Bentley at 100: A legacy of luxury, beauty, and speed

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Walter Owen Bentley established his car company in October 1919, having previously sold French cars (the DFP) and designed WWI airplane engines  (the Bentley Rotary One and the Bentley Rotary Two). The rest, as they say, is history. Here’s to 100 years of Bentley.

1910s: A car company is born

Walter Owen Bentley
Walter Owen Bentley

Bentley establishes his British car company, stating his desire to build “a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” The first car, the EXP 1, is produced the same year, but the first salable cars don’t reach customers until 1921. The youngest of nine children, Bentley is said to have hated his first name, and as an adult went by “W.O.,” which explains why those letters are often seen on the number plates on Bentleys in press photos.

1920s: The glory years

1925 Bentley 3-Litre Speed Model Tourer
1925 Bentley 3-Litre Speed Model Tourer

Bentley launches with the 3 Litre, boasting 85 horsepower and good for speeds up to 80 mph. Britain’s The Autocar magazine enthuses “[it] combines docility in traffic with exceptional speed potentiality on the open road.” That exceptional speed potentiality is demonstrated in dramatic fashion in 1924, when a 3 Litre Bentley wins the 24 Hours of LeMans. Another 3 Litre wins again in 1927, a victory that was particularly stirring. All three factory Bentleys are caught up in a wreck, and two of the three cars were totaled. But the third car, although heavily damaged, is patched up and sent back out—into a downpour—and eventually nursed across the finish line in first place. In 1928, a 4½ Litre Bentley posts another win, and 6½ Litre Speed Six models are victorious in 1929 (finishing 1-2-3-4) and 1930 (1-2).

1930s: The start of a long-lasting union

Bentley Blue Train
Bentley Blue Train

From a business perspective, the most important event of the decade occurs in 1931 when Rolls-Royce purchases Bentley out of receivership, for the bargain sum of £125,275, and Bentley Motors Ltd. becomes a Rolls-Royce subsidiary. In the legends-making department, Bentley managing director (and 1928–29 Le Mans-winning driver) Woolf Barnato bets £100 that he can drive his Bentley 6½ Litre Speed Six from Cannes, France, to London before the French Le Train Bleu travels from Cannes to Calais on the north coast of France. Barnato wins his bet, and the legend of the “Blue Train” Bentley is born.

Also in the 1930s, the Bentley Drivers’ Club is established, after Keston Pelmore places placards on the windshields of Bentleys at a Brooklands race in 1936. Some 26 people show up for the first meeting, which takes place at the Boltons Hotel; today, the club boasts more than 3000 members.

1940s: The crew moves to Crewe

1948 Bentley Mark VI
1948 Bentley Mark VI

After World War II, Bentley moves production to the newly industrialized area of Crewe. With the additional capabilities of its new manufacturing center, it is able to turn out complete cars with a factory steel body. The first post-War car and the first model assembled exclusively at Crewe is the Mark VI, introduced in 1946. The Mark VI is powered by a 4.3-liter inline-six, later bored out to 4.6 liters, paired with a four-speed synchromesh gearbox. The factory body is a four-door with rear-hinged rear doors and a sliding sunroof. The Mark VI continues through 1952 and provides the mechanical basis for the R-Type Continental coupe that would follow.

1950s: The world’s fastest four-seater

1950s Bentley Continental
1950s Bentley Continental

The R-Type Continental (initially just plain Continental) is a two-door coupe with standard bodywork by Mulliner. Trimmer weight, improved aerodynamics, and a tall axle ratio help it achieve a top speed of roughly 120 mph, making it the fastest four-place car extant. The R-Type Continental’s combination of attributes—speed, style, and luxury—make it an enduring brand icon, and arguably the greatest Bentley of the latter half of the twentieth century. Bentley’s other introduction of significance takes place in 1959, when the Bentley V-8 engine makes its debut, displacing 6230 cubic centimeters. Displacement later grows to 6750 cc, where it remains to this day, as found under the hood of the Mulsanne.

Also in the 1950s, the British spy hero James Bond is revealed to own the first of a series of Bentleys, a supercharged 4½ Litre, in the 1953 novel Casino Royale.

1960s: Not-so-swinging sixties

1965 Bentley T1 saloon
1965 Bentley T1 saloon

The Bentley T Series replaces the S Series, paralleling the Rolls-Royce changeover from the Silver Cloud to the Silver Shadow. Mechanical highlights (for both) include unit-body construction, a four-wheel independent suspension with load-leveling, and disc brakes at all four wheels. Standard and long-wheelbase models were offered. Like the S1/S2/S3 Continental sedans before it, the T series was identical to its Rolls-Royce sibling, and any hint of Bentley’s sporting past was but a memory at this point.

