Best known as a manufacturer of luxury automobiles Bentley Motors Limited was Founded 18th January 1919 by W. O. Bentley. Bentley had been previously known for his range of rotary aero-engines in World War I, the most famous being the Bentley BR1 as used in later versions of the Sopwith Camel. Before World War I, Walter Owen Bentley had been in partnership with his brother Horace Millner Bentley selling French DFP cars, but he had always wanted to design and build his own range of cars bearing his name. In August 1919, Bentley Motors Ltd. was registered, and a chassis with dummy engine was exhibited at the London Motor Show in October of that year. An innovative 4 valves per cylinder engine designed by ex-Royal Flying Corps officer Clive Gallop was built and running by December, and orders were taken for deliveries starting in June 1920; however, development took longer than estimated, and the first cars were not ready until September 1921. Their durability earned widespread acclaim. Appearances were made in hill climbs and at Brooklands and a single entry in the 1922 Indianapolis 500 mile race driven by Douglas Hawkes finished at an average speed in excess of 80 miles an hour. After the war, W. O. Bentley designed and made production cars that won the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1924. Woolf Barnato acquired his first Bentley (a 3-litre) in 1925, just 12 months before he also acquired the business itself. With this car he won numerous Brooklands races. He was a member of a social set of wealthy British motorists known as the “Bentley Boys” who favoured the cars of W. O. Bentley. Many were independently wealthy, often with a background in military service. Barnato was nicknamed “Babe”, in ironic deference to his heavyweight boxer’s stature.The Bentley enterprise was always underfunded, but inspired by the 1924 Le Mans win by John Duff and Frank Clement, Barnato agreed to finance Bentley’s business. Barnato had incorporated Baromans Ltd in 1922, which existed as his finance and investment vehicle. Via Baromans, Barnato initially invested in excess of £100,000, saving the business and its workforce. A financial reorganisation of the original Bentley company was carried out and all existing creditors paid off for £75,000. Existing shares were devalued from £1 each to just 1 shilling, or 5% or their original value. Barnato held 149,500 of the new shares giving him control of the company and he became chairman. Barnato injected further cash into the business: £35,000 secured by debenture in July 1927; £40,000 in 1928; £25,000 in 1929. With renewed financial input, W. O. Bentley was able to design another generation of cars.
A group of wealthy British motorists known as the “Bentley Boys”— Woolf Barnato, Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, steeplechaser George Duller, aviator Glen Kidston, automotive journalist S.C.H. “Sammy” Davis, and Dr Dudley Benjafield among them—kept the marque’s reputation for high performance alive. Bentley, located at Cricklewood, north London, was noted for its four consecutive victories at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1927 to 1930.In 1929, Birkin had developed the lightweight Blower Bentley, including five racing specials that started with the Brooklands racing designed Bentley Blower No.1.In March 1930, during the Blue Train Races, Woolf Barnato raised the stakes on Rover and its Rover Light Six, having raced and beat Le Train Bleu for the first time, to better that record with his 6½-litre Bentley Speed Six on a bet of £100. He drove against the train from Cannes to Calais, then by ferry to Dover, and finally London, travelling on public highways, and won; the H.J. Mulliner-bodied formal saloon he drove during the race as well as a streamlined fastback “Sportsman Coupé” by Gurney Nutting—he took delivery of on 21 May 1930—became known as the “Blue Train Bentleys”; the latter is regularly mistaken for (or erroneously referred to) as being the car that raced the Blue Train, while in fact Barnato named it in memory of his race.
Bentley was Purchased by Rolls-Royce in 1931, when production was moved from London to Derby, and When the new Bentley 3½ litre appeared in 1933, it was a sporting variant of the Rolls-Royce 20/25, which disappointed some traditional customers yet was well received by many others. After World War II production of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars was moved to an ex-wartime engine factory in Crewe, Cheshire and standard-steel Bentleys were slightly lower priced Rolls-Royces without the Rolls’ distinctive square-shouldered grille. The Continental fastback coupé first appeared in 1952 and was an evolution of the 1946 Mark VI produced principally for the domestic home market, the majority of cars produced (165, including a prototype) being right-hand drive. The chassis was produced at the Crewe factory and shared many components with the standard R type. Other than the R-Type standard steel saloon, R-Type Continentals were delivered as rolling chassis to the coachbuilder of choice. Coachwork for most of these cars was completed by H. J. Mulliner & Co. who mainly built them in fastback coupe form. Other coachwork came from Park Ward (London) who built six, later including a drophead coupe version. Franay (Paris) built five, Graber (Wichtrach, Switzerland) built three, one of them later altered by Köng (Basle, Switzerland), and Pininfarina made one. James Young (London) built in 1954 a Sports Saloon for the owner of James Young’s, James Barclay. Sadly financial problems brought about a collapse of Bentley in 1970.
In 1998, Vickers decided to sell Rolls-Royce Motors. The leading contender seemed to be BMW, who already supplied engines and other components for Bentley (and Rolls-Royce) cars and because of their long-lasting joint efforts in building aero engines. Their final offer of £340m was outbid by Volkswagen Group, who offered £430m. Volkswagen Group got the Crewe works and found it held the rights to Rolls-Royce’s “Spirit of Ecstasy” mascot and the shape of that radiator grille but no rights to the Rolls-Royce name or logo. In 1998 BMW started supplying components for the new range of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars – notably V8 engines for the Bentley Arnage and V12 engines for the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. It also emerged that BMW was able to terminate its supply deal with Rolls-Royce with 12 months’ notice, which would not be enough time for Volkswagen Group to re-engineer the cars. Bentley reintroduced the venerable Rolls-Royce V8 engine into the Arnage, initially as an additional model, and all BMW engine supply ended in 2003 with the end of Silver Seraph production. From 1 January 2003 forward, Volkswagen Group would be the sole provider of cars with the “Bentley” marque. Rolls-Royce production was relocated to their Goodwood plant in Goodwood, West Sussex, England.
Bentley has been owned by the Volkswagen Group of Germany since 1998. After acquiring the business, Volkswagen modernised the Crewe factory in order to increase production capacity. In 2002, Bentley presented Queen Elizabeth II with an official State Limousine to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. In 2003, Bentley’s two-door convertible, the Bentley Azure, ceased production, and Bentley introduced a second line, Bentley Continental GT, a large luxury coupé powered by a W12 engine built in Crewe. The Flying Spur, a four-door version of the Continental GT, was also introduced. In April 2005, Bentley confirmed plans to produce a four-seat convertible model—the Azure, derived from the Arnage Drophead Coupé prototype—at Crewe beginning in 2006. By the autumn of 2005, the convertible version of the successful Continental GT, the Continental GTC, was also presented. These two models were successfully launched in late 2006. A limited run of a Zagato modified GT was also announced in March 2008, dubbed “GTZ”and A new version of the Bentley Continental was introduced at the 2009 Geneva Auto Show: The Continental Supersports. This new Bentley is a supercar combining extreme power with environmentally friendly FlexFuel technology, capable of using petrol (gasoline) and biofuel (E85 ethanol).