The 10th of July 2019 will mark 100 years since Walter Owen (W.O.) Bentley started one of the most well-known British brands of all time. Over the years the brand has been synonymous with building high-performance luxury cars.
The company has also made a name for itself on the race track, winning the 24 hours of Le Mans six times. This makes it one of the top manufacturers in the race with only Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi, and Porsche scoring more victories. Bentley’s first win was in 1924, during the second ever edition of the race and was the first British manufacturer to do so. Driving for the ‘winged B,’ Woolf Barnato took home the trophy in 1928, 1929, and 1930. Its next win would not come until 2003.
W.O Bentley founded the company to “build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” He had put his ambitions on hold during the First World War, but when peace returned, he decided to pursue this dream. An £8,000 contribution from the Commission of Awards to Inventors didn’t help either.
W.O. was initially opposed to racing at Le Mans. “I think the whole thing is crazy,” he said. “Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for twenty-four hours.” But when he saw his own car, the 3 Litre, setting a lap record and finish fourth with Frank Clement and John Duff in 1923, he changed his tune.
His final creation was the 8-Litre. The power and torque provided by the straight-six allowed this car to pass 100mph, regardless of what body the owner had chosen. “I have always wanted to produce a dead silent 100 mph car,” he said, “and now I think that we have done it.”
Reviewing the car for ‘The Tatle’r, Captain W. Gordon Aston would write: “never in my life have I known a vehicle in which such a prodigious performance was linked to such smooth unobtrusive quietness.”
The company changed hands multiple times in its history, first being bought by Rolls Royce in 1931, Vickers in 1980, and finally its current owner, Volkswagen in 1998. While many people to this day lament that such an iconic British marque is owned by the Germans (ignoring that the cars are still developed and engineered here) this has propelled Bentley into the 21st Century.
The Continental GT was the birth-child of that creation. Despite its negative reputation as a footballer’s car, this 200mph brute is a true Bentley for the modern age, combining high-performance with luxury. Along with the 4-door Flying Spur and convertible GTC, the new generation of cars have been joined by a reinvented Mulsanne. The latest to join the stable is the Bentayga, the first SUV in the company’s history, such is the time we live in.
In addition to a range of events, Bentley will celebrate its centenary with a special edition car. Look out for it at the Geneva Motor Show in March, and raise a glass to the winged B.