Bentley is known today for its exquisite luxury cars. Still, most people don’t know how revolutionary the original designs and cars were in automotive manufacturing and how close the now-iconic brand came to closing multiple times over the years.
Named after its founder Walter Owen Bentley, best known as W.O. Bentley, the manufacturer was brought into existence to fulfil a dream. Bentley had always had an interest in manufacturing and initially left school at 16 years old to start an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway. Whilst he was working, he brought a motorbike and started participating in races, such as the London – Edinburgh trial and London – Plymouth trial. He formed a love of all things racing, and he learned a lot about refining engine performance. It was this new skill that contributed heavily to his success upon the founding of his company.
In an intriguing twist of fate, one of the significant developments in engine manufacturing was inspired by an aluminium paperweight. Seeing the lightweight material got Bentley thinking if it would be better used in pistons than iron and cast iron. He began experimenting with producing the best alloy. Eventually, he found it (for those interested, it was 88% aluminium and 12% copper) and with these new pistons, he set a new record for a flying mile with a speed of 89.7 mph.
However, the First World War soon broke out, and Bentley was forced into service. He enlisted as a captain in the Royal Naval Air Service; during his service, he used his new aluminium pistons to create engines for aircraft that had greater power and were more reliable. As recognition of his services during the war, W.O. Bentley received an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and £8,000 in 1919. He used this award money as the beginning funds for his car company, and on 10 of July 1919, Bentley Motors formally came into existence.
Bentley Motors grew hugely in popularity following them winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1924, 1927, 1929 and 1930. However, their initial success was no match for the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression that occurred from 1929 – 1933. Suddenly, people couldn’t afford Bentley’s luxury cars, and their sales drastically declined; this meant that W.O. was forced to sell off the company. In 1931 Bentley motors was sold to Rolls-Royce, who initially brought it under the guise of a trust. Whilst under the reigns of Rolls-Royce, Bentley produced the first Bentley Continental, one of the few series to continue to the modern day. It was a remarkable car, the first that could cruise at 100mph with four passengers.
Rolls-Royce managed to hold onto Bentley until 1970, when their pursuit of developing the aero engine, the RB211, led to their financial collapse. They were forced to sell Bentley to Vickers. Whilst under Vickers, sales went up and down. What they did that is integral to the history of Bentley is bringing the company’s focus back to their high-performance sports car heritage. In 1998, Vickers sold off Bentley to Volkswagen. Under Volkswagen, Bentley sales have improved year by year.
W.O. Bentley’s dream of his own car company has probably greatly exceeded the success he thought it would have. Nowadays, Bentley are one of the most successful luxury car companies, and they don’t appear to be slowing.