Modern Bentleys are all about luxury GT cars -- more muscular than sleek -- that look more at home in front of a five-star hotel than on the track. Bentley has a wonderful racing heritage from its founding in 1919, and it stands as one of the few automobile brands that have been around for more than a century.
Bentley was a dominant force in endurance racing in the 1920s. In fact, Bentleys won five of the first eight editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- truly a staggering achievement!
The racing success was due to a group of gentlemen drivers, many of whom came from money. What is also true is that many of them were veterans of the Great War where they earned distinctions for bravery. This carried over to the track where they risked everything to become the best. They were known as the Bentley Boys.
The Bentley story begins with its namesakes, the brothers Walter Owen, or “W.O.”, and Horace Bentley. The leader was W.O. who was born in 1888 and had an innate interest in machinery. In 1906, he began a 5-year apprenticeship at Great Northern, a locomotive company.
He didn’t see his future there, so he moved on to motorcycles in their nascent years. This time as a racer, not a designer. He even raced in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy twice.
He entered the world of automobiles in 1912 when he and Horace opened a dealership for the French DFP brand. Having been bitten by the racing bug, he saw an opportunity to take a rather pedestrian DFP and modify it for racing. Inspired by the lightness of an aluminum paperweight, W.O. made a set of alloy pistons from a formula of his own discovery. This resulted in taking a DFP to Brooklands and setting class records.
When war broke out, he knew his alloy pistons could be valuable to the war effort. W.O. designed alloy pistons for airplane engines at both Rolls-Royce and Sunbeam. Finally, he was actually commissioned by the Royal Navy to build an engine of his own design, which he named the BR1 (Bentley Rotor 1). After the war, he was awarded a knighthood in 1920 for his technological contribution that helped win the war.
W.O. Bentley founded Bentley Motors Ltd. in London on the same day that the Paris Conference was convened to formally end the war. He showed a car at the London Motor Show in October 1919, but the engine would not be ready until 1920.
An engine designer and former military pilot named Clive Gallop made the first engine for Bentley, and it was a hot little number. The inline-four monoblock engine was built for performance. It had a 3-liter displacement and was one of the first engines that had four valves per cylinder driven by an overhead camshaft. The pistons were made from a lightweight alloy, had twin spark plugs, and used two carbs.
All of this added up to a cutting-edge design that was ready for competition. The engine had 70 bhp with which the Super Sport model could top 100 mph. They raced it across England, and even entered the 1922 Indianapolis 500 with a modified road car that ended up placing 13th at an average speed of 75 mph!
In 1924, John Duff and Frank Clement took a Bentley to Le Mans and won the race overall covering just shy of 1,300 miles. In only a few short years, Bentley was squarely on the motorsports map.
Woolf Barnato, a financier who was Captain in the Army during WWI, had bought a 3 Liter Bentley in 1924 and raced it Brooklands, winning several major races. He then established the prestigious 24-hour distance record for a 3-liter engine at Montlhery, where he averaged 95.03 mph. Barnato was the original Bentley Boy.
In 1924, Barnato decided to fund the company which was cash-starved at the time. The following year, he acquired Bentley Motors outright. With the cash, W.O. Bentley designed the 6.5-liter inline-six engine that would debut in 1926.
The Bentley Boys started to coalesce around Bentley due in large part to Barnato’s influence. This close-knit group of “gentleman racers” were spirited in competition and then consumed vast amounts of spirits afterward!
Most of them had seen action during WWI which undoubtedly fueled their devil-may-care attitudes. They pushed each other since they had already survived so much, and may also have had a thing or two to forget -- and going fast was the way to do it.
The original group consisted of Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin, Glen Kidston, George Duller, S.C.H. "Sammy" Davis, Dudley Benjafield, Bernard Rubin, and John Duff. Several of them lived in the same flats in London’s Mayfair district, where the group would prep cars and have parties that would go on for days.
On the track, they were all business. The “Boys” first entered Le Mans in 1925 and 1926, but DNF’ed both times. They finally got it right in 1927 with Benjafield and Davis teaming up for the overall win in a 3 Litre Speed model. Then it was Woolf Barnato’s turn as he won no less than three consecutive times from 1928 to 1930, partnering with Rubin, Birkin, and Kidston, respectively.
Birkin was responsible for designing the innovative 4-½ Litre Bentley Blower which he then talked an heiress into underwriting. The engines were not able to last the distance of an endurance race, but the Blowers were all but unbeatable in shorter races at Brooklands.
The Great Depression started in 1929, which caused the demand for luxury cars to vanish. With Barnato as chairman, his funds dwindled until, in 1931, he could not make two mortgage payments. On July 10, 1931, Bentley Motors went into receivership and was eventually acquired by Rolls-Royce for 125,000 pounds in November of that year.
The brand lived on and was successful under Rolls-Royce until the company’s finances collapsed (completely unrelated to the automotive business. Vickers took over in 1970 and then Volkswagen AG, the current owner, bought the Rolls-Royce business which still included Bentley.
Bentley Motor Ltd. was a true innovator during the Roaring ‘20s when automobile racing was coming into its own. The Bentley Boys epitomized the spirit of the era. Their indefatigable efforts and love of taking on challenges and adventures inspired an entire generation, earning them a deserved spot in the annals of motorsports history.