W O Bentley

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Walter Owen Bentley, began his career as a railway engineering apprentice, strangely, so did Henry Royce, but the parallel ends there, for while Royce came from a very poor background and had to cut short his apprenticeship because his aunt could no longer afford the £20 annual premium, Bentleys family were comfortably off. His father was a businessman and they lived in Avenue Road, St Johns Wood, in London.

His youthful enthusiasms were cricket and motorcycling (he raced a 5hp Rex at Brooklands in 1909) and in 1910 he bought his first car, a Riley V-twin two seater. He subsequently owned two Sizaire-Naudins, a single-cylinder model and then a four. He had a high regard for this make. After his time as a railway apprentice, he was a general assistant at the National Motor Cab Company in Hammersmith, London, then in 1912 joined his brother H. M. Bentley in selling French DFP cars. They were not particularly fast, but Bentley soon improved their performance by using lighter pistons made from 12% copper and 88% aluminium.

Thus equipped Bentley’s DFP’s won several races at Brooklands and, with a new Bentley designed camshaft, took class B records in 1913 and 1914. His time for a flying mile was 89.7 mph, a creditable figure for a two litre car. The Bentley brothers persuaded DFP to adopt aluminium pistons in a production car, which they sold as the 12/40, though not many were made as they were launched less than a year before the outbreak of the First World War.

During the war Bentley worked for the Technical Board of the Royal Naval Air Service to improve the French Clerget rotary engine, where his experience with aluminium pistons was of great value.The modified Clerget designs bore his name, being called the BR1 and BR2 (Bentley Rotary). After the war, Bentley returned to the partnership of Bentley and Bentley, however, his ambition was to see a car bearing his own name and in August 1919 he formed Bentley Motors Ltd, a successor to another company of the same name which was concerned with sales. Nominal share capital was £200,000, but cash in the bank was only £18,575. The company was under capitalised from the start, and a mortgage was taken out to finance the building of a factory at Cricklewood in North West London.

The first prototypes were not made there, but at New Street Mews, off Baker Street. This property belonged to J.H.Easter, who did body trimming for the DFP’s. Bentley’s right hand man was Frank Burgess, a former designer and works driver for Humber, who had been responsible for the twin overhead camshaft engine used in that company’s 1914 Touring Trophy racing cars.

Burgess brought a TT Humber to Bentley Motors, and some chassis features were reflected in the new Bentley. The engine, however, had only a single camshaft, driven by a shaft from the front of the crankshaft. There were four valves per cylinder and the dimensions were 80 by 149 mm, a long … even for those days. At 2996 cc, capacity was just under 3 litres,and the car was christened the 3 litre model.

This was the first time a British car had been described in litres, and this puzzled many motorists who were used to horsepower.However the RAC horsepower rating of 15.9 would have made the engine seem smaller than it was, for the rating system was calculated on the bore and took no account of Bentley’s unusually long …. The rest of the car was conventional, with a four speed gearbox controlled by a right handgear lever, semi-elliptic leaf springs all round and brakes on the rearwheels only (until 1924). It was announced in The Autocar in May 1919, the description being accompanied by a drawing by the famous artist F. Gordon-Crosby, as no car existed in the metal. A chassis was shown at London’s first postwar Motor Show, in October 1919, but it was a non-runner; among it’s drawbacks was the rather serious one of having no crankshaft.The starting handle was pinned on to an empty crankcase and the flywheel supported by a stub shaft a few inches long. An engine was running at New Street by Christmas (causing an irate Matron of a nearby nursing home to complain at the noise).

Deliveries were promised for June 1920, but development took longer and and the firstcar was not delivered until September 1921. It was a two door saloon and the customer paid £1150 for the chassis,(the original price quoted in 1919 was £750.

The cars soon lived up to the original announcement and those who went onto the two year waiting list, were more than satisfied. 21 were delivered in 1921, 122 in 1922, 204 in 1923, and 402 in 1924. The peak year was 1928 when 408 were delivered.

Success in Motor Racing ensured that everyone knew more about Bentley than any other sporting make, to add to this, well known figures such as, Prince George, Gertrude Lawrence and Beatrice Lilliewere among Bentley’s customers.

Not having their own coachworks, Bentley recommended some virtually standard bodies, the open four seater tourers were mainly made by Vanden Plas, whose premises were close by, other coachbuilders were soon asked to work on the 3 Litre chassis, and a variety of styles were soon to be seen, from open two seaters to landaulettes.

Although Bentley saw his cars primarily as fast tourers, the demand for closed coachwork made him realise that more power was needed. At first he considered a six cylinder engine on the lines of the 3 litre, but a chance encounter with the prototype Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 in France convinced him that an even larger engine was required and the six cylinder car ended up with the dimensions of 100 by 140 mm, giving a capacity of 6597cc.


