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Bentley Motors History (In Brief)

In 1998, Volkswagen AG bought Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars at Crewe, while Rolls-Royce plc sold its car marque to BMW. It was announced that from midnight on December 31st 2002, Bentley and Rolls-Royce will be separate companies once again, after 67 years together. BMW would take the Rolls-Royce brand and Volkswagen would keep the Bentley brand.

Bentley was founded by Walter Owen Bentley, known to all as "W.O." He was a born engineer, but his first experience was not with motor cars - it was trains. In 1905, aged 16, he set off on his bicycle to work at the Great Northern Railway Locomotive Works in Doncaster, northern England.

Off duty, he soon abandoned the push-bike in favour of motor cycling and with his brother took to racing. In their first event, the London to Edinburgh Trial, they won a gold medal. W.O. raced at the Isle of Man TT event and Brooklands race track, near London. The internal combustion engine made sweeter music to his ears than steam trains and in 1912 Bentley's family found funds enough to buy a small company importing French DFP sports cars.


It was on a visit to the DFP factory in 1913 that W.O. noticed an aluminium paperweight - and had the inspired idea of using the lightweight metal instead of cast iron to make engine pistons. The first such Bentley pistons went into service in aero engines for the Sopwith Camel, in service during the Great War.

After it, Bentley revived his motor car interests and in London set about development of a racing engine - Experimental Bentley No 1. "I wanted to make a fast car, a good car: the best in its class."

And he did. In the '20s, with the 3-litre, 85bhp engine providing speeds of 80 mph and more, Bentley Motors set numerous speed and endurance records, competed successfully at Indianapolis, the Isle of Man, and Brooklands - and became inextricably linked with the history of the famous 24 hour race at Le Mans. In the hands of the legendary Bentley Boys, Bentleys achieved Le Mans victories in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930 - taking first four places in 1929.

Yet despite its racing record and public acclaim, Bentley Motors was beset by financial difficulty. By 1931 the golden age was over, but as closure loomed, Rolls-Royce stepped in to save the Bentley name - and a new era began.

  • Of 3024 production Bentley vintage chassis, nearly 1500 are thought to be still in existence
  • Vintage Bentley cars were guaranteed for five years
  • Production peaked in 1929 at 414 chassis
  • In 1929 the firm made its only substantial profit, of �28,467
  • In 1931 the firm lost �84,174
  • Rolls-Royce paid �125,275 for Bentley Motors in November 1931

In mid-1919, with the design of the new 3-litre Bentley well underway - curiously, much of it carried out in an office above No.16 Conduit Street, sometime Rolls-Royce showroom - W O Bentley's thoughts turned to the need for a manufacturing facility. Above all, W O was keen that Bentley Motors should be a motor manufacturing concern in their own right, so he resisted attempts by early shareholders to turn the company into a design agency while they took over the manufacturing process itself. Fiercely independent, W O was determined that Bentley Motors should stand on its own two feet. Only thus, he thought, could he ensure that his designs were turned, uncompromisingly, into the cars that he wanted to build.

The fledgling company almost bought Tangmere aerodrome, a decision that would have been financially suicidal, before W O bought a plot of land in Cricklewood, north London, near the Welsh Harp (now less romantically known as the Brent reservoir). On the corner of Oxgate Lane and Edgware Road (the A5), the area was then still undeveloped. A brick building was soon put up on this site, and the whole of the company moved in. With fewer than twenty employees, it was a small tight-knit group that built the second, third and fourth experimental 3-litre Bentleys. These cars were test-beds to iron out design problems and develop the 3-litre Bentley into production form. This process took nearly two years, a period beset by constant financial anxieties. In fact the company lived from hand to mouth until 1926, when Woolf Barnato's millions provided, for the first time, some financial security.

In 1920, the first production shops were built. These were steel-framed breezeblock buildings, put up quickly and cheaply. They nevertheless lasted over sixty years, occupied for many years after 1931 by Smiths Industries. A wooden building housed the design and office staff, and the original brick building became the engine test shop. By 1921, though, Bentley Motors were less motor car manufacturers than designers, assemblers and testers. Castings and forgings were bought in, and all machining work was sub-contracted. Chassis frames were made by Mechans of Glasgow and shipped to Cricklewood. Bentleys used a whole range of suppliers; ENV for gears, Sterling Metals for castings, G Turton Platts for forgings, Automotive Engineering for machining, Gallay for radiators, and so on. Unlike other "assembled" cars made from proprietary parts, Bentleys designed all the parts of their cars, buying in only instruments, electrical equipment and (after 1926) Spicer propeller shafts.

