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THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF W.O. BENTLEY

 

"To build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.”

(W.O. Bentley, Founder)

Born in 1888 as the youngest of nine siblings, Walter Owen Bentley – though he preferred to be called W.O. – founded the company that carries his name on 10 July 1919. Now, almost 100 years later, his name is known across the globe for creating cars with an unrivalled blend of performance and the finest craftsmanship and materials. Below, we take a look at the man who changed motoring forever.

Bentley Motors was founded by W.O. Bentley. The first car to bear his name pulled out of New Street Mews, London in 1919.

From modest beginnings, the company moved from strength to strength – in a relentless pursuit of both luxury and performance. Were it not for the brand’s five victories at Le Mans in the 1920s, plus a sixth in 2003, this combination could be seen as a contradiction in terms. In which case, it could be said that Bentley continues to create the most acclaimed contradictions on the road today.

Almost a century later, W.O.'s vision continues to guide our beliefs, actions and ambitions. Located in Crewe, England and owned by Volkswagen AG since 1998, Bentley Motors remains the definitive British luxury car company, crafting the world’s most desirable high performance grand tourers.
 

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The Power of Steam

W.O. Bentley was born with a love of motion. When he was 9 years old, he bought a second-hand bicycle and dismantled it to discover exactly how it worked. But his real passion lay with trains. He left school at 16 to start an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway, eventually achieving his childhood dream of working on the footplate of a steam locomotive, hurling coal into the firebox to keep the steam pressure up. He completed his apprenticeship after five years, but by then his obsession had moved to the road.

Success on two wheels
While still working for the railway, W.O. bought himself a Quadrant motorcycle and, along with two of his brothers, threw himself enthusiastically into racing, practising on the roads early in the morning when police speed traps weren’t operating. In 1907, he took part in the London-Edinburgh trial and, although he broke down just outside Edinburgh, managed to repair the bike and finish in time to qualify for a gold medal. Further golds followed in the London-Plymouth and London-Land’s End trials in 1908. As his love of racing grew, W.O. became more and more skilled at refining engine performance, with his modifications to a Speed model Rex so successful they were taken up by the official Rex team.

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Inspired by a Paperweight

W.O.’s engineering skills became even more pivotal when he went into business with one of his brothers in 1912, importing French cars made by Doriot, Flandrin & Parant. On a visit to their offices in France the next year, W.O. discovered a paperweight made of aluminium, and wondered whether this lightweight material would make a better piston than steel or cast iron. To add strength and stop it from melting at high temperatures, he experimented with creating a new alloy at a foundry, finally settling on a formula of 88% aluminium and 12% copper. His curiosity paid off; adding the new pistons to DFP cars took him to victory at Brooklands and enabled him to set a new 89.7 mph record for a flying mile. And his important discovery was to prove crucial to his success in the years to come.

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An Airborne Engine

When the First World War broke out, W.O. put his ambition to start a car company on hold and instead used his secret advantage to help his country. As a captain in the Royal Naval Air Service, he used his aluminium pistons to create an engine for fighter aircraft that was significantly more powerful and reliable than previous versions, which had been prone to overheating and seizing up in combat. The first Bentley Rotary engine, the BR.1, made the Sopwith Camel the most successful British fighter aircraft of the war.

W.O. went on to develop the BR.2, and visited active squadrons while supervising its production. At one aerodrome, as he later recalled, “every gun in Flanders seemed to open up on us” during a strafing attack by Manfred von Richtofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron. Thankfully for the future of motoring, W.O. and the officer accompanying him survived by jumping into a canal.

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The Birth of Bentley Motors

Recognising his vital contribution to the war effort, W.O. Bentley was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the 1919 New Year’s Honours list. He also received £8,000 from the Commission of Awards to Inventors, which gave him the capital he needed to fulfil his dream and start his own car company. And so, on 10 July 1919, Bentley Motors was born. “The policy was simple,” W.O. said. “We were going to make a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” It was a goal he would achieve again and again.

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Superlative on Road and Track

While W.O. was developing the very first Bentley, The Autocar magazine reported that he was working on a model “intended to appeal to those enthusiastic motorists who desire a car which, practically speaking, is a true racing car with touring accessories” – an aim that is still part of Bentley’s DNA today. After the success of the 3 Litre, his six-cylinder 6 ½ Litre engine was launched in 1926, originally as the Big Six and two years later as the Speed Six. In 1928, he created the four-cylinder 4 ½ Litre, and in 1930 the six-cylinder 8 Litre. These were road cars first and foremost – but they had the power and endurance to achieve incredible results in competition.

Racing to Success
W.O. was initially opposed to racing at Le Mans – the event so closely intertwined with the company’s fortunes. “I think the whole thing is crazy,” he said. “Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for twenty-four hours.” But after seeing Frank Clement and John Duff finish fourth in 1923, setting the fastest lap in a Bentley 3 Litre, he overcame his reservations. Bentley soon came to dominate the 24-hour race, taking an astonishing five wins in seven years – and generating a wealth of front-page headlines.

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'A dead silent 100mph car'.

The 8-Litre was W.O.’s final creation, and is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Such was the power and torque of the straight-six engine, the company proclaimed that the 8-Litre would be more than capable of 100 mph, regardless of the type of body the owner had chosen.

W.O. said “I have always wanted to produce a dead silent 100 mph car, and now I think that we have done it.” This verdict was echoed by Captain W. Gordon Aston, reviewing the 8-Litre for The Tatler, who said: “Never in my life have I known a vehicle in which such a prodigious performance was linked to such smooth unobtrusive quietness.”

A fitting tribute - the new W.O. limited edition
With the Wall Street Crash occurring shortly before the launch of the 8-Litre, only 100 were ever made. But the influence of this extraordinary car, and of the extraordinary man who created it, lives on.

To celebrate Bentley’s Centenary, a rare and exquisite car has been created, inspired by W.O.’s 8-Litre. You can read more about the Mulsanne W.O. Edition by Mulliner here.

As Bentley continues to make cars that combine exhilarating performance with exquisite craftsmanship, W.O.’s car is proudly displayed at the factory in Crewe. Whenever a new Chief Executive Officer is appointed, they are handed the key on their very first day – a fitting tribute to the man who started it all.