bentley - The Early Years

Walter Owen Bentley was born the youngest of nine children in September 1888, and into a comfortably-off late Victorian family. With almost as many servants as family, they lived in a rambling house in Avenue Road, St John’s Wood, London. His family originated from Yorkshire although his maternal grandfather had emigrated to Australia, making a fortune from copper mining and banking before returning to retire in London.

The ‘Bun’, as he was nicknamed, was interested in cricket and passionate about railways. As a boy, he had no doubt what he intended to do with his life and in 1905 at the age of 16 left school to pursue a premium apprenticeship in Doncaster at the locomotive works of the Great Northern Railway.

For the next three and a half years of ‘sweat and dirt’ (as he described them), WO as he became universally known, learnt his engineering skills. By 1909 he was ready to experience his burning childhood ambition to get onto the footplate of a steam locomotive. Eventually he was firing express locomotives out of Kings Cross. 

The premium apprenticeship cost his father £75 for a five year term. WO worked under Henry Ivatt, designer of the 4-4-2 Atlantic locomotives, in the fitting shop, foundry and engine erecting shop. Working through a ten hour day, five and a half days a week, he worked his way up, taking occasional turns as assistant fireman on the footplate, before finishing his apprenticeship in the Kings Cross running sheds.

In 1906, WO acquired his first motor-cycle, a 3hp Quadrant. By 1907 the ‘lure of speed’ as he later described it, expressed itself when he entered the 400-mile London to Edinburgh Trial, staged by the Motor Cycling Club. After dealing en route with various problems endemic to early motor cycles, he reached Edinburgh just before his scheduled deadline, and so qualified for a Gold Medal in his first sporting trial.

He and two of his brothers, Horace and Arthur, who also bought motorcycles, became enthusiasts. Arthur won a premier award with his Triumph and WO followed this with two major Golds in trials. WO became proficient at both trials, road and track racing. He could be found practising on the empty roads in the early hours of the morning, before police speed traps were operating. He later acquired a Rex motorcycle and subsequently an Indian, both of which he entered in the motorcycle TT races. The Indian was also raced at Brooklands before he acquired his first car.

From this modest beginning came WO’s life-long love of motorsport, with his first cars, a V-twin chain-drive Riley and subsequently a four-cylinder Sizaire-Naudin, WO became an adherent of the motor car. Having completed his premium apprenticeship, WO took a job as assistant to the works manager of the National Motor Cab Company, helping to keep a fleet of 500 Unic taxis on the road.

In the spring of 1912, his brother Horace happened to see an advertisement in The Times seeking a new director for the concessionaires of the French car factory Doriot, Flandrin & Parant (DFP). Raising the necessary £2,000 from the family, WO became the active British concessionaire for DFP A little later Horace bought out the remaining partners for a further £2,000 and ‘Bentley and Bentley’ commenced business from their Hanover Street show rooms in 1912.

WO considered that the 12/15 hp tourer, being possibly the best of the DFP range and susceptible to tuning, might prove successful in sports events. With the help of his mechanic from the DFP factory, Leroux, WO entered a number of events, the first being the Aston Clinton hill climb on 15 June 1912, and broke a number of records at Brooklands. The effect on sales, overseen by Horace, was “quite remarkable”.

In 1913 WO visited the DFP factory at Courbevoie, near Paris. Seeing a paperweight fashioned from aluminum to look like a piston he surmised that aluminum alloy pistons would give the DFP better performance and he commissioned a set to his own design. The result was a greatly improved 12/15 DFP, followed by the 12/40 speed model in 1914. In that year’s TT in the Isle of Man, WO drove his DFP into sixth place against larger engined opposition.

Lieutenant WO Bentley RNVR served his country well in World War One. Through an introduction to Commander Wilfred Briggs, WO was given a commission in the Royal Navy. He was rapidly sent to both Rolls-Royce at Derby and later to the Sunbeam works, where he demonstrated the aluminium alloy piston and recommended its adoption for aero engines.

The English concessionaires for the Clerget rotary aero-engine, which suffered from limited power and poor reliability, were next to receive a visit from WO. He proposed a number of modifications, including the use of an aluminium cylinder shrunk on to a cast-iron liner to improve cooling. Gwynnes, licensees for the Clerget engine, would not accept WO’s proposals for the re-design of their engine and so Briggs arranged for WO to establish an experimental shop at Humbers in Coventry. His BR1 and 250 hp BR2 rotary aeroplane engines, designed and built with his friends at Humber, proved to be some of the best aero-engines of their day, with the BR2 continuing in RAF service well into the 1920s.

WO was demobilised with £1,000 gratuity. Subsequently, a young King’s Counsel, later to become Lord Hailsham, managed to win a further £8,000 for WO, in recognition of the use of his aluminium pistons, and his creation of reliable aero engines, the BR2 being the ultimate of its kind.

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