An early picture of WO Bentley
"To build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.”(W.O. Bentley, Founder)
Bentley is built on a history of innovation and clear personal vision – while its reputation is cemented by the desire to create the perfect motor car.
Now a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, this luxury carmakers roots go back to before the First World War. Then, the Bentley brothers - Walter and Horace - sold French DFP cars from a small showroom in North London. But W.O, as Walter was known, always wanted to design and build his own cars. In 1913, during a visit to the DFP factory he noticed an aluminium paperweight and thought that this material might be a suitable replacement for cast iron to manufacture lighter pistons. The first Bentley pistons were subsequently developed and fitted to Sopwith Camel aero engines during the war.
From this early innovation the company dedicated itself to the determined pursuit of both luxury and performance. In August 1919, Bentley Motors Ltd was officially born and in October a car chassis was exhibited at the London Motor Show. Its engine was designed by an ex–Royal Flying Corps officer, Clive Gallop, and then successfully married with the chassis.
These first Bentley cars, named EXP 1, were delivered in September 1921 to great public and professional acclaim.
The durability of the Bentley car became fast known, making it an ideal race vehicle - going on to compete in events such as the RAC Tourist Trophy and the Indianapolis 500.
While the quality of Bentley cars was undisputed, unfortunately the financial status of Bentley in the mid 1920’s was not at the same level. Underfunded and at risk of closure, an investor was quickly needed. Step forward Woolf Barnato. Barnato was heir to a vast fortune from diamond mines in South Africa and was also a racing driver who had previously won several Brooklands races in his 3.0 litre Bentley. He was a member of a social set of wealthy British motorists known as the "Bentley Boys" who favoured the cars of W. O. Bentley.
Barnato initially invested in excess of £100,000 – and ultimately went on to become chairman. He made further cash injections which in turn financed the development of the next generation of cars.
With renewed financial input, W. O. Bentley was able to design more vehicles, including the six-cylinder 6½ Litre. However, the supercharged 4½ Litre (the famous "Blower" Bentley), which Barnato pushed through against Bentley's wishes, had poor durability and failed on the race track.
Luxury goods were massively impacted by the Depression of the early 1930’s – and this included Bentley. In July 1931 the business was placed in administration and eventually bought by Rolls Royce who appointed Barnato to the board of directors.
Production stopped for two years,before resuming at the Rolls-Royce works in Derby. This period also marked the end of the journey with W.O, who left the business to join rival, Lagonda.
All Bentleys from 1931 until 2004 were built with shared Rolls-Royce chassis and adapted Rolls-Royce engines.
As with all car manufacturers during this period, the war impacted greatly on production, with factory output geared towards the war effort.
The Pyms lane factory was built in1938, originally to manufacture the Merlin aero engine - with over 26,000 engines built there between 1938 and 1946. Car production resumed in 1946 with the introduction of the Bentley VI which generated high demand from UK and export markets.
The business generated a range of models between this period and the late 1990’s.
Acquired by Volkswagen in 1998, the luxury car brand went on to benefit from a £1billion investment which delivered an updated factory with enhanced production capability. The brand has gone on to develop a strong export market and today has an annual turnover of approximately £140m. The Americas is the largest market, closely followed by China and then the UK.
Figures suggest that Bentley has a market share of 25 per cent, and can lay claim to being the most prestigious car brand in the world. Put another way, one in four cars sold above €150,000 is a Bentley.
Not only has the brand successfully carved out its place as a luxury car for the private market, through its 100 year history Bentley has also won many awards and accolades. More recently W.O. Bentley’s own company car, a 1930 8 Litre, which is still driven, completed the seven-day long 2012 China Rally of International Classic Cars in Shanghai.
Other awards have included the Flying Spur being named by the Telegraph as the ‘Best Luxury Car’ as well as the flagship Mulsanne Speed was crowned ‘Best of the Best – Luxury Sedan’ by the Robb Report. The world’s fastest, ultra-luxury driving experience was praised for its “superior performance and limitless customisation possibilities”.
And while revelling in its past, the brand understands the importance of looking to the future. The launch of the Bentayga, its first SUV, will allow Bentley access to a growing market segment. Not only are there plans to add a plug-in hybrid version of the new vehicle but it is also widely believed r that Bentley is considering additional battery-based powertrain options that could include an all-electric luxury vehicle.
Design Boss Stefan Sielaff sums up the design direction best: “We’re pushing Bentley design into the future of luxury design,” Sielaff told us. “We’ve particularly looked at what makes Bentley British – it’s a cultural aspect and an ability to bring opposite parts together.
“It’s the fusion of extremes – in our case performance and luxury – that’s so unique.”