Happy Birthday! Walter Owen (W.O.) Bentley founded his company in 1919 with the simple goal of building “a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” A look at 100 years of automotive history:
July 10, 1919 was a Thursday. In London it was pouring with rain. The maximum temperature of the day was just 11 degrees Celsius. On this cool and damp summer day, the British House of Commons accepted the application to establish a Ministry for Transport (Ministry of Ways and Communications). Parliament stressed the importance of a national transport policy. In Prague, the new Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, Vlastimil Tusar, made his government declaration before the National Assembly. He emphasized that Czechoslovakia wants to live in peace with all its neighbors.
Walter Owen Bentley founds Bentley
But on July 10, 1919, something else important happened, especially something with a promising future: The mechanical engineer, fighter pilot and racing driver Walter Owen Bentley – known to enthusiasts as W.O. for short – founded his company of the same name in the Cricklewood district of London.
The luxury brand, Bentley, is turning 100 years young in the following days, July 2019. This anniversary, which is unusual in the automotive industry – it has only been achieved by a handful of companies so far – is the occasion to look at the history of Bentley, its current global success and its exciting future. From its humble beginnings, Bentley has evolved into a premium brand with many strengths – an unconditional quest for luxury and performance.
All beginnings are fast
W.O. Bentley was a passionate racing driver. He won some races with self-tweaked cars. In addition, W.O. Bentley sold numerous vehicles with elegant coachworks. These models were comparable to the Daimler and Rolls-Royce models.
The victories of Bentley at Le Mans in the 1920s made the public sit up and take notice. They brought great attention to the company. Bentley thus conquered a leading position in the racing world in its early years.
Official purveyor to the court of the British Royal Family
In the 21st century, the company’s ideals – luxury and performance – are more relevant than ever. Walter Owen’s vision continues to shape the company’s policy. Bentley Motors, now based in Crewe, England, has been owned by Volkswagen AG since 1998. The brand continues to be one of the most important British automobile manufacturers – and the official supplier to the British Royal Family.
An overview of the company’s development over the past 100 years:
1910 – 1919
W.O. Bentley, born in 1888, was an enthusiastic engineer. He despised the cars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: he regarded them as dangerous, complicated and noisy. So it was no surprise to the people around him when W.O. concentrated on building cars that would meet his exceptionally high expectations as a driver, engineer and gentleman.
Bentley Motors was founded in October 1919, and in September 1921 the first production Bentley left the factory and was delivered to its owner Noel van Raalte. The car cost 1,050 pounds, which was equivalent to the multiple annual earnings of a worker at the time. The car carried the Bentley radiator housing, which is still characteristic today, and the flying ‘B’ emblem.
1920 – 1929
The Bentleys of the 1920s are among the most distinctive cars of this era. And not only visually: the development of racing engines was a passion of W.O. Bentley: “I wanted to build a fast car, a good car: the best in its class ...” The result of his efforts was impressive: he developed the first 3-litre, 85 PS Bentley engine, which accelerated his car to a speed of 80 miles per hour (129 km/h), which was legendary at the time.
In Indianapolis, the Isle of Man and Brooklands, Bentleys set numerous speed and endurance records. The legendary achievements of the so-called Bentley Boys (a group of wealthy British motorists) and the victories at Le Mans in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1928, 1929 and 1930 are particularly memorable. Bentley’s racing dominance from this period still resonates throughout the world today.
1930 – 1939
The 1930s brought many challenges for the Bentley brand. Despite racing records and public recognition, Bentley Motors ran into financial difficulties. That’s why Rolls-Royce joined in 1931 to acquire Bentley Motors.
Production was moved to Derby, where the “Bentley 3 ½ Litre” – advertised as “the silent sports car” – was produced. It combined the best features of both brands – agility with luxury, power with silence.
In 1930 Woolf Barnato (Bentley Managing Director from 1926-1931 and Le Mans winner in 1928 and 1929) bet 100 pounds that his car would take him from Cannes to London faster than the legendary 'Le Train Bleu' high-speed train from Cannes to Calais. Woolf Barnato won the challenge in his 6.5-litre Speed Six sedan. With its low roof and dominant bonnet, the Speed Six embodied the power, endurance and muscularity of the Bentley Grand Tourer. Crewe’s design department continues to describe this design as an important influence on today’s Bentleys.
1940 – 1949
The move to Crewe in 1946 gave Bentley access to a community of highly qualified engineers and mechanics. During the Second World War, they relocated to the busy industrial center. With advanced technologies and a new manufacturing concept, Bentley was now able to build a complete automobile for the first time. One of the first to be built not just as a standard chassis and body, but as a complete Bentley, was the Mark VI. In short, the Crewe factory is still a place where the precision of the present meets the passion of the past.
