Classic Cars UK

The Story of Bentley

THE ORIGINS OF BENTLEY CARS

The Bentley motor car brand is laden with powerful associations. Originating as a maker of extremely powerful open racing cars in the 1920s, the brand was later acquired by Rolls Royce, who overlaid this heritage of romance and danger with the luxurious millionaire comforts of leather and burr walnut veneer. Throughout this process the Bentley remained a driver's, rather than a chauffeur's, car.

Bentley Motors was founded in 1919 by W O Bentley, pictured above, who had been previously known for his First World War rotary aero engines, including the Bentley BR1 which was used in later versions of the Sopwith Camel. One of Bentley's great innovations was to use aluminium instead of cast iron to make engine pistons.

In 1931 Bentley Motors was secretly bought by Rolls Royce, who moved production to the Rolls Royce works in Derby. Since 1998 Bentley has been owned by the Volkswagen Group, and since 2003 Rolls Royce Motors has been owned by BMW.

CLASSIC BENTLEY CARS: THE EARLY HERITAGE
 


 

Before he founded Bentley, W O Bentley had already been a keen racing driver. He is shown above in 1914 at the wheel of his 12.1 horsepower DFP racing car, having broken all the speed records in the B Class at the Brooklands race track.
 


 

Bentley Motors, although technically brilliant, was in financial difficulty until Bentley fell in with the millionaire Woolf Barnato, pictured right. Barnato's father was born in the East End of London as Barnet Isaacs. He was a professional trader and juggler who changed his name to Barney Barnato and went to South Africa to seek his fortune. In this he was spectacularly successful, becoming one of the founders of the De Beers gold and diamond mining company. Woolf Barnato financed Bentley Motors, and became company chairman. He was one of the wealthy 'Bentley Boys' who raced Bentley cars with daredevil bravado and great success throughout the 1920s. Barnato was also a skilled cricketer, playing as wicket keeper for Surrey County Cricket Club from 1928 to 1930. This Bentley Boys, pictured above, included Sir Henry Birkin, steeplechaser George Duller, aviator Glen Kidston and Dr Dudley Benjafield.
 

1929 Blower Bentley from the collection of fashion designer Ralph Lauren.
 

Throughout the 1920s Bentley Motors produced a series of magnificent and powerful sports cars with 3 litre, 4.5 litre, and 6.5 litre engines. One of the most notable models is the 4.5 litre Bentley Blower, pictured above, which has a supercharger fitted in front of the radiator. This was initiated by Tim Birkin, one of the Bentley boys, against the wishes of W O Bentley, who was never keen on the supercharger.

W O Bentley designed his cars to be immensely strong, reliable and enduring. It was this brute force that enabled Bentley to win the Le Mans 24 hour endurance race five times between 1924 and 1930. Bentley's Italian rival Ettore Bugatti described the two-ton Bentley, somewhat disparagingly, as 'the fastest lorry in the world'.
 

The Gurley Nutting Bentley Speed Six that beat the Blue Train
 

In 1930 the coachbuilders Gurney Nutting produced a fixed head coupé, pictured above, for Woolf Barnato. Known as the 'Blue Train Bentley', this Speed Six is one of the most famous Bentleys of all time. Its name was taken from a challenge that took place in 1930 when Barnato raced 'The Blue Train' as it ran the length of France between Cannes and Calais. Barnato made an impulsive bet that he could not only race the Blue Train to Calais in his Bentley Speed Six, he could cross the channel to England before the Blue Train arrived in Calais. Barnato's scorching pace at the wheel of his enormous Speed Six Bentley ensured that, despite a puncture and failing to find the fuel lorry he had arranged near Auxerre, he beat the train and managed to arrive back in London four minutes before the Blue Train arrived in Calais. Such is the stuff of Bentley legend. The Blue Train also featured in a 1928 Agatha Christie murder mystery. Puzzled gendarmes are pictured above. For a musical flavour of 1930, we present Dave Brubeck playing the jazz standard 'The Sunny Side of the Street', which was published in 1930. Please click on the play button below:

 

1935 3.5 litre Bentley cabriolet. A mixture of Bentley and Rolls Royce.

After the takeover by Rolls Royce in 1931 the Bentley became a more sporting variant of the Rolls Royce. Bentleys of the 1930s, such as the 1935 3.5 litre cabriolet shown above, became smoother more luxurious cars, but still retained something of their racing heritage.

