1920 - 1929
Bentley’s decade of glory began, appropriately enough, with a rave review in purple prose by The Autocar after road-testing the first complete Bentley, the hand-built EXP1 prototype powered by the new 3-litre engine.
“For the man who wants a true sporting type of light-bodied car for use on a Continental tour,” wrote the magazine, “the three-litre Bentley is undoubtedly the car par excellence.”
It had taken nearly a year of grit and determination, in the cramped confined of the mews near Baker Street, to build a chassis light enough and strong enough to live up to the driving experience Bentley wanted from the new engine.
With production established in Cricklewood, London, two more prototypes followed as W.O. Bentley laboured passionately to produce the car of his dreams, “A fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” And another eighteen months elapsed before the first Bentley was finally sold to Noel van Raalte, a wealthy and influential playboy, on September 21st, 1921.
The two things that mattered most to potential car buyers in the 1920’s were reliability and speed, though not necessarily in that order. And for a young, unknown manufacturer there was only one place where your credentials in these matters could be demonstrated beyond doubt – on the race track.
In 1922 a Bentley 3-litre snatched the British Double Twelve Hours record at an average speed of 86.79mph. In 1923 a Bentley 3-litre finished fourth at the inaugural 24-hour race at Le Mans. More honours followed – a win at Le Mans in 1924; the twenty-four hour world record at Montlhery by a Bentley travelling at an average speed of 95mph.
But W.O. was still not satisfied. As demand for the Bentley chassis grew, so too did the fashion for heavier and more luxurious coachwork. He needed a more powerful, more refined engine. The 6.5-litre was launched in 1925, laying the foundations for the famous Speed Six racer, the innovative 4.5-litre, and the glorious Le Mans triumphs of 1927 – 1930 when the fame of Bentley’s racing domination reverberated around the motoring world.
These were the years of the Bentley Boys, a decade of extraordinary adventures, technological advances and victory celebrations, unblighted even by financial difficulties due to the intervention of diamond heir, Woolf Barnato, in 1926.
But in 1929 Black Thursday loomed, and the long shadow it was to cast on the future on the now famous winged “B”.