Written in 1964
FEW MAKES have achieved such fame and success in as short a period as did the Bentley. The company only survived twelve years before its absorbtion by Rolls-Royce, but it was the most successful British sporting car of its time and it has formed the backbone of the Vintage movement.
The origins of the make go back to 1912, when W. O. Bentley and his brother H. M. Bentley had premises in Hanover Street, London, and were agents for the D.F.P., a sturdy 2-litre French touring car. With a highly-tuned version, W. O. Bentley appeared in competitions, and took 6th and last place in the 1914 Tourist Trophy. In a race spread over two days, and against 3-litre cars, the D.F.P. made a very favourable impression.
During the 1914-18 war, Bentley designed and developed two rotary aero engines, which were made in large numbers by Humber among others. It was at the Humber factory that the designer met F. T. Burgess, who had been responsible for the 1914 T.T. winning Humber. In 1919 Burgess and Bentley were announced to be designing a new sporting car, and a company for its manufacture was formed later that year.
When the new model appeared it was clear that its design had been influenced by pre-war racing practice, and by the 1914 Humber in particular. Engine capacity was 2,996 C.c. (80 X 149 mm.) and 65 b.h.p. was developed at 3,500 r.p.m. There was a non-detachable cylinder head, and four slightly inclined valves per cylinder, operated by a single overhead camshaft and light alloy pistons. Transmission was via a leather-faced cone 'clutch, and there was a choice of gearbox ratios. The wheelbase was 9 ft. 9t ins. and suspension was by semi-elliptic springs front and rear. By then current standards, the chassis weight of 2,720 lbs was on the light side, and the performance was better than most critics would have expected from the comparatively low power output. Top speed was around 80 m.p.h., with 60 available in third.
The first production cars did not leave the factory until September 1921, and with the usual Vanden Plas 4-seater tourer bodywork the price was around £1,200. Few cars were made during the first twelve months because of the company's precarious financial position. The lack of capital to build cars in large numbers, and the necessity of placing small orders with sub-contractors rather than make parts themselves, kept the price high. As a result it was always a difficult car to sell in competition with the much faster 4.5-litre Vauxhall 30/98.
From 1922, the Company undertook a modest, but successful competition programme and a team of three cars finished 2nd, 4th and 5th in the Tourist Trophy. In the same year W. D. Hawkes drove a Bentley in the Indianapolis 500-mile race, finishing at the tail of the field, despite an average of over 80 m.p.h.
Although not officially recognised by the company, it became the practice for Bentleys to be distinguished by the colour of the radiator badge. All cars up until 1924, and subsequent long-chassis 3-litre models, carried a blue badge, and were naturally known as the "blue label" cars.
A Tourist Trophy Replica with a higher compression ratio and a power output of 80 b.h.p. joined the range in 1923. In the-first Le Mans 24-Hours Race, John Duff/F. C. Clement drove one of these cars into 4th equal place at an average speed of 49.9 m.p.h. The 3-litre was in production until 1927 and afterwards remained available to special order; during this period the design was improved and refined. Power output eventually rose to 88 b.h.p., and in 1924 the introduction of front wheel brakes eliminated a distinct weakness in the design. Duff/Clement won the make's first victory at Le Mans in 1924, covering 1,291 miles at 53.78 m.p.h.
The same year saw the introduction of the" Speed Model" (Red Label) 3-litre with a 9 ft. 9! in. wheelbase, twin S.U. carburetters and a much improved performance. The 100 m.p.h.model with a 9 ft wheelbase and developing 85 b.h.p. at 3,500 r.p.m. appeared in 1925. This variant was distinguished by the green radiator badge and tapering radiator, narrower at the base than the top. Many 3-litre cars have been offered for sale as "100 m.p.h." models, but they were often standard cars with a shortened chassis, for only 15 genuine "100 m.p.h." models were built. The 3-litre engine was considerably modified in 1926, and henceforth the sump was integral and a modified camshaft was used with the 10 ft. 10 in. wheelbase chassis introduced in 1923. When 'the 3-litre was withdrawn from regular production in 1927, some 1,600 had been made, and of these over 300 are known to have survived.
