History of Bentley
From article by Jack Nerad for Driving Today
an odd coincidence, both Walter O. Bentley and Henry Royce, two
of Britain's most vaunted automotive names, began their careers
as railway apprentices. Many years later, in the 1920s, the two
men vied for the title of best English car maker -- Royce with his
elegantly refined Rolls-Royce models and Bentley with his hell-for-leather
quasi-racing machines. When the Depression hit and Bentley's business
collapsed, Royce was right there to pick up the pieces, acquiring
the rights to the Bentley brand in a way that had to stick in W.O.'s
craw, and the two names have been joined uncomfortably ever since.
has to believe that the patrician Bentley would have felt more at
home with Royce's partner, Charles S. Rolls, who was born into British
nobility, than with Royce, whose father was a down-on-his-luck country
miller. While Royce was peddling newspapers to help his families
meager fortunes, Rolls was matriculating at Eton and Bentley was
striving to improve his cricket game.
was also a motorcycle enthusiast, racing a Rex at Brooklands in
1909, among other two-wheeled exploits. By 1910 his interest had
turned to cars. He bought a Riley V-twin that year, and in the Teens
he purchased two Sizaire-Naudins.
career as a railway apprentice was rather short, a way to use his
obvious mechanical skills and gain some self-discipline besides.
For a time he worked as a mechanic at the National Motor Cab Company,
and then he joined his brother as a principal in a DFP automobile
dealership in London.
most salespeople, he took a genuine interest in the mechanical aspects
of the automobiles he was selling, and soon he was modifying them
to produce better performance. One of his neatest tricks was to
substitute lighter aluminum-copper alloy pistons for the DFP's standard-issue
pistons. Later he reconfigured the car's camshaft for racing versions
of the car as well.
success with DFP was short-lived, however, because World War I intervened.
In uniform, Bentley redesigned the French Clerget rotary aircraft
engine, equipping it with (not surprisingly) aluminum pistons, and
the re-done engine delivered significantly better performance. In
his honor, the new engines he labored on were designated BR1 and
BR2 (for "Bentley Rotary",) and Bentley was promoted to lieutenant.
the war was over and he and the service parted company, Bentley
rejoined his brother in the car dealership. But after the success
of his mechanical exploits while in the military, he yearned to
do more than peddle cars; he wanted to build them.
the summer of 1919 he formed a company called Bentley Motors Ltd
to do just that. Teaming with Frank Burgess, a former Humber competition
driver who had become well-known for drawing up the dual overhead
cam engine that competed ably in the pre-war Tourist Trophy races,
Bentley conceived a motor car that was quite advanced for the day.
the chassis design owed much to Humber, but the engine was significantly
different and the heart of the new car. Though the engine had but
one camshaft (driven via a shaft from the crank), it did offer four
valves per cylinder, quite a novelty in 1919. It used two plugs
per cylinder, a more common practice at the time, and its crankcase
was cast of light alloy rather than being a steel stamping for weight
savings and rigidity. Block and head of the were cast in a piece,
and the engine had an exceptionally long stroke of 5.8-inches and
a 3.1-inch bore. (This odd combination of bore and stroke was no
doubt influenced by British tax laws which calculated taxable horsepower
by extrapolating from the engine's bore.)
broke with tradition by calling his creation a "3-Litre." At that
time it was common practice for British auto manufacturers to label
their cars with their horsepower (the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was
the officially called the 40/50, for example), but the calculated
horsepower for the Bentley was just 15.9, which would have been
marketing suicide and was inaccurate on top of it. Actual horsepower
from the sophisticated engine was more than double that figure.
from the engine, the Bentley 3-Litre was conventional in design.
Substantial girders joined by four cross members served as the frame.
Semi-elliptical springs were used at all four corners, and the original
wheelbase was 117.5-inches.
3-Litre used a four-speed gearbox operating through a rather un-modern
cone-type clutch. The right-hand mounted gearbox lever was most
often affixed exterior of the bodywork in what was obviously a right-hand-drive
vehicle. Until 1924, two-wheel brakes were used, and then the Bentley
works added drums to the front wheels as well.
sad fact that dogged Bentley Motors Ltd throughout its life was
its weak financial situation. The company was started on less than
$50,000, and it approached automobile manufacture with a cottage
industry style. A simple example of this is the reality that, though
the first 3-Litre was introduced to the public at the London Motor
Show of 1919 and deliveries were promise by June 1920, the first
car did not actually reach a customer's hands until September 1921.
To add insult to injury, when it was finally delivered the price
had jumped up more than 50 percent.
catch-as-catch-can nature of his manufacturing operation didn't
stop Bentley from going racing, however. In 1922 his three-car team
won the team prize at the well-respected Tourist Trophy race on
the Isle of Man, with individual cars finishing second, fourth and
fifth. This smashing success against the best from England and the
Continent immediately grabbed Bentley Motors some much-needed recognition.
coup on the Isle of Man was followed two years later by John Duff's
victory in the 24-Hours of Le Mans, a victory all the more remarkable
because Duff's was, at least nominally, a private entry. Despite
racing successes, though, Bentley's sales trickled along -- 21 in
1921, 122 in 1922, 204 in 1923 and a whopping 402 in 1924.
Bentley's success in motor racing, which would go on to include
the most fabled Le Mans victory of them all, the win by the 4-Liter
in 1927 after a crash had seemingly put it out of the race, brought
the firm some very famous clients. Among Bentley owners were Gertrude
Lawrence, Beatrice Lilly and Prince (soon-to-be King) George.
esteemed clientele also prevailed upon Bentley to build a longer
wheelbase version of the 3-Litre that would accommodate more elaborate
bodywork. The result of their lobbying was a 130-inch wheelbase
chassis, though that, too, was most often outfitted with a four-seater
open touring body accented by cycle fenders.
1928 the 3-Litre had been largely superceded by the 4- and 6-Litre
cars. The latter was Bentley's manner of going after the Rolls-Royce
buyer. With over 400 cubic inches of displacement, the six cylinder
was nearly as quiet and refined as the car bearing the fabled double-R's,
yet still had 85-mile-per-hour capabilities. Racing versions of
this model were victorious two years running at Le Mans, which in
the Twenties was a Bentley playground.
Bentley's final stab at the luxury car market was his substantial
8-Litre. Essentially a bored-out version of the Speed Six, the 7982
cubic centimeter engine produced up to 225 horsepower. Sadly, though,
by the time it was introduced, the Depression had begun and Bentley
Motors Ltd would soon be in receivership.
Rolls-Royce absorbed his company, Bentley moved on to Lagonda, where
he designed several excellent engines. Before he died in 1971, he
would see his rare creations deified and none more than his original,
the 3-Litre Bentley.
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