Walter Owen Bentley was widely known to his friends and associates simply as ‘W O’. A railway apprentice with an enthusiasm for the motorcar, he won a London-to-Edinburgh reliability trial in 1907 and decided that he would form a company to build his own. In partnership with his brother, ‘H M’, he began by importing various French makes – La Licorne, DFF and Buchet – and continued racing, in a DFF. He had commenced several record-breaking attempts which had to be curtailed at the outbreak of World War I.
After the war, W O formed the Bentley Car Company and more or less carried on his prewar activities, with a primary interest in motor racing. It was an interest that would bring the Bentley name to the forefront of the motorsport world as the marque established a supremacy which would last almost a decade. It was a lone Bentley which represented Britain at the very first Le Mans and it was Bentley who went on to imprint their name indelibly in the history of this most famous motor race in the world, winning it five times in seven years.
It was this short “golden age” which made Bentley a famous name though precious little money, and the company was extensively backed by the cash of the Hon Dorothy Paget – inspired principally by patriotism – and of Captain Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato, who took an exceedingly active role in the racing activities, winning the Le Mans race three times.
The 24 Hours was inspired by the French Grand Prix – which was held at the Sarthe circuit – and the 1922 Bol d’Or 24-hours event, and was the work of the Automobile Club de I’Ouest (who are still the organizers), a journalist and the Paris representative of Rudge- Whitworth, makers of motorcycles and wire wheels. The first event was thus the Rudge- Whitworth Cup. Some 30 of the 33 starters finished the event, which W O had at first ridiculed; he said that no car would last the 24 hours and at first refused to have anything to do with it. But he was talked round, and a private entrant – John Duff- took the Bentley name to Le Mans and one of W O’s new 3-liter cars came in fifth, after being out of the running for more than two hours while a leaking petrol tank was mended. The team of John Duff and Frank Clement had broken the lap record three times, though, and made a fairly strong impression – even on W O himself, who had spent the whole 24 hours working in the pits.
Armed now with brakes on all four wheels rather than just the rear pair, the same car was back in 1924 as the only British entry in 40-car field; this time it emerged the winner, setting the standard for a period of racing dominated entirely by W O’s ‘Bentley Boys’.
This was pure Boys’ Own stuff, with a cast of characters straight out of a Dornford Yates novel performing the heroics. ‘Babe’ Barnato shared his drive with Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, and the rest of the Boys were jockey George Duller, theatrical impresario Jack Dundee, Doctor (of medicine) Benjafield and journalist ‘Sammy’ Davis.
The next two years were a thin time for the Bentley Boys, and Lorraine-Dietrich took the honors in 1925 and 1926. But in 1927 the team was back at Le Mans, the three-liter supplemented by the big 4.5-liter. In a six-car accident at White House corner the 4.5-liter was wrecked and put out of the race. The three-liter of Dr Benjafield and Sammy Davis (the latter at the wheel) was extricated from the wreckage and, despite being fairly severely damaged, drove on to win.
In 1928 the 4.5-liter showed its class and scored a third win at Le Mans for W O’s Boys, but that was a mere curtain-raiser for the main event. In 1929 the Boys were back at Sarthe, with a new car. There had been a 6.5-liter touring Bentley since 1925, a car of impressive dimensions and appearance, and for the 1929 event this straight-six engine was placed into a convertible sportscar of equally majestic proportions. The Bentley Speed Six was quite simply the stuff of which legend was made and was entrusted to Babe Barnato, the rest of the team being equipped with 4.5-liter cars.
The huge Bentleys rumbled through the night and into the following day with a clear lead; it was the big six of Tim Birkin and Babe Barnato which clinched victory for W O, but the rest of his Boys simply added to their growing charisma as their cars came home in second, third and fourth places. Later the same year Bentleys triumphed at the first 500-mile endurance race at Brooklands; Jack Barclay and Frank Clement were first in a 4.5-liter, Sammy Davis and Jack Dundee established the fastest lap – 126mph – and brought their Speed Six home in second place.
In 1930 the Boys were back at Le Mans, with the challenge this year coming mainly from the seven-liter Mercedes of Caracciola and company. The Boys pulled it off again, though, and Barnato took his third successive Le Mans flag.
But the era was drawing to a close. The replacement for the Speed Six was destined to be a vast eight-liter affair of some 220hp, and it was launched just in time to encounter the worst effects of the Depression and bring the company to its knees. In 1931 the company went into receivership, and it seemed as if the long-absent Napier concern might buy Bentley up and come back into the industry when they offered the Receiver £103,000. But the eight-liter Bentley was a good car, and could quite easily have sold well if it went into production. Had it done so, it would have been competing in the very expensive, prestige end of the market. In the event, Rolls-Royce bought Bentley for £125,265 and used it as a badge for their own designs, slightly cheaper than Rolls-Royce. The partnership was acrimonious to say the least, and W O went on to do his best work for Lagonda, not Bentley.
In recent years Rolls-Royce have used Bentley as an almost experimental base for turbocharging; a Camargue body with an anonymous body-color radiator shell denotes the Bentley Mulsanne Turbo, launched at Geneva in 1982 – the first Bentley to have had any personality of its own since the thirties with the sole exception of the R-Type Continental. With the Garrett AiResearch blowing through a four-barrel Solex carb, placed in a sealed plenum chamber in the center of the vee, the 2½-ton Mulsanne slots 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, 0-100 in 18 and tops out at 135mph, making it the fastest car Rolls-Royce have ever made.
Although they never give horsepower figures away, the Mulsanne is guessed at around 300, and gets its rapid acceleration from the Rolls system which eliminates lag by keeping the turbo spinning all the time. Like the rest of the Rolls-Royce production items it is expensive – and if you have to ask the price…
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