Comparatively few closed Bentleys were sold, and it was generally regarded as a purely sporting car. The company felt that the much larger saloon market should be tapped and so, in 1925, the 3-litre was supplemented by the "Standard Six", which was exhibited at the" Olympia Motor Show that year. The 6,597 C.C. (100 X 140 mm.) 6-cylinder engine had similar valves and valve operation to the 3-litre car; the unit head and block were in cast iron, and there was an 8-bearing crankshaft. With a compression ratio of 4.4:1 and a single Smith's carburetter, 140 b.h.p. was developed at 3,500 r.p.m. There was dual ignition by magneto and coil, and 12 sparking plugs. Wheelbase was I I ft. or 12ft. to choice, and the power was transmitted by a single-plate clutch, a 4-speed sliding piniori gearbox and an open propeller shaft to a spiral bevel rear axle. The chassis was priced at £1,450. With a normal saloon body, weight was a little over 2 tons, and the "Standard Six" had a maximum speed of around 80 m.p.h. On paper the 6!-litre model should have been a close rival to the Phamtom I Rolls-Royce, but in fact the Bentley name was too closely associated with sporting cars to appeal to the more leisurely motorist.
By 1926 the 3-litre Bentley was rather outclassed by other sporting cars, such as the 3-litre Twin Cam Sunbeam. To rectify the situation W. O. Bentley evolved the 4.5-litre model. This was another 4-cylinder design, with the same cylinder dimensions as the 6t-litre, which gave a capacity of 4,398.24 c.c., and was recognisable by the black enamel of the radiator badge. As for the earlier car, there were twin magnetos, a cone clutch (replaced in 1928 by a rather heavier single plate type), a similar but more robust and silent gearbox (i.e. the "D" type as opposed to the "A") and 4-wheel brakes mechanically operated by Perrot-type shafts. Other features included twin S.U. carburetters, a consideraqly stiffer chassis, lower-geared steering and, from 1929, both this and the 6!-litre model had more powerful "self-wrapping" brakes. The standard model had a 10 ft. 10 in. wheelbase and, with a 3.53:1 back axle ratio and a power output of 110 b.h.p. at 3,500 r.p.m., maximum speed was 85 m.p.h. From 1928 onwards a number of saloons were made, in the main fitted with H. J. Mulliner fabric coachwork (made under Weymann patents). During its production life, which lasted until 193 I, few changes were made in the design and in all 662 cars were made-plus another six built up during the thirties from parts left over after the Company had gone into liquidation.
All three Bentleys had retired at Le Mans in 1926 with various mechanical maladies, when lying 3rd, 4th and 8th, the leading car having covered 1,480 miles. The following year three cars, including an early 4t-litre model, were again entered, and there was every hope of a win, as the opposition was far from severe. At around 9.30 p.m., when darkness was falling, the 4!-litre car of F. C. Clementi Callingham was leading, and had made fastest lap at 72.79 m.p.h; the 3-litre car of S. C. W. Davis/Dr. J. D. Benjafield was second. Davis swept the Bentley into White House at full speed-to find the road blocked by a tangled mass of crashed cars. These included the other two Bentleys and three French cars, Davis braked hard, deliberately putting the car sideways across the road, and slammed into the wreckage. The initial impression was that the Bentley team was completely eliminated, but in fact Davis found that his car was drivable and, despite a twisted chassis and bent front axle, Benjafield and Davis went on to win at 61.35 m.p.h. If for no other reason, Bentley immortality was assured.
