. Right up until the mid-1980s, Bentley stood in the shadow of Rolls Royce. However, the tables were turned when Bentley introduced their popular turbo models.
The next dramatic chapter in the history of Bentley started in 1998 when the German Volkswagen Group purchased Bentley – and not only the rights to the name but also the legendary production plant in Crewe. Volkswagen provided the necessary investment to turn Bentley Motors around. The current investment of € 800 million is the most substantial injection of capital in the history of the company, even when adjusted for inflation. The result is a fascinating marriage of craftsmanship and advanced technology. On the outside, little has changed. But once inside the legendary production plant in Crewe, the clean and efficient high-tech robotics appear to have more in common with a Swiss watch factory than with British car making.
The vacated concourse is fully automated. At Bentley, industrial robots handle all varnishing of veneer panelling and the sealing of windows – two tasks that would otherwise be hazardous to humans.
It takes time to build a Bentley. The hand-sewn steering wheel takes three hours to finish. The 15 intricately crafted veneer panels of a Bentley Continental GT take 18 hours to complete. The leather upholstery, which is partially hand-sewn, not only requires 12 ox hides but infinite patience. In comparison it takes just as long to craft the veneer and leather interior of a Continental GT as it takes to build an entire Porsche 911.
With the backing of German ownership, you might think that many components would be standards made on the continent. But that is not the case. Even the engines are hand-built on site.
The workforce at Bentley Motors in Crewe numbers about 3000 people – considerably increased since the VW takeover.
Walter Owen Bentley could hardly have imagined the fate of the brand he created in 1919. The 85 years have brought both triumphs on the racecourse and gloom during the 1930s Great Depression where W.O. saw his life’s achievement slip though his fingers. Today, triumph has returned to the venerable company where the finest traditions of British engineering and craftsmanship now reach out to a new generation.