Shortly after the armistice in 1919, WO Bentley, together with a group including Frank Burgess (formerly of Humber) and Harry Varley (formerly of Vauxhall), set about designing a high quality sporting tourer, for production under the name Bentley. Colonel Clive Gallop, who had been flying planes on the Western Front, which had been powered by WO's aero engines, joined the team, specifically designing the four valve-per-cylinder camshaft arrangement for the first engine. With his brother, HM, WO established the first 'Bentley Motors', that same year.
The first Bentley Motors Ltd was founded in 1919, and between then and 1931, WO created the motor cars which became a legend and remain prized and treasured possessions at the end of the twentieth century, something of which the intensely modest WO would have been surprised, but also very proud.
WO Bentley and his small team fire up the prototype 3-litre engine in a small mews off Baker Street in central London. This engine had, for its time, an extremely advanced specification - four cylinders, single overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder and twin-spark ignition via two magnetos (the latter introduced a little later). Upon receiving a complaint from a nearby nurse caring for a dying patient disturbed by the noise, one wag present commented "A happy sound to die to".
The chassis was the work of Frank Burgess, the ex-Humber designer who WO Bentley had met during World War One, and recognised as an engineer thinking along the same lines as himself. The first completed chassis, EXP 1, was undertaking test runs by January 1920.
Work commences on construction of the Bentley factory in Oxgate Lane, Cricklewood, North-West London.
EXP 2 at Brooklands
The decision to prove the cars in competition was always going to be an important part of the development process, as WO Bentley and his brother, HM, had achieved so much with this policy before the First World War when they held the UK agency for the French DFP car. So, when EXP 2 became the first racing Bentley, gaining a race victory at Brooklands in 1921, the policy clearly justified itself and the anticipation of this new car by the motoring press was considerably raised. This particular prototype car, the second Bentley ever made, is still in existence and is now owned by Bentley Motors.
In May, another pre-production 3 Litre, driven by Douglas Hawkes, finished 13th in the Indianapolis 500 Race at an average speed of 74.95mph. This result astonished the Americans, especially as the car was quick straight out of its crate and was essentially just a production car, competing against the best local thoroughbred racing machines.
The very next month, Hawkes and his car joined WO Bentley and Frank Clement in a three-car team for the TT race on the Isle of Man. Racing these fundamentally standard specification cars against the experienced and highly tuned teams from Sunbeam and Vauxhall, the Bentley team was the only one to finish intact - second, fourth and fifth - thereby winning the team prize, as well as much valuable publicity. Much needed, because...
3 Litre Supersports
On 21 September, the first production Bentley left the factory and was delivered to its owner, Noel van Raalte, who was to become one of the most faithful ever customers of the marque. The 3 Litre in its short chassis guise, was capable of 90mph - a remarkable achievement for a standard production car at that time, especially as this performance was combined with unusually high reliability. The team racing versions would reach top speeds in excess of 100mph.
John Duff, an official Bentley dealer based in Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2, requested Bentley Motors to prepare his personal 3 Litre, chassis 141, for a novel 24-hour race to be held for the first time that May, at Le Mans in France. Having experienced some delays with breakages, resulting from the terrible conditions at the circuit, Duff and his co-driver, Clement, finished fourth.
Duff and Clement returned to Le Mans and, with the benefit of their experience the previous year, won a famous victory, the first of many for the marque.
Whilst the handling and performance of the 3 Litre was a revelation, especially in its short chassis configuration fitted with the popular four-seater touring body, the performance was seriously compromised for those chassis fitted with heavy saloon bodies, a style which was becoming increasingly desirable. Consequently, the obvious decision was more horsepower, hence the introduction of the 6½ Litre, later to become the Speed Six. Using longer chassis and a six-cylinder version of the engine, plus other modifications, including a three-throw drive for the overhead camshaft instead of the vertical bevel drive of the 3 Litre, the power output was approximately doubled.
However, despite the critical acclaim afforded Bentleys in their first four years of production, sales were unable to match Company targets, and the development costs of the new six-cylinder car had left the finances of the Company teetering on the edge. Fortunately, Woolf Barnato, the son of Barney Barnato of Kimberley Diamond Mine fame, had not long received his inheritance and, to celebrate, had bought a 3 Litre to compete in at Brooklands. When he learnt that the supply of what had quickly become his favourite sports car could well dry up, he bought the Company to secure its immediate future.
Following two very unsuccessful returns to Le Mans in the intervening years since 1924, Bentley finally achieved a second victory, but not without some drama. Its three-car team were all involved in an accident that put two of the cars out of the race completely, and seriously damaged the third. Fortunately, that car, known as 'Old No. 7', was able to continue and, in the final hour of the race, caught and passed the leading car to win at an average speed of 61.35mph.
Not long after Le Mans, Bentley launched its third model, the 4½ Litre. The 6½ was a refined chassis, designed for comfort rather than the more sporty aspirations of the 3 Litre, which was now somewhat underpowered. Also, the early customers who had moved on to the 6½ were also missing the "bloody thump" of the four cylinder engine. The 4½-litre four-cylinder engine mounted in a short (9' 9 ½") chassis has, arguably, become accepted as the best all-round package from this era - as comfortable carrying a saloon body as it is in a sporty package on a race track.