1950 – 1959
The advances associated with moving to Crewe in the 1940s enabled Bentley Motors to transform good cars into luxurious, powerful Grand Tourers. In 1952, the Bentley R-Type Continental, a Mulliner coupé with a top speed of just under 120 miles per hour (193 km/h), made its debut. Mulliner was a company that further refined Bentleys. This made it the fastest four-seater car in the world. The Bentley R-Type Continental quickly gained the reputation of being the ultimate high-speed luxury car. It is the last Bentley built without an equivalent Rolls-Royce model for 30 years. Three years later, coupé and sports-sedan versions came onto the market.
In 1957, Bentley launched the new, highly anticipated four-door Bentley Continental Flying Spur. The Bentley S2 was also introduced in 1959. It used a completely new 6.2-liter aluminum V8 engine that replaced the six-cylinder engine originally developed for Rolls-Royce models in the 1920s.
1960 – 1969
In the 1960s, the Bentley Motors family was continuously developed further. In 1965 the Bentley T-Series was presented at the Paris Motor Show and shown for the first time. It was renamed Bentley Corniche in 1971.
1970 – 1979
At the age of 82, the founder of the brand, W.O. Bentley, died in August 1971. He goes down in (automobile) history as an engine enthusiast and creator of one of the world’s most coveted high-performance cars manufacturers.
The business continues, of course: In these years, which were not easy, the cooperation with Rolls-Royce and its coachbuilder partners – like Mulliner – leaves a special expression of refined luxury in the DNA of Bentley. Just as a W.O. himself would have agreed!
In the 1970s, the famous V8 engine was also revised. The aim was to increase the displacement to 6.75 litres – a size it still has today.
1980 – 1989
The Bentley identity was further developed in the 1980s. It was the beginning of the model series as we know them today. Bentley’s Le Mans heritage is reflected in the name of the new T Series: Mulsanne, the legendary straight of the racetrack. The Mulsanne also benefits from a new rear suspension design.
In 1982 a powerful Mulsanne Turbo was launched, which sprinted from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h) in seven seconds. In 1985, the Mulsanne was converted into the Turbo R, the fastest street Bentley in the world. The Bentley Corniche was renamed Continental in 1984: It became one of the best-selling models.
Until 1989, half of the cars coming from Crewe were Bentleys.
1990 – 1999
The acquisition of Bentley by the Volkswagen Group in 1998 brought additional resources, new technologies and even more impetus for the dynamics of the Bentley renaissance. It was announced that Bentley and Rolls-Royce would be separate companies again after 67 years. Volkswagen AG announced that it would invest 500 million pounds in the Bentley brand, its Crewe plant and the construction of a brand new Bentley. This also confirmed Bentley’s intention to maintain a thoroughly British tradition.
In the 1930s the Bentley wings were streamlined under Rolls-Royce ownership, erected and fitted with an equal number of springs on both sides. The logo's asymmetry was restored in 1990 and continually reworked to ensure a contemporary look for Bentley’s identity. The Bentley logo is designed to embody the new values while respecting the past.
2000 - 2009
Bentley returned to Le Mans in 2001: the team finished third and put Bentley back on the podium for the first time in 71 years. In 2001, Bentley announced the construction of the first custom Bentley State Limousine, commissioned by Bentley Mulliner, for the Queen of England on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. It became the first Bentley to be used for state occasions. The brand continues to be one of the most important British automobile manufacturers – and an official supplier to the British Royal Family.
In 2003 the Continental GT was introduced – the first completely newly developed car of this Bentley era. Inspired by the R-Type, the first Continental GT established a completely new market segment: the modern luxury Grand-Tourer.
2009 was another important milestone in Bentley’s history. To mark the 90th anniversary of Bentley Motors, the brand new Bentley Mulsanne is launched. It brings the highest standard of modern technology while maintaining W.O. Bentley’s ambitions by continuing the traditions of Bentley’s craftsmanship and ultimate luxury.
2010 - 2019
In 2015, Bentley launched the Bentayga, the first luxury SUV and Bentley’s fourth model line. It was the fastest, strongest, most luxurious and most exclusive SUV in the world when it was launched.
The brand new third generation Continental GT was launched in 2018. Sharper, lighter, faster and more refined than before, the ultimate Grand-Tourer. Since 2003, Bentley has delivered nearly 70,000 Continental GTs to customers. It is the most successful Bentley in history.