The Walter Owen (WO) Era (1919-1931)
Before the First World War, brothers Walter Owen (WO) and Horace Milner (HM) Bentley had been business parters in a Car Sales operation called Bentley and Bentley Ltd. They sold French cars which WO would race and, being a former locomotive engineer, would try to improve. During the war, his engineering skills were put to good use in the development of aero engines, for which he was awarded an MBE. When the war ended the brothers went into business again, this time building their own cars under the name Bentley Motors Ltd. The company was founded in Cricklewood, England in 1919.
WO used his experience at Great North Eastern Railways to over-engineer a robust chassis and a powerful 3-litre engine and, in 1921, the first Bentley car was launched into high demand thanks to the glowing report it had received in “The Autocar” magazine. WO’s love of speed and the trend for endurance racing in Europe at the time, led him to enter the car in a number of races, including the LeMans 24 hour race. The team of racing drivers who drove Bentley’s were enthusiasts of the brand who didn’t need to race for money. They were millionaire playboys who had returned from the horrors of war with a heroic spirit and a thrill for danger. It was only natural they’d become known as the Bentley Boys.
The Bentley Boys became the de facto marketing department for Bentley Motors, as WO himself was more of an engineer than a marketeer. As long as he could build the cars, they would race them – and win – cementing the Bentley’s reputation as “a fast car, a good car, the best in its class” (WO Bentley).
The wealthy clientèle, however, often had their coach-builders build large limousine bodies which were too heavy for the 3-litre chassis. The chassis could take it but would not perform the way WO had intended. His principle of making cars perform better by building a bigger engine led to the introduction of a 6½ litre chassis which fended off any concern about performance.
Woolf Barnato, one of the more successful Bentley Boys, became the chairman of Bentley after injecting some finance into the business which was always struggling for profitability. He famously demonstrated the effortless performance of his Speed Six model by comfortably beating the French Blue Train in a race from the Riviera to the English Channel.
However, this new car was one of the most expensive in the world. It had only been given such a massive boost in power after WO had found himself in a road race with a Rolls-Royce Phantom while testing the prototype in France. So a more palatable 4½ litre model was introduced for the more civilised customer.
This is the model that most people think about today when they picture a WO era Bentley. Or rather, a special edition of this model. Sir Henry Birkin, another Bentley Boy, felt that supercharging a 4½ litre car would increase performance at lower cost. The idea horrified WO, who thought of supercharging an engine as cheating, but Henry Birkin sought out the finance from a wealthy heiress and the required number of supercharged cars were built so he could go racing. WO was vindicated for his reluctance as the “Blower Bentley,” complete with Amherst Villiers Supercharger, failed to win a single race.
Just why it is the most revered of the early Bentley’s, may have something to do with the market-friendly nick-name, “Blower,” which is far easier to like than the “4½ Litre”. Business wasn’t WO’s foremost skill and when the company hit financial trouble again during the great depression, Woolf Barnato was unwilling to dig into his deep pockets any more. The company went into liquidation in 1931 and a buyer was sought for the Bentley brand.
Rolls Royce Era (1931-1980)
Rolls-Royce’s takeover of Bentley was not a clean one. The idea of selling the brand to his biggest rivals would never sit well with WO but R-R acquired the brand by bidding as the British Central Equitable Trust, offering a higher price than Napier & Son who already had an agreement in place. WO was taken on by Rolls-Royce to act as a consultant. In reality this was a token gesture by a company that would have preferred to wipe the Bentley brand out of existence. The Cricklewood factory was closed and production moved to Derby.
WO left Rolls-Royce to work for Lagonda, a company more in line with his thinking, but his brand lived on under the control of Rolls-Royce PLC.
When production moved from Derby to Crewe there were very few differences between Rolls-Royce and Bentley models. From now on, Bentleys would be little more than a rebadged Rolls-Royce with a different model name, and a different grille.
The only exceptions to this policy were the R-type Continental Models. Pure Bentley’s with no Rolls-Royce equivalent. Even today these beautiful models still command a premium over other Bentley models of the same era.
In 1971, the year WO passed away, Rolls Royce PLC hit financial trouble after a series of issues with an aero-engine. In order to protect the company, the UK government devised a rescue plan which split the automotive venture away from the aerospace venture, making Rolls-Royce Motor Cars an independent manufacturer which owned the Bentley brand. During this period of independence the Bentley brand saw only a face-lift of its T-series model. If an all-new model was to be produced a buyer would have to be found.
Vickers Era (1980-1998)
Vickers was a defence company involved in the production of tanks, ships and other military equipment when it bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in 1980. At the time, Rolls-Royce was the more dominant marque but, over the following decade, Vickers began to differentiate the Bentley and Rolls-Royce brands – despite the cars continuing to share the same bodies. Bentley’s sporting credentials were brought out in names like “Mulsanne” and “Brooklands,” and the “Turbo” had a whiff of that controversial Amherst Villiers Blower about it.
This strategy reinforced the brand as one for drivers, while Rolls-Royce remained a brand for the chauffeured. When the Bentley Continental R was re-introduced in 1991 there was, once again, a car that Bentley drivers could claim was a true Bentley, rather than a rebadged Rolls-Royce.
The Bentley Arnage and Azure, shared the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and Corniche bodies, but the Bentley was already becoming the brand of choice for the new-money millionaires. Under the skin, however, the cars had evolved very little from the day Vickers had taken over.
Vickers wasn’t really in the business of luxury car building, and in 1997 announced it would sell off the Crewe factory and the car-making side of the firm. It was widely expected that BMW, which had provided the engine for the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph model, would buy the world’s most prestigious brands from Vickers.
At the last minute, BMW’s German rival Volkswagen AG muscled in and purchased the company from Vickers in 1998. BMW refused to lose the battle, and thanks to a pre-arranged agreement between Rolls-Royce PLC and BMW, the Bavarian company managed to acquire the licence to use the Rolls-Royce name and logo.
This could have led to two rival manufacturers building rival cars under the same brand but, following intense negotiation, Volkswagen AG agreed to build cars under the Bentley brand only. conceding the Rolls-Royce brand to BMW. In an ironic twist, Vickers was purchased by Rolls-Royce PLC just a year later.
Volkswagen Era (1998- )
Volkswagen wasted little time in differentiating the new Bentley era from the Rolls-Royce/ Vickers era. The first model produced was a thoroughly modern two door coupe with design cues from the early R-type Continental. The new Continental GT was followed by the four door Continental Flying Spur. But it wasn’t until the Arnage was retired that, a brand new “Grand Bentley” was introduced, invoking the “Mulsanne” name once again. Bentley models now have their underpinnings from VW group platforms, and very little remains of the pre-Volkswagen Era, except the Crewe factory HQ.
The new Bentley brand looked to the WO era for its inspiration, and returned a team to Le Mans, winning the race in 2003. For many, Bentley Motors Ltd, is continuing from where the company left off back in 1931. It continues to compete with Rolls Royce, but in 2014 Bentley sold over 10,000 units while Rolls-Royce sold 4,000. Both were record breaking numbers for the two brands, but it demonstrates how much stronger Bentley is today, having emerged from the shadows of Rolls-Royce.