London, New Street Mews, 10 July 1919. An aluminium paperweight, a company of eccentric motor enthusiasts and a family of best-in-class cars.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A PIECE OF ALUMINIUM
From bicycles to cars, not to mention railways, aviation and motorcycling. Before making it in the world of automobiles, Walter Owen Bentley explored and deepened his knowledge by working with all possible modes of transport, demonstrating a precocious engineering talent from a very young age.
At the age of nine, he bought a second-hand bicycle so he could take it apart and figure out how it worked. At 16, he left school to follow his passion for trains at the Great Northern Railway, also buying a motorbike so he could start competing in races. In 1912, he went into business with his brother importing cars from France, and then reached a turning point in his life.
During a visit to the French manufacturers, he ended up with an aluminium paperweight in his hands. He wondered if it might be possible to exploit the lightness of the material to make more efficient pistons. It turned out to be a highly successful insight: Bentley manufactured pistons with a new alloy of aluminium and copper and the cars he purchased soon began winning races and setting new records.
His invention also turned out to be crucial in aviation: as a captain in the Royal Naval Air Service during World War One, W.O. Bentley equipped the Sopwith Camel plane with the first Bentley engine, turning the aircraft into the finest British fighter in the war. And it is here that another story begins, the story of Bentley the company. The recognitions W.O. Bentley received for his military contribution left him with enough capital to set up his very own car manufacturer: Bentley Motors Ltd was founded in London on 10 July 1919.
FAST CARS, GOOD CARS FOR THE BENTLEY BOYS AND GIRLS
The 3 Litre was the first Flying B to take to the roads of England: it was acclaimed for its durability and the power and lightness of its aluminium engine, designed by Bentley himself. Next came the 6½ Litre Speed Six, with six gears, and the 4½ Litre, which enjoyed plenty of success in competitions, especially its turbocharged version, the Blower.
By the start of the 1930s, Bentleys were widely considered some of the finest sports cars on the market. In the meantime, a picturesque team of drivers who lived extravagant lives in the Great Gatsby style developed around the brand: the Bentley Boys and Bentley Girls. The group achieved superb results in motor racing – including five wins in seven years in the 24 Ore of Le Mans – thanks in part to the pressure they put on the constructor to make sure the Bentley cars constantly exceeded their engineering limits.
They were the protagonists of some legendary experiences, including the incredible Le Mans win of Sammy Davis and Dudley Benjafield, where the drivers crossed the finish line immediately after an accident that seriously damaged the bodywork, steering wheel and rear axle. To celebrate their victory, they took their battered Old Number 7 to the dining room of the Savoy in London.
There's also Woolf Barnato, who raced a train from Cannes to Calais as a bet and arrived in London before the train had even pulled into Calais station. He may have won the bet, but he was also hit with a fine from the French police.
Mildred “Victor” Bruce, on the other hand, was the first English woman to be fined for breaking the speed limit (at just 15 years of age) and the first woman in the world to circumnavigate the world in a solo flight. At her first Montecarlo Rally, she finished in sixth place and won the Coupe des Dames. Far from content, the following year she took second place overall. Bruce completed numerous solitary endurance tests, during which she would hardly rest at all, and as a result she once drank petrol instead of water by mistake, though she did all she could to make up for the time lost.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS ON
The story continues, celebrating the past. All of the new cars produced in 2019, made by the 4,000 men and women in Crewe, will boast the writing 1919-2019 in a gold finish. And to pay tribute to Mr Bentley, Mulliner has created a special version of the Mulsanne, inspired by the finest and final creation from Bentley's founder: the Mulsanne W.O. Edition is based on the Bentley 8 Litre, which was launched in 1930.
The crankshaft of the original car, which is actually incredibly similar to contemporary versions though now obsolete, has been cut into 100 pieces. The sections are now displayed between the two rear seats in each of the new Mulliners, making every single car unique. The original key of the 8 Litre belonging to W.O. Bentley, on the other hand, is now proudly exhibited and passed down from CEO to CEO.