At Cricklewood, individual sections in the assembly shops built up the main assemblies; axles, gearboxes, steering columns. The heart of the company was the engine assembly shop. Each engine was built up by a fitter and his mate, and then sent through to the engine test shop. There was a considerable degree of rivalry between fitters to see who could build the most powerful engine. Engines and other assemblies were then taken to the chassis shop, where the complete rolling chassis was put together, again by a fitter and his mate. Once completed, the wiring was put in by the electricians and the rolling chassis pushed through to the running shop. Here a set of wheels and tyres would be fitted, a temporary scuttle and front seat, and the chassis taken out on the road by one of the road testers. All faults were noted and dealt with, before the chassis was passed off by the running shop and then sent out to the coachbuilder.

Bentley Motors did not build bodies themselves. All chassis were despatched to outside firms, notably Vanden Plas, who built virtually all the bodies on the racing cars and numerous sports four seaters on production cars. Most of the closed cars were bodied by H J Mulliner, Park Ward, Gurney Nutting, Freestone & Webb or Harrison. Many of these were built as "Bentley Standard Coachwork", to designs agreed between Bentley Motors and the coachbuilders. The coachbuilders were issued with drawings showing clearances around the gearlever, over the back axle, for the wheels on lock and suspension travel. In the early twenties, some of the lesser coachbuilders, particularly provincial firms, produced bodies that were far too heavy, and far too rigid for the flexible Bentley chassis. It was not unknown for bodies to be built with the sidemembers around the handbrake, making it practically impossible to replace the ratchets and pawls, and with the floor so difficult to remove that changing the gearbox oil represented a whole day's work.

Bentley Motors' solution to this was to issue the five-year guarantee only after the completed car had been returned to Cricklewood and passed by the finished cars test shop. Here the bodies were checked over, and in later years, the Bentleys weighed and fitted with appropriately-rated rear springs. Once passed, the guarantee was issued, covering the new owner against any defects in workmanship or materials for five years. The guarantee was a very effective marketing tool, as well as a source of revenue. This was because the guarantee was only transferred to subsequent owners after the car had been through Bentley Motors' service department at Kingsbury and any problems with the car put right, at the owner's expense. The guarantee was, though, fairly operated, and most Bentley customers were pleased with the service they received. Demonstrating the company's faith in its own products undoubtedly helped to get the new firm off the ground.

Even with Barnato's money, after 1926, Cricklewood remained an assembly and test shop until 1929. The most successful year of trading for the company, a profit of nearly ?29,000 was ploughed back into new buildings and an up-to-date machining shop. In the end, though, this was probably only used on the unlamented 4-litre car, and by the time it was operational Bentley Motors had been swamped by financial difficulties. Production effectively ceased in June 1931, a month before the firm went into receivership.