The chassis differed in a number of ways from the 3 litre; the cone clutch was replaced by a plate clutch, the differential was much heavier and four wheel brakes were used, the drums of which were finned as opposed to plain. The main difference in engine design was that the camshaft drive was by three — throw coupled rod rather than the vertical shaft of the smaller model.

In 1928 came the sporting version known as the Speed Six.

The Speed Six was probably the most successful racing Bentley, with two consecutive wins at Le Mans, but it also carried formal coachwork.Two Speed Sixes were used as patrol cars by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Western Australia Police Force, probably the only Bentley Police cars in the world. Carrying Bolton saloon bodies, they served from 1930 to 1947; when they were withdrawn from service it was said; There has hardly been a major crime committed in this State which has not been affected by one or other of the Bentley’s.

Bentley firmly believed that there was no substitute for litres and far prefered to enlarge an engine than to supercharge a smaller one. The 8 litre engine was essentially that of the 6 1/2 with bore increased to 110 mm, giving a capacity of 7982 cc. Output was 200 or 225 bhp according to the compression ratio. Two wheelbases were available, the longer being 13 feet.

Nevertheless, an 8 litre could exceed 100 mph unless fitted with too heavy a body. These were varied as on any other Bentley chassis; Saloons, limousines. coupes, at least one sedanca de ville, and a few open tourers.

The 8 litre could not have come at a worse time, being introduced in 1930,when the depression was hitting particularly hard at expensive cars, and Bentley Motors Ltd was only eight months away from receivership. Only 67 of the 100 eight litre chassis were sold by the company while it was still independent, the remaining 33 being completed under direction of the receiver.

The Bentley company was seriously undercapitalised from the start and would probably have collapsed without Woolf Barnato’s intervention in 1925. This was effectively a takeover, for Barnato held 109,400 £1 preference shares and 114,000 one shilling ordinary shares. In contrast, W.O.Bentley held six thousand and three thousand shares respectively, though his brother H.M.Bentley and one or two others also had some stake in the company.

In June 1931 the company’s debts were such that it could no longer continue trading; Barnato’s fortune had been eroded by the depression and he was no longer willing to support Bentley. A receiver was appointed, and it was expected that Napier would aquire Bentley, especially as W.O. had been having discussions with the company about a new twin overhead camshaft sports car. However, they were outbid to the tune of £20,481 by a mystery group called the British Equitable Trust Ltd.

They were acting for an unknown company, and Bentley learnt only several days later (from cocktail party conversation overheard by his wife) that the company was Rolls-Royce.

A new firm was formed, BentleyMotors (1931) Ltd. which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Rolls-Royce.W.O. was retained as an employee, but he had little say in the design of the new car that bore his name.Increasingly unhappy, he left when his contract came up for renewal in 1935, joining Lagonda,for whom he designed the LG6 and V12. He was also responsible for the 2 1/2 litre twin-overhead-camshaft six which powered the postwar Lagonda and went into the Aston Martin DB2. He died in 1971, by which time he was a revered figure to the Bentley Drivers’Club, welcoming many gatherings of the vintage cars at his home in Surrey.

In the summer of 1933 the new Bentley was announced. Known as the 3 1/2 litre, it had a modified Rolls-Royce 20/25 engine in a new chassis which had been designed for a 2 1/2 litre Rolls-Royce that never went into production. In the Rolls-Royce tradition, only chassis were supplied,but the makers recommended a number of styles which were made in small runs by the coachbuilders.

This cut costs consderably and also the waiting time for delivery.

After the Second World WarBentleys became increasingly similar to Rolls-Royce cars, witha change to a more individual identity only coming in the 1980s. The parent company had moved from Derby to a factory at Crewe which had been built in 1938 for aero-engine construction, and this factory also incorporated a body plant. Here four-door saloon bodies made by Pressed Steel at Cowley,Oxford, were finished.

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Originally only Bentleys were fitted with these bodies, but from 1949 they also became available on the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn. The decision to introduce a standard body was partly due to the high cost of custom coachwork, but also because the cars were aimed at export markets more than previously, and the traditional ash frame with aluminium panels was not suitable for some climates.

