Early History of Bentley

From article by Jack Nerad for Driving Today

By 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.

One 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.

Bentley 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.

His 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.

Unlike 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.

The 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.

When 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.

In 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.

Understandably, 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.)

Bentley 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.

Aside 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Still 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.

This 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.

By 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.

W.O. 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.

After 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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Copyright 2004 by John Sweney. All rights reserved.