When author Ian Fleming, right, created the James Bond character in his spy novels, he had him writing with a Mont Blanc pen, smoking Morland cigarettes, and driving a 1933 4.5 litre Bentley. This style of life came naturally to Ian Fleming. Born into wealth in 1908, his paternal grandfather, a banker, was an associate of the pre-eminent American banker J P Morgan. To listen to the James Bond theme, played by the Monty Norman orchestra, please click on the play button below:


 


CLASSIC BENTLEY CARS: THE MODERN HERITAGE
 


For fifty years from the early 1950s Bentley were essentially Rolls Royce cars with a different radiator grille. They had all the fine quality and luxury of a Rolls Royce, but were slightly cheaper and were promoted as being a driver's car rather than one in which you were driven. These versions of the Rolls Royce reflected the gradual evolution of the Rolls Royce during this period. The Bentley S series, of which an example is pictured above, were produced from 1955 to 1965, being succeeded by the Bentley T series which was produced until 1980.

One of the most colourful Bentley owners of this period was the beautiful and daring Diana Barnato Walker, daughter of Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato. She is pictured right climbing into a Spitfire. Presented to King Edward VIII as a debutante at the age of 18 in 1936, she decided at the age of 20 to learn to fly. For her 21st birthday, her father Woolf swept her off to the Ritz in Paris and presented her with a brand new Talbot-Darracq. She quickly burnt out the clutch climbing Montmartre, and her indulgent father replaced the car with a dove grey 4.25 litre Bentley which she kept for many years. In 1941, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) where she undertook further intensive flying training. The young women of the ATA (known as Atagirls) delivered aircraft to war zones with inadequate equipment and often flying solo in conditions of great danger. By the time the ATA was disbanded in 1945 Diana had delivered 80 types of aircraft, including 260 Spitfires. She continued to fly and in 1963, at the age of 45, she flew an English Electric Lightning T4 at more than 1,000 mph, to become the first woman in the world to break the sound barrier. She died in April 2008 at the age of 90.

Another famous Bentley owner was John Lennon of the Beatles, who owned a 1956 Bentley S1. The Beatles hit song 'Yesterday', presented below, was recorded in 1965 for their album 'Help'. The number of recorded cover versions of 'Yesterday', 3,000, is greater than that of any other song. Although credited to Lennon and McCartney the song was written solely by Paul McCartney. Lennon and McCartney are pictured right, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, arriving in New York for their hugely successful 1968 tour. To hear the John Lennon sing 'Yesterday', please click on the play button below:

 


In 1980 the Bentley Mulsanne was introduced, with a lower priced variant, the Bentley Eight, being introduced in 1984. These, and the turbo version, which was produced from 1994 and is pictured above, were massive cars with a broad rectangular shape. They were extremely spacious inside and like the Rolls Royces of the era were luxuriously fitted out. With their generous seats, leather upholstery, and walnut veneer, they had the feel of a stately drawing room on wheels.
 


In 1998, at the time Bentley was being bought by the Volkswagen Group, the Bentley Arnage, pictured above, was introduced. Still a variant of the equivalent Rolls Royce, it was somewhat more streamlined in exterior styling, but retained the spacious and wonderfully fitted out interior.
 


The modern Bentley has become very popular with sporting and show business celebrities. Bentley owners include the footballers David Beckham, Christiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand, and musicians Elton John, Tom Jones, and Michael Jackson. Party girl and heiress Paris Hilton had her Bentley Continental, above, customised in pink. W O Bentley would be shocked; or perhaps he would think this flamboyance is in the carefree spirit of the Bentley Boys. To hear Elton John sing his song 'Candle in the Wind' which he famously played in Westminster Abbey at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997, please click on the play button below:


And in tribute to Bentley owner Tom Jones, pictured right, we present below his classic rendering of the 'The Green Green Grass of Home'. Inspired by Jerrry Lee Lewis's country version of the song, which had been written by Claude 'Curly' Putnam Jr in 1965, it was Tom Jones' most successful single. Please click on the play button below:

 

BENTLEY MOTORS TODAY
 


In 2003, after several years of Volkswagen ownership, Bentley launched the Continental GT, a large luxury two-door coupe pictured above. This was the first time, for over fifty years, that a Bentley had been produced which bore no relation to a Rolls Royce. The Continental GT, its convertible version, and the four door version known as the Flying Spur, continue to be produced in 2009.
 

 

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This website is published by Alex Reid, 27 Millington Road, Cambridge CB3 9HW. Telephone: +44 1223 319733. Email: aalreid(at)gmail.com. It is an electronic scrap book, containing family life stories, casual articles, and family memorabilia.

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