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100 Extraordinary Years: The Bentley Story

As Bentley approaches its Centenary, we take a look at some of the significant events of the first 100 years. This is a story that many exceptional people have helped to shape: from its inspired founder to the current team of over 4,000 dedicated employees; and from the passionate Bentley Boys and Girls of the 1920s to the visionary Bentley owners of today.

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A flash of inspiration

In his early years of racing, W.O. Bentley imported French cars made by Doriot, Flandrin & Parant. On a visit to DFP’s office in France, he picked up an aluminium paperweight and wondered whether the lightweight material could be used to improve the pistons used in engines. It had previously been considered too weak and prone to melting, but W.O. realised that adding a little copper to create a new alloy might solve the problem. And it worked.

He started by fitting the pistons to his own competition car, and began winning races with ease. When the First World War broke out, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service where he introduced aluminium pistons to make fighter aircraft engines more powerful and reliable. Finally, when the war was over, W.O. could use his invention to revolutionise the world of automobiles – and Bentley Motors was born on 10 July 1919.

You can read more about the remarkable life of W.O. Bentley here.

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Bentley drivers Soulet and Soucek at 2018 Bathurst 12 Hour. Mount Panorama, Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia.

Fast Cars, Swift Victories

W.O. Bentley’s fast and dependable cars soon attracted the attention of a group of wealthy young men and women known as the Bentley Boys and Girls. They raced Bentleys at the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans, and encouraged W.O. to push the limits of automotive engineering, resulting in an incredible five Le Mans victories in seven years.

Sammy Davis and Dr Dudley ‘Benjy’ Benjafield had perhaps the most dramatic race of all in 1927. When their headlamps were smashed in the notorious White House Crash, they strapped a torch to the windscreen of ‘Old Number 7’ and carried on to take the title. Back in London, they took the battle-scarred car right into the Savoy hotel, where it formed the centrepiece of a raucous victory dinner.

In 1930, while dining on a yacht on the French Riviera, Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato was challenged to race the Blue Train from Cannes to Calais. He went one better, making it all the way to his club in London before the train reached Calais station – winning the £200 wager but being hit with a £160 fine for racing on French roads. Read more about the Blue Train race here.

Today’s Bentley Boys and Girls continue to achieve thrilling victories on the track. In 2003, Guy Smith, Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen, Johnny Herbert, David Brabham and Mark Blundell took both first and second place at Le Mans – 73 years to the day after Barnato, Glen Kidston, Frank Clement and Dick Watney had done exactly the same. Our current GT3 racing teams continue this legacy of daring and fast driving.  Read about Bentley Motorsport here.

You can read more about the achievements of the modern Bentley Boys here.

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The women driving Bentley forwards

Adventurous women have always been drawn to Bentley. The Bentley Girls of the 1920s included Mary Petre Bruce, who took the 24-hour solo record at Montlhéry in 1929 in a Bentley 4 ½ Litre, stopping for three minutes every three hours. At one stop she accidentally drank petrol instead of water, but she was back in the car 15 minutes later and drove for six hours solid to make up the time.

The Hon. Dorothy Paget played a vital role in Bentley’s story. After a visit to Brooklands sparked her interest in racing, she took driving lessons from Bentley Boy Sir Tim Birkin, who declared that she was “capable of handling any make of racing car produced in this country or abroad”. She went on to sponsor Birkin’s team, enabling the development of the pivotal Supercharged 4 ½ Litre, known as the Blower Bentley.

You can read more about the Bentley Girls here.

More recently, Katarina Kyvalova founded the Bentley Belles, the first all-female team to race classic Bentleys, picking up the Peter Korner trophy at the Spa Six Hours in 2015. Kyvalova’s garage includes a Bentley 4 ½ Litre, a Bentley Mark VI, an R-Type Continental Fastback and Woolf Barnato’s Speed Six.

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Racing to the clouds

After bringing excitement to both racetrack and road for decades, Bentley took adventure to new horizons in 2015 with Bentayga. The world’s first luxury SUV has conquered some of the world’s most inhospitable environments with ease: the Big Red sand dunes of the United Arab Emirates, the ice of the Arctic Circle and the blistering heat of the dirt tracks around Cape Town – not to mention the muddy fields of Cheshire near the Bentley factory in Crewe.

In June 2018, Bentayga faced its toughest challenge yet: the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Also known as the Race to the Clouds, this 12.52 mile course in Colorado involves 156 corners on a climb of 4,302 metres (14,115 feet). If anyone could break the production SUV record, it was Rhys Millen, a two-time Pikes Peak champion.

Millen completed the course in 10:49.9, breaking the record by nearly two minutes. “What an incredible machine,” he said afterwards. “The car was planted all the way up, giving me the confidence I needed to push hard.”

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Here's to the next 100 years

Today, every Bentley is made at the factory in Crewe, in the north-west of England, by a team of over 4,000 highly skilled men and women. The longest-serving employee has worked at Crewe for 40 years, while one family currently has four generations working there.

Meanwhile, Bentley owners continue to influence the world around them. From fashion and music to architecture and business, those who challenge accepted conventions are often to be found driving a Bentley. Read about our collaboration with George Bamford here.

This unique combination of passionate employees and visionary customers will continue to shape Bentley’s enthralling story for many years to come. Together, we are extraordinary.