Bentleys won innumerable races at Brooklands and elsewhere, but the make's racing reputation rests largely on its Le Mans successes, for between 1924 and 1930 it won the event five times. After a struggle in 1928 between the 4t-litre Bentley of Woolf Barnato/B. Rubin and the American Stutz of Brisson/Bloch, victory went to the British car by the narrow margin of eight miles at 69.108 m.p.h. In addition Tim Birkin, on his last lap, set a new record of 79.29 m.p.h. It was only natural that lovers of fast cars should seek something even faster and so Bentley offered them the "Speed Six" in 1929. This was based on the earlier 6!-litre car, but had a shorter I I ft. or I I ft. 8t in. wheelbase, raised C.r. of 5.1:1 and twin S.U. carburetters. There was a special camshaft and a redesigned block giving a better water flow. Power output was 180 b.h.p. at 3,500 r.p.m.
The model was distinguishable by the green enamelled badge and a radiator with parallel sides. The standard version had a radiator tapering from top to bottom and blue enamelled badge. The "Speed Six" of Woolf Barnatolj Birkin won at Le Mans in 1929 at 73.63 m.p.h., with three 4.5-litre cars in 2nd, 3r.d and 4th places. Barnato again won with the same "Speed Six" in 1930, but this time partnered by Glen Kidston, with a similar car in 2nd place.
During 1929 Sir Henry Birkin and Colonel Clive Gallop developed a supercharged version of the 4.5-litre, with a large Roots-type blower mounted between the front dumb irons and operating at 10 lb. sq. in. Apart from the cars raced by the Hon. Dorothy Paget, the supercharged version went into production and although "W.O." himself did not really like them, fifty were made altogether. Despite a maximum speed of over 100 m.p.h., they were perfectly reliable and tractable cars, apart from a tendancy to boil at low speeds and a voracious appetite for fuel. Unfortunately the supercharged cars did not prove so reliable under racing conditions, but one notable performance was Tim Birkin's 2nd place in the 1930 French G.P. at Pau against the much lighter, but slightly less powerful, Bugattis and Delages.
The history of the Bentley Company was marked by a constant struggle to make financial ends meet, but despite this and the unpropitious time for marketing an expensive and luxurious car, Bentley announced in 1930 the 8-litre, the model to crown all previous models. Very few were made before 193 I and the total production amounted to only 100 cars. Engine dimensions were 110 X 140 mm., giving for the six cylinders a capacity of 7,983 c.c. There was an entirely new gearbox, used also for the 4-litre model, and it was one of the first British cars to have a hypoid bevel rear axle. The engine developed 220 b.h.p. at 3,500 r.p.m. and there was a choice of a 12ft. or 13ft. wheelbase. With the usual heavy saloon coachwork, giving a dry weight of around 53 c.w.t., the 8-litre had a top gear range of 5-105 m.p.h., accomplished in the utmost smoothness and silence.
Probably the most famous 8-litre car was that of the late Forrest Lycett, modified and developed by him and the late L. C. Mackenzie. Apart from extensive mechanical modifications, this car was fitted with a 2 seater body. As recently as 1959, it covered a flying mile at Antwerp motorwayat 140.845 m.p.h., taking a number of Belgian National class records previously held by Maurice Trintignant with a Facel Vega.
I t was a great pity that the last true Bentley should have fallen far short of the standards set by the earlier cars, but it should be added that W. O. Bentley had little to do with the design. The directors felt that a more practical car, appealing to a wider market should be made. An outside consultant, H. R. Ricardo, was commissioned to design this and the result was the 4-litre model, with a 6-cylinder 85 X 115 mm. unit, with overhead inlet valves and developing 120 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m. There was nothing to compalin about in the engine design, but unfortunately the very heavy 8-litre chassis was used and this resulted in a rather dull and slow car.