The real beginning of the Barnato era. Despite having owned the Company for two years, it wasn't until 1928 that Woolf became a fully-fledged part of the group of rich amateur drivers known as the Bentley Boys, but it wasn't long before he was recognised as its principal Member. Whilst the 'boys' had a reputation for the highest living, they were also fully committed to their racing and, Barnato in particular, achieved spectacular success. The Company, with the backing of Barnato's millions, embarked on a packed racing programme. Out of five major races entered this year, Bentleys acquitted themselves well, with a first at Le Mans the best result of these, when Barnato and Bernard Rubin drove the prototype 4½ Litre, 'Mother Gun', to a third 24-hour victory for Bentley. Other places were achieved, at home and abroad, cementing the reputation of these iconic motor cars as a world-beating sports car.
The first year that the Speed Six was used in competition, when the Company built a special 11' chassis with a lightweight VdP four-seater tourer body which became known as 'Old No. 1'. Leading the team, this car won two races in 1929 - Le Mans and the BARC Six Hour Race at Brooklands. This year saw the team's best ever result at Le Mans, with Bentleys placed first, second, third and fourth.
Later that year, at Brooklands again, a 4½ Litre, driven by Jack Barclay and Frank Clement, won the BRDC 500 Mile Race. The BRDC (British Racing Drivers' Club), better known these days as the owners of Silverstone, was formed from a core of Bentley team drivers this same year and the 500 Mile Race was their inaugural event. Other notable results Bentleys achieved included second places in both the Double Twelve Hour Race at Brooklands and the Irish Grand Prix at Phoenix Park in Dublin.
The other notable development in 1929 was the introduction of the Supercharged 4½ Litre. Sir Henry Birkin, arguably the most glamorous and celebrated of the Bentley Boys, decided, with the blessing of Woolf Barnato, to go his own way on the development of a suitable racing Bentley. He was convinced, much to the displeasure of WO Bentley, that supercharging was the way ahead, and set up his own workshops in Welwyn Garden City, north of London. These cars have subsequently become the most iconic of the various Vintage Bentley models, despite never winning a major race. Initially, five chassis were built at Welwyn solely for racing purposes, to be followed by a further 50 production versions built at Cricklewood.
The previous year had seen the Wall Street Crash, the reverberations of which could be felt throughout the whole world, not least of all amongst the wealthy classes in England. Sales of Bentleys fell throughout this year and, had it not been for the deep pockets of Woolf Barnato, Bentley Motors would have folded before the year had had a chance to even get under way. Despite the gloom, Bentley Motors bravely launched the ultimate luxury motor car, the incredible 8 Litre, with a six-cylinder engine developed from the Speed Six, but fitted to a new chassis. These beautifully finished motor cars were capable of carrying the heaviest coachbuilt bodies at speeds in excess of 100mph, with no fuss and in complete comfort and safety - an incredible achievement for those days. The first car was delivered in October to the famous actor, Jack Buchanan. Only 100 were ever built, but their survival rate is excellent.
Nevertheless, competitions still played a major part in their activities, and Old No. 1 managed to win Le Mans for the second year in succession. Its sister Speed Six also triumphed in the Junior Car Club's Double Twelve Race at Brooklands, and Birkin gained the most important result for the Supercharged 4½ Litre cars when he finished second in the French Grand Prix against pukka GP cars, and on a notoriously twisty circuit. His car towered over the competition and the result was nevertheless a very significant achievement.
Due to the ever-worsening financial situation, the important decisions within the Company were being taken by new Directors brought in by Barnato, and WO was becoming less and less pivotal in strategy. The most significant development was the introduction of the unloved 4 Litre model - the engine was very much the brainchild of Harry Ricardo, but it was handicapped by the cost-cutting measure of mating it to a shortened version of the very heavy 8 Litre chassis. Some 49 were built but they have never captured the imagination of fans of the marque, mainly due to being underpowered.
On 10 July, the Company found it could no longer meet its financial obligations and, with Barnato unwilling to continue baling it out, it was put into receivership. Following a brief battle with Napier, Rolls-Royce, hiding behind the British Equitable Central Trust, bought the Company and its assets for £125,275. Only the Service Department at Kingsbury remained, and continued to service and maintain Bentleys produced at Cricklewood continuously up until the War.
There has been constant speculation about why Rolls-Royce bought Bentley Motors but undoubtedly a primary motivation was to remove its most serious competitor in the luxury car market. The 8 Litre, which was a direct competitor to the Phantom II Continental, had clearly demonstrated an overall superiority in performance and, in the depressed market at that time, Rolls-Royce could little afford a competitor of that calibre in such a restricted marketplace.
A single private entry of a 4½ Litre entered the Le Mans 24 Hours and failed to finish, and this pattern was repeated the following two years with one of the 'Blower' team cars, now owned by a Frenchman. At Brooklands privateers continued competing with highly developed Bentleys with various levels of success. The most significant of these achievements were 'Old Number 1's' victory in the 1931 500 Mile Race and Sir Henry Birkin's lap record of almost 138mph in 1932 whilst driving his Supercharged 4½ Litre single-seater. Another Bentley hybrid achieved the second fastest ever lap of Brooklands in 1938 - a lap speed of just over 143mph achieved by Oliver Bertram driving Woolf Barnato's Barnato-Hassan Special. This car was the brainchild of ex-Bentley team mechanic, Wally Hassan, who went on to design the extremely successful Coventry-Climax GP engines in the early 1960s, and following its take-over by Jaguar, he had much to do with the Jaguar V12 engine, eventually taking over as Managing Director of that Company.