Announced in the spring of 1946, the postwar Bentley was called the Mark VI and shared with the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith a new six-cylinder engine whose dimensions were the same as the Mark V Wraith, but it had a new valve outlet,overhead inlet and side exhaust valves. The engine was part of a range called B engines made in four, six and eight cylinder versions. The last was used in the Rolls-Royce Phantom IV and in an experimental Bentley nicknamed the Scalded Cat. The six used in the Mark VI differed somewhat from that in the Silver Wraith, having twin SU carburetters in place of a single Stromberg, and a higher-lift camshaft. About 80 per cent of the 5201 Mark VI chassis made between 1946 and 1952 had Pressed Steel bodies, but there were also numerous custom styles made.

In the ten years after the Second World War British coachbuilders became virtually extinct, but before they disappeared they built many magnificent examples on both Bentley and Rolls-Royce. At least fourteen firms in Britain worked on the MarkVI, as well as some continental coachbuilders. The body was much the same but had a larger luggage boot and automatic transmission was optional.

In April 1955 the R-type gave way to the S-type, whose Rolls-Royce equivalent was called the Silver Cloud. Engine capacity went up to 4887 cc and there was a new body from Pressed Steel, longer and wider, with wings flowing into the doors. There was now no difference between Bentley and Rolls-Royce versions except for the latters’ traditional radiator, for which customers paid an additional £130.

Twinned headlamps came on the S3 of 1962, and special models were still available such as the Continental coupe or convertible by H.J. Mulliner and Park Ward, who merged in 1961, or the Flying Spur four door saloon,also by Mulliner. After the introduction of the S3 there was no longer any difference in engine specification between the Continental and other Bentleys.

The last Continental chassis was delivered to the coachbuilder on 20th November 1965 and was not received by the customer until January 1966, four months after the model had been officially replaced by the T series.

In October 1965 all Bentleys and Rolls-Royces gave way to a new four-door saloon with integral consruction and self levelling independent suspension. Known as the Bentley T-type or Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, it had been under development for nearly

ten years, the first prototype running in 1957. Its design reflected changing tastes, for customers wanted a car with a lower profile, both figuratively and literally: one that yielded nothing in quality to its predecessors yet was less obviously a display of the owners’ wealth. At least that was the reasoning, but it must be open to doubt because the T series was outsold by ten to one by the Silver Shadow. the more ostentatious car if only because of its Rolls radiator. The T series years were very lean ones for the Bentley marque.

In the early post war years the Mark VI out sold the Rolls-Royce by three to one, but in the 1970s fewer than 10 per cent of the cars carried Bentley badges, and in 1980 the figure dropped to 4 per cent. It seemed hardly economic to perpetuate the name, but company changes and a new model led to a remarkable revival.

The Mulsanne was born named after theMulsanne straight at Le Mans. harking back to the days of the Bentley Boys, while the Rolls-Royce was the Silver Spirit. The new cars were styled by the Austrian-born Fritz Feller and had a heavier look than that of the T Series, giving the impression of more car for the money.

In the spring of 1982 came a high-performance model which was to begin the process of distancing Bentley from Rolls-Royce.This was the Mulsanne Turbo, which used a Garrett AiResearch turbo-charger to give a boost in power of about 50 per cent, from 200 to300 bhp. Top speed was limited to 135 mph (217 km/h) by a sensor which restricted turbo boost but acceleration from 0 to 60 mph took only 7.5seconds, no mean feat for a car which weighed 4950 pounds (2245kg). TheTurbo’s body was similar to that of the Mulsanne, but it could be easily identified by the radiator shell, which was painted in the same colour as the rest of the body, instead of silver.The makers were adamant that the Turbo would never carry a Rolls-Royce radiator, and it has been calculated that if it did it would need an additional 35 bhp to achieve the same performance, because of the drag imposed by the square radiator shell. The sporting image of the new Bentleys resulted in a dramatic improvement in sales.

In 1986, when the group sold 2603 cars, the ratio between Rolls and Bentley was 60:40 and in 1991, with lower overall sales of 1731, the ratio was approximately 50:50. The three models, Eight, Mulsanne and Turbo R, made up the Bentley range in 1992, joined by a new and more individual coupe, the Continental R. The letter designation was chosen as an evocation of the R-type Continental of the 1950s and the new car is in the same spirit, a limited production, higher-performance car sold at a price considerably above that of the saloons. The four-seater coupe body was designed by Ken Greenley and John Heffernan and was derived from a show car of 1985 called the Project 90. The engine was slightly tweaked to give greater power and torque, output now being an estimated 333 bhp.

Two years’ production had already been sold before the examples were delivered, and some orders were placed only on sight of photographs. In September 1992 there arrived a new variant called the Brooklands. Priced at £91,489, it replaced the Eight and the Mulsanne S and featured a new bonnet and green badge harking back to the vintage GreenLabel Bentleys, new air dam and alloy wheels.

Inside the electric column-mounted gearchange was moved to the floor.

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