Following on from our look at the history of Lamborghini last month, it’s time to travel into the past of another supercar giant, this time a bit closer to home. Bentley will celebrate its centenary year in 2019, and it’s fair to say it’s been an interesting ride so far…
The company that would go on to become one of the most famous car brands in the world was founded by brothers Walter and Horace Bentley in 1919. The Bentleys had experience in designing cars in London before the First World War, and once peacetime resumed they set about creating their own unique cars, using aluminium instead of iron to create lighter pistons and designing innovative engines.
The brothers wasted no time in entering their designs into races, and their cars quickly earned a good reputation for their durability. The newcomers’ first big race was the 1922 Indianapolis 500, where they impressed as their adapted road car outperformed several specialised racing cars.
Bentley continued to punch above their weight in races, but struggled financially, with debts mounting and projects going underfunded. Their fortunes were improved when one of their racing drivers, Woolf Barnato, agreed to take over the business.
Having inherited his wealthy father’s fortunes at just two years old when his father died mysteriously at sea, Barnato had the financial clout to take Bentley to the next level. He soon invested significant amounts and paid off Bentley’s debts.
With the company’s future secured, Walter Bentley was able to design his next prototype. The result was the creation of a group of successful racing drivers, Barnato included, who became known as ‘The Bentley Boys’ and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race four years running.
However, it was also around this time that Barnato’s money began to run out, once more leaving Bentley’s future uncertain.
With debts again piling up and Barnato this time unable to pay them, an auction developed as investors bid to take over the struggling company. A late bid from a mysterious company called the ‘British Central Equitable Trust’ blew all other offers out of the water.
It was only revealed after the takeover had been completed that this company was a front for Rolls Royce, one of Bentley’s rivals. Fearful that new Bentleys would outperform Rolls Royce’s star model, the Phantom II, they had decided to remove the risk by buying out their rival.
While Walter continued to work under the new regime for several years, he left in 1935 after becoming disillusioned with Rolls Royce. However, Bentleys produced after the takeover incorporated some of Rolls Royce’s best features too, helping Bentley to become a well-established and popular brand.
Indeed, all Bentleys produced between the takeover and 2004, a period of more than 70 years, used a Rolls Royce chassis. Rolls Royce also introduced the “silent sports car” slogan that stuck with Bentley until the 1950s.
Bentley’s well-known association with Crewe began in the build-up to the Second World War, when Rolls Royce, looking to build a new factory, were partially persuaded by the fact that as a small town in the north-east, Crewe was unlikely to be bombed during the war. Bentley’s headquarters remain in Crewe today.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Bentley had declined in popularity and sales dropped to the point that just 5% of cars sold by Rolls Royce were Bentleys. However, with cars like the luxury Mulsanne, Bentley was able to gradually rebuild its reputation for high-performance, high-quality cars and sales improved. By the early 1990s, Rolls Royce was selling as many Bentleys as Rolls Royces.
Bentley changed hands again at the turn of the century, with Volkswagen taking the wheel. While the majority of Bentleys are still manufactured in Crewe, some are now built in Germany. The first Bentley released under Volkswagen ownership was one of its most popular of all time: the Continental GT. Unsurprisingly, people looking to hire a Bentley often choose this gorgeous car.