Since 1926, the finances of the Company had been controlled by a group headed by Woolf Barnato, and for various reasons this group withdrew its support in 1930. As a result Bentley Motors went into liquidation in mid-1931. Initially it was hoped that the Napier concern would take over the company, and they had plans for marketing a twin-earn 2.5-litre sports car. At the last moment Rolls Royce stepped in with a bid, and acquired the assets of the company for £130,000. No short article can pay adequate tribute to the magnificence of the make, and no one book tells the full story. W. O. Bentley's autobiography, makes an interesting contrast with "Those Bentley Days" (Faber &; Faber) by the former Bentley Sales Manager A. F. C. Hillstead. The racing history of the make is admirably related in Lt. Col. C. H. D. Berthon's book. W. O. Bentley remained with Rolls-Royce to assist in the development of the" Silent Sports Car", which appeared in prototype form at the 1933 Motor Show. The push-rod operated o.h.v. engine was descended from the original 20 h.p. Roll-Royce of 1922 and closely ressembled that fitted to the then current 20/25 model. The 3,669 C.c. (82.5 X 114 mm.) engine was a 6-cylinder design, with twin S.U. carburetters and an estimated power output of 120 b.h.p. at around 4,300 r.p.m. The 4-speed gearbox had a righthand floor change with synchromesh on the two upper ratios, whilst 2nd gear was of the constant-mesh type. The brakes were operated by a mechanical servo motor in the form of a friction disc clutch driven by the gearbox, so that the rear brakes were operated in the normal way, but the front brakes through the servo. The handbrake operated a separate set of shoes in the rear wheel brake drums. Wheelbase was 10 ft. 6 in. and the chassis was priced at £1,100.
Although a number of early 3.5-litre cars had very handsome Vanden Plas tourer bodies, with a dry weight of around 29t cwt., the majority were fitted with rather heavier saloon coachwork by such firms as Hooper and Park Ward. Maximum speed was 90 m.p.h., 60 and 75 m.p.h. were obtainable in 2nd and 3rd gear and petrol consumption was 16-18 m.p.g. This, coupled with the refinement and luxurious appointment more usually associated with a Rolls, made the new model very popular.
As weight tended to increase, it was felt that a slightly larger engine was needed and this became available in 1936, at first optionally. This' had a cap'acity of 4,257 C.c. (89 X 114 mm.) and developed 125 b.h.p. at 3,800 r.p.m. Although a higher back axle ratio was optional, with the standard ratio the 4t was good for 95 m.p.h. A small number of 4t-litre models with overdrive were made in 1939, giving a maximum speed of 100 m.p.h. and, in ,theory, a cruising speed of 97 m.p.h.
In six years, the Bentley had become one of the most luxurious and refined high-performance cars. They have also proved to be amongst the most durable, and a large number of both 3t and 4t-litre models are still in first-class condition, and an excellent proposition for the careful buyer with £300-400 to spend. It is ironical that W. O. Bentley should have joined Lagonda in 1935 to design cars selling in direct competition with the Bentley.
It is well-known that Rolls-Royce are reluctant to support any form of competition, but they did help with the preparation of E. R. Hall's cars for the Tourist Trophy. The first of these was a 3t-litre car with a very light 4-seater body and developing around 130 b.h.p. This took 2nd place in the 1934 Tourist Trophy Qn handicap and made fastest race average at 75 m.p.h. In 1935 Hall ~aced a 155 b.h.p. version and achieved the same results-2nd place and fastest race average at 80.46 m.p.h. The following year Hall used a 4t-litre version, developing 165 b.h.p. This was entered for Le Mans, but as the race was cancelled, Hall had to be content with a hat trick in the Tourist Trophy.
This was not the end of Bentley racing history, as in 1939 the Company produced a prototype car known as the "Corniche", with independent front suspension and a cruciform frame. One of these cars is illustrated, but the example referred to here had a cowled radiator, flowing wings and a tail reminiscent of the Lancia Aprillia. After lapping Montlhery in 1939 at 109 m.p.h. and Brooklands at 114 m.p.h., the car passed into the ownership of H. S. F. Hay. In 1949 and 1950 the Hay family combined a normal Continental tour with an entry at Le Mans. Co-driving with Tommy Wisdom in 1949, Hay finished 6th at 73.57 m.p.h., covering 1,766 miles and defeating two 3t-litre sports/racing Delahayes. In 1950 Hay and Hugh Hunter finished 14th, but another Bentley driven by E. R. Hall and T. G. Clarke was placed 8th. a fine performance for touring cars then eleven years old. Hay's car was still appearing in Club events as late as 1954.
