1929 Bentley Speed Six. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Although the fabled British Bentley name is now part of the Volkswagen group, most of its life was spent with Rolls-Royce (which is now owned by BMW). It was a kind of understated Rolls, virtually the same car in most cases but with a Bentley badge and radiator grille. Someone who wanted Rolls quality and prestige, but without the ostentation of that parthenon grille and Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, chose a Bentley.
But many Bentley enthusiasts feel that the “real” Bentleys were those built during the first 10 years of Bentley’s production life – from 1921 to 1931 – when it was an independent company. Dedicated Bentley aficionados felt that the Rolls-Royce Bentleys were no longer the hard edged, rugged machines that could acquit themselves equally well on road or track.
During that decade a group of gentleman racers who became known as the “Bentley Boys” established a swashbuckling reputation for the marque. They brought Britain outstanding success in the famous French endurance race, the 24 hours of LeMans.
Walter Owen Bentley was born in 1888. After serving a five-year apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway he decided that automobiles offered better prospects. He went to work for the National Motor Cab Company with responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the company’s taxi cabs.
A couple of years later, in 1912, he and his brother entered the car business selling French Doriot-Flandrin-Parant (DFP) cars. To gain publicity W.O. entered a DFP in competition events. He had some success, but not as much as he would have after he fitted the engine with aluminum pistons of his own design, pioneering aluminum pistons in a production car. The easy revving DFP could now outrun cars with much larger engines.
When war broke out in 1914 Bentley offered his aluminium piston idea to the military, and was sent out to convince engine makers to use them. Bentley also designed two rotary engines, but the rotary, in which the radially deployed cylinders rotated around a stationary crankshaft, proved to have no technical future. It was replaced by the radial engine in which the crankshaft rotated in the normal fashion.
Toward the end of the war Bentley and two other engineers, F.T. Burgess and Harry Varley, began designing a new car suitable for fast Continental cruising. It was financed from good post-war sales of DFPs, and by November, 1919, the first prototype was shown at the Olympia Motor Show. It had a four-cylinder engine with a very long 150 mm (5.9 in.) stroke, and a bore of only 80 mm (3.15 in.). Its shaft-driven overhead camshaft operated four valves per cylinder.
Orders were coming in, prompted by a glowing report in the Autocar magazine whose sports editor was one of the Bentley Boys, S.C.H. “Sammy” Davis. But Bentley felt the car wasn’t ready for sale, and it was 1921 before the first delivery took place. Sales rose slowly: 145 in 1922, 204 in 1923, and 403 in 1924.
To gain publicity Bentley participated in competition from the beginning. One car was entered in the 1922 Indianapolis 500, and although it finished it was much too slow. They did better at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race later that year when Bentleys came in second, fourth (W.O. driving) and fifth. A Bentley finished a commendable fourth in the first LeMans, France, 24-hour race in 1923.
Then in 1924 Bentley won LeMans. Although they failed in 1925 and ’26, Bentleys came back to win it in 1927, ’28, ’29 and ’30, for five wins in seven years, a feat that wouldn’t be matched by any marque until Jaguar did it again for Britain in 1951, ’53, ’55, ’56 and ’57.
In response to the desire by some owners for heavier sedan bodies, Bentley introduced a 6-1/2-litre overhead cam six in 1925 whose engine rested on rubber mounts to reduce vibration. Production never reached over 130 per year.
Another new model, the 4-1/2-litre, came in 1927. It was entered in LeMans, but was eliminated in a crash, and it fell to the 3.0-litre to carry on to victory. Another win came in 1928, then in 1929 a 6-1/2-litre Speed Six model won, followed by three 4-1/2-litre cars in second, third and fourth. It was a grand triumph for Bentley. It won again in 1930, but it would be the last factory entry.
An expensive foray into a supercharged 4-1/2-litre, the famed “Blower Bentley,” sapped company resources. In spite of its LeMans glory, the Depression was too much and Bentley fell into receivership in 1931. Rolls-Royce outmanoeuvred Napier, and acquired Bentley.
W.O. stayed on until 1935, then joined Lagonda where he designed a 4-1/2-litre V12 car with independent front suspension. Following the Second World War, W.O. designed a wonderful 2-1/2-litre twin overhead cam inline six. When Lagonda was bought by David Brown and combined with Aston Martin, the Bentley-designed six gained fame powering the Aston Martin DB2 and later models. W.O. Bentley died in 1971 leaving a grand automotive legacy.