Cricklewood Factory in the early 20's


  • 1919
    • January - Bentley Motors is established with H.M. and W.O. Bentley and H.M.J. Ward as directors
    • October - The first Bentley is completed. The 3-litre is built in a workshop near Baker Street, London, and powered by a 65bhp four-cylinder 16-valve engine. The car is the first to carry Bentley's hallmark radiator casing and flying 'B' insignia.
  • 1921
    • May - Bentley achieves its first racing success with Frank Clement victorious at Brooklands.
    • September - Noel van Raalte takes delivery of the first production Bentley, a 3-litre saloon with bodywork by Easter. Built at a new factory in Cricklewood, it cost �1,050.
  • 1923
    • May - John Duff and Frank Clement drive a privately-entered 3-litre to fourth place in the first 24-hour Le Mans race. W.O. Bentley makes a last minute decision to attend the race, a trip that changes the course of Bentley history.
  • 1924
    • June - Now competing with official Bentley backing, Duff and Clement return to Le Mans and win outright.
  • 1926
    • May - Bentley's financial difficulties are eased with new investment from Woolf Barnato, who becomes company chairman. W.O. Bentley is appointed managing director.
  • 1927
    • June - Sammy Davis and Dr Dudley Benjafield nurse a badly damaged 3-litre home for an epic victory in the Le Mans 24-hour race. A 4 � -litre prototype Bentley crashes out of the race while leading.
  • 1928
    • June - Woolf and Bernard Rubin deliver Bentley's third Le Mans win, driving the 4 � -litre 'Old Mother Gun'.
      September - The 'Speed Six' high performance 6 � -litre Bentley is revealed.
  • 1929
    • June - 'Speed Six' Bentleys claim the top four places at Le Mans. Race winners are Barnato and Tim Birkin.
  • 1930
    • June - Barnato and Glen Kidston are winners and another 'Speed Six is placed second at the last Le Mans race Bentley will enter for 71 years.
    • September - The ultimate Bentley, the 8-litre, is launched, powered by a six-cylinder engine producing 240bhp. Only 100 examples were built.
  • 1931
    • July - Bentley Motors calls in the receivers.
    • November - Rolls-Royce buys the Bentley Motors business, thwarting an attempt by Napier to acquire the assets. W.O. Bentley remains with the company.
  • 1933
    • August - Debut of the first Rolls-Royce-produced Bentley, the 3 � -litre. Built at Derby, it is based on a highly modified Rolls-Royce 20/25 chassis.
  • 1939
    • February - A 4 � -litre Bentley is built to special order with aerodynamic bodywork and goes on to provide a demonstration of high-speed cruising ability on Continental motorways. Named the Embiricos Bentley after its Greek owner, it creates a new Bentley design language.
    • May - Launch of the Bentley MkV, equipped with the 4 � -litre engine and independent front suspension.
  • 1946
    • May - Bentley and Rolls Royce move its production to the Crewe factory.
      The Bentley MkVI is launched. It is the first Bentley to feature a pressed steel body also the first to be built from standard Rolls-Royce components.
  • 1952
    • June - The Bentley R-Type Continental makes its debut, a Mulliner-bodied coupe capable of 120mph. It is the last Bentley to be built with no equivalent Rolls-Royce model for 30 years.
  • 1954
    • September - Drophead coupe and sports saloon versions of the Bentley Continental are introduced, with bodies by Park Ward.
  • 1955
    • April - The Bentley S Series is announced, powered by a new 4.9-litre version of the six-cylinder engine and equipped with automatic transmission. It is built at Crewe alongside the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
  • 1957
    • October - The lightweight Mulliner-bodied four-door Bentley Continental Flying Spur is launched.
  • 1959
    • September - The Bentley S2 is announced. It uses an all-new 6.2-litre aluminium V8 engine, replacing the six-cylinder unit originally developed for Rolls-Royce models in the 1920s.
  • 1965
    • October - The Bentley T Series is launched, almost identical in appearance to the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. It features a one-piece body, independent suspension and disc brakes. A two-door version follows six months later.
  • 1970
    • July - The V8 engine is re-engineered to increase capacity to 6 � litres - the size it has remained to this day.
  • 1971
    • March - Both the Bentley T Series and Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow two-door saloon and drophead models are renamed Corniche.
    • August - W.O. Bentley dies. He was 82.
  • 1977
    • February - The four-door Bentley T2 is announced, priced at �22,800 - the same as its Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II equivalent.
  • 1980
    • October - Bentley's Le Mans heritage is echoed in the name Mulsanne, given to the new development of the T Series. It is a bigger car inside and out and benefits from a new rear suspension design.
  • 1982
    • March - The high-performance Bentley Mulsanne Turbo is announced, capable of nought to 60mph acceleration in seven seconds and a 135mph top speed.
  • 1985
    • May - The legendary Bentley Mulsanne Turbo R is launched, the fastest road-going Bentley yet.
  • 1991
    • March - Unveiling of the Bentley Continental R, the first Bentley model with its own, dedicated body since the1954 R-Type Continental.
  • 1994
    • August - The Bentley range is extended with the Turbo S and Continental S versions. Enjoying a substantial increase in power, they are able to move from rest to 60mph in less than six seconds.
  • 1996
    • March - The 400bhp Bentley Continental T becomes the marque's most powerful road car. The Bentley Turbo R Sport is introduced at the same time.
  • 1998
    • April - The Bentley Arnage is announced. Sharing the same body as the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, it is powered by a BMW V8 twin-turbocharged engine.
    • July - Volkswagen AG completes the purchase of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars for almost �480 million. BMW buys the rights to the Rolls-Royce name and it is announced that from midnight on December 31st 2002 Bentley and Rolls-Royce will be separate companies once again, after 67 years together.
    • October - Volkswagen AG announces it is to invest �500 million in the Bentley marque, its Crewe factory and the building of an all-new Bentley.
  • 1999
    • September - The Bentley Arnage Red Label is launched. marking the return of the 6 � -litre V8 engine to the range.
  • 2000
    • November - Bentley announces it is to return to competition at Le Mans.
  • 2001
    • January - The Bentley EXP Speed 8 race car is presented at the Detroit Motor Show.
    • June - Bentley enters two EXP Speed 8s at Le Mans. The team of Andy Wallace, Eric van de Poele and Butch Leitzinger finishes third, bringing Bentley back to the podium for the first time in 71 years.
  • 2002
    • June - First design details of the Bentley Continental GT are released, the most important new Bentley since the original 3-litre of 1919. A single Bentley is entered at Le Mans and finishes the race in fourth place.
    • September - The company is once more known by its original name: Bentley Motors. The Continental GT name is confirmed and the car, a design concept model, makes its world debut at the Paris Motor Show and earns huge critical acclaim.
    • October - The Continental GT's UK debut at the British International Motor Show earns it the Car of the Show and the Luxury Car awards from the Institute of Vehicle Engineers.

Post-War Bentley MkVI

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