The post-war product was the entirely new Mk. VI, similar mechanically to the Silver Wraith Rolls-Royce, introduced in 1946. In fact the new cars were designed before the war and during the war years were extensively tested in a wide range of vehicles, including buses. The engine was a 6 cylinder 4,257 c.c. (89 X 114 mm.) design, the same capacity as the pre-war unit, but with overhead inlet and side exhaust valves. Other features included an aluminium cylinder head, a seven bearing counterbalanced crankshaft and carburation by twin S.U.s. The power output was not -disclosed, but it may be estimated at around 140 b.h.p. The very rigid chassis had a Io-ft. wheelbase and suspension was independent by coil springs and wishbones at the front, while at the rear there was the usual axle and semi-elliptic springs. As before there were mechanical servo brakes, with hydraulic operation at the front and mechanical at the rear. For the first time the Bentley was offered with standard steel saloon coachwork, but the usual wide selection of body styles was offered by the British specialists.With a dry weight of 35 c.w.t., the Mk. VI was capable of a genuine 100 m.p.h. and could exceed 80 in third. Fuel consumption rarely fell below 17-18 m.p.g. and with good steering and roadholding, the Mk VI was a really outstanding motor car. Few changes were made in the design, but in 1951 engine capacity was increased to 4,566 C.C. (92 X 114 mm.) and subsequently a larger boot was fitted. The model became known as the "R" type and was offered optionally with a Rolls-made version of the General Motors Hydramatic transmission. The "R" type was withdrawn in 1955 and the price of second-hand models varies immensely, depending on the condition and history of the individual car. A rough 1947/8 Mk VI can be bought for well under £200, but a really good "R" type or Mk VI with specialist coachwork will fetch over £ 1,600. A second-hand Bentley is well worth buying, but it is only worth buying a really good one, as parts are very expensive. The standard steel saloons should be especially carefully looked over, as they are prone to corrode severely.
Perhaps the nicest post-war Bentley is the early Continental. This was first introduced in 1952 as a faster version of the Mk. VI. and had a raised compression ratio, higher back axle ratio, close ratio gears and a very graceful lightweight two-door body by H. J. Mulliner. Under favourable conditions the Continental would top 115 m.p.h. and reach 100 m.p.h. in third. Over the years it has evolved into a conventional saloon and the distinctions between it and the "S II" are only slight. Furthermore it is perhaps a pity that it is no longer available with a manual gearbox. Apart from saloons by James Young, H. J. Mulliner and Park Ward, the latter also offers a convertible on this chassis.The "S" type introduced in 1955 incorporated a number of substantial modifications. The principal changes were a completely restyled body, automatic transmission as standard, an enlarged 4,887 c.c. (95.25 mm. X 114 mm.) engine with a new 6-port head and modified front suspension, permitting greater wheel movement. As weight had risen to 38 cwt., there was little improvement in performance, but this was rectified in 1960 by the introduction of the "SIII". This had the current push-rod o.h.v. V-8 engine of 6,230 C.c. (104.14 X 91.44 mm.), noticeably over square and with an aluminium block and cylinder heads. This brilliant power unit incorporates all that is best in modern engine design and power output cannot be far short of 300 b.h.p. The current twin headlamp "SIII", with minor improvements, has a performance in excess of 110 m.p.h., but at the expense of a petrol consumption of around 12 m.p.g.
In 1948 the Standard Steel Mk VI was priced at £4,038 (inc. p.t.), but costs have risen so much that is now priced at £4.455 basis or £5,384 with p.t., whereas an H. J. Mulliner "Continental" costs £7,861. Apart from the radiator, the Rolls-Royce and Bentley are identical and although it is unfortunate that standardisation should have spread to such expensive cars, in this case the process started in 1931. Whether the products of Rolls-Royce still remain the best in the world is a matter of opinion and largely depends on what one means by best. Few however would dispute that the quality and craftsmanship of the cars from Crewe is quite unequalled.