1970s: At home on the Cote d’Azur

1971 Bentley Corniche
1971 Bentley Corniche

The 1970s are a quiet time at Bentley, and the brand lives in the shadow of Rolls-Royce. Coupe and convertible versions of the T1 sedan, with bodywork by Park Ward, had arrived in 1966, and in 1971 both Bentley and Rolls-Royce adopt the name Corniche for their two-door models. The convertible Corniche twins thus begin a 13-year reign as the Zsa Zsa and Ava Gabor of automobiles, ruling over the Cote d’Azur and similar locales. The name would die out in the early 1980s but the model would live on as the Bentley Continental.

1980s: Turbo R

1989 Bentley Turbo R
1989 Bentley Turbo R

Bentley turbocharges its already long-serving 6.75-liter V-8 for the 1982 Mulsanne Turbo, boosting output by 50 percent (to 300 horsepower). The turbocharged engine has its real star turn, however, in the Turbo R, which arrives in 1985 and which successfully fuses the notions of sports sedan and rolling manor house. The Turbo R finally moves Bentley out of the shadow of Rolls-Royce, and proves to be the most popular Bentley model of the 1980s and ’90s, with 4657 built between 1985–97 (plus an additional 1508 long-wheelbase models and 252 Turbo RT variants).

1990s: A new German sugar daddy

1997 Bentley Continental T
1997 Bentley Continental T

Rolls-Royce and Bentley go on the block in 1998, touching off a catfight among the big three German automakers. When the dust settles, the BMW Group ends up with Rolls-Royce and the Volkswagen Group gets Bentley. (Daimler is shut out, so it sets about resurrecting the Maybach brand.) Bentley’s new German benefactor begins investing heavily, the fruits of which will become evident starting in 2003. Product-wise, Bentley unveils the Continental R in 1992, essential a new two-door coupe based on the Mulsanne sedan. The coupe reaches its apotheosis as the Continental T in 1996. The T’s 6.75-liter turbo V-8 produces 420 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, sufficient for a factory-claimed 60-mph sprint of 5.7 seconds and a top speed of 170 mph.

2000s: The Modern Era begins

2005 Bentley Continental GT
2005 Bentley Continental GT

Unquestionably the most important car of Bentley’s last half-century, the Continental GT, introduced for 2003, is simultaneously the first all-new car developed under German ownership and a key brand expansion that opens up a second tier of model offerings that were more attainable—though still plenty expensive—allowing the brand to achieve life-sustaining sales volumes. Based on a radical new all-wheel-drive platform and powered by a turbocharged W12 engine (later also a turbo 4.0-liter V-8), the Continental GT coupe takes its design inspiration from the 1950s R-Type Continental. A sedan version, the Flying Spur, arrives in 2005, and a Continental GTC convertible joins the lineup, as well. Toward the end of the decade, Bentley renews its top offering, the Mulsanne sedan, with a new version in 2009—one that still retains the 6.75-liter turbo V-8, however.

In motorsports news, Bentley returns to Le Mans in 2001, where the EXP Speed 8 competes in the GTP class and takes third place overall.

2010s: The Inevitable SUV

Bentley Bentayga
Bentley Bentayga

By the 2010s, the siren call of the sport utility vehicle is impossible to ignore, and Bentley responds with the Bentayga, in 2015. Although elements of its platform are shared with the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne, Bentley claims 80-percent unique content for the Bentayga, which is priced at a cool $229,100. A 600-hp W12 provides the (considerable) thrust, enough for a sub-4-second 0–60 time and a top speed of 187 mph. Those performance figures inch ahead with the later Speed model, and a turbo V-8 and a plug-in hybrid also join the lineup. Although it weighs some 6000 pounds, an air-spring suspension and electronically controlled anti-roll bars (the latter necessitating a second, 48-volt electrical system) help it handle adroitly and provide surprising off-road acumen. In short order, the Bentayga accounts for half of Bentley’s annual sales.

2020s: Already here

2018 Bentley Continental GT
2018 Bentley Continental GT

At Bentley, 2020 is already here, in the form of the redesigned 2020 Continental GT, the Continental GT convertible, and their recently revealed four-door companion, the 2020 Flying Spur. Turbocharged W12 and V-8 engines continue, and the suspension technology from the Bentayga migrates over. All three are sleeker and better-proportioned than their predecessors, with trimmed front overhangs and longer wheelbases. The new Conti GT is livelier behind the wheel but every bit as luxurious as before, and finally features modern tech. It is the best-realized version of the modern Continental GT idea, and stands as tall today as its namesake did a half-century ago.

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