W.O. Bentley built, then lost, the brand bearing his name
As a boy, the sparkling eyes of Walter Owen Bentley remained awake at nights in a modest home just west of Regent's Park. There, he thought about playing cricket or riding motorcycles. He was a dreamer, a believer and someone who wanted to make things happen before they were ever thought possible.
Can't do it? Bentley tried. Wouldn't do it? Bentley could. But it was that spirit of the dream that had him in trouble long before his complete dream could be realized. It was that spirit that got a much older Bentley out of his bed at the crack of dawn, this time as an old man with even older eyes, to entertain the guests who dropped by his home to show off the cars that bore his name.
One by one they pulled up to the front door. One by one he dabbed his eyes and smiled, sharing great stories and forgetting the tough ones. They were his cars, but they weren't. They were his goals, but they were built by someone else.
Bentley's technological contributions to the auto industry go far beyond the five victories enjoyed by his brand at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race held yearly in France. He made a name for himself by adopting parts and adapting. But by the end he had no say in how they were produced, an unenviable plot twist in the story of someone who dared to think different.
Born in 1888, Bentley was brought into a well-off family during hard times. He was the youngest of nine children raised by a father who had business sense. Affectionately known as "W.O.", the littlest Bentley was an engineer apprentice for the Great Northern Railway in England before he was anything else, fixing everything in sight. Bentley loved the grumble of an engine and he really loved speed.
As a teenager he raced motorcycles and owned his first car, which was a Riley two-seater. In short time he owned two more cars, quickly displaying his ability to tinker under the hood and make things what they weren't.
After his time as a railway apprentice, Bentley joined his brother, H. M. Bentley, who was selling French DFP cars out of an office in England. The Bentleys - with W.O. as the mechanical brain of the family - soon bought out the DFP's agency, renamed the business "Bentley and Bentley" and gradually built up the image of the new company by winning races.
W.O. believed that using lighter pistons made from copper and aluminum would make the difference and he was right. The Bentley won several races with the new setup and, with a newly designed camshaft, the duo took many track records in 1913-'14, around about the time W.O. turned 25.
When World War I began, Bentley was called into action, working for the Technical Board of the Royal Naval Air Service and using what he had learned in private business to help the rotary engines of military aircraft.
After the war, W.O. returned to the Bentley and Bentley enterprise with the hope of finally seeing his name on a car. He wanted to do more than peddle cars; he wanted to build them. In August of 1919, he formed Bentley Motors Ltd. With the help of Frank Burgess, a former competition driver who had become well known for his dual-overhead cam engine, Bentley was rolling.
With ideas for prototypes sizzling, Bentley began to create a car like no other, manufactured with technology no one in England had seen. There were four valves per cylinder, the piston stroke was longer than that of most other engines and the displacement was just under three liters. In fact, it was even called the Three Liter - the first time a British car had been described in liters - puzzling many people in the process.
When it hit the market, it hit big. The two-door car went for a little over $1,500 and the waiting list grew to two years as Bentley's company built 21 in 1921, 100 more the next year and 100 more than that in 1923 before finally hitting the peak in 1928 when more than 400 cars were delivered.
Bentley was winning in the showroom, he was winning on the track with his green-painted cars at Le Mans and he was winning with those dreams. Everyone knew about Bentley, including Prince George, who was a Bentley customer.
He was reinventing clutches, brakes and enlarging engines.
And then came the Eight Liter . . . and out went Bentley.
With the onset of the Depression, the eight-liter engine could not have come at a worse time. Bentley was already in receivership eight months into 1930, the year the Depression hit England and the year Bentley's Eight Liter hit the market. Bad quickly went to unworkable.
With a friend set to acquire Bentley, and Bentley set to design a new twin-overhead-camshaft sports car for him, a mysterious third party entered the fray, outbidding the friend to the tune of $30,000.
A few days later at a cocktail party, Bentley discovered the identity of the buyer: Rolls-Royce. W.O. was retained as an employee but he had little say in the look of the car that had his name. The company had successfully isolated him from design and engineering, never capitalizing on his strengths.
Increasingly unhappy, he left when his contract came up in 1935. He worked for Lagonda and Armstrong Siddeley until 1950, creating engines as well as complete vehicles. In all cases, his engineering revolved around strong, simple and clever construction.
All of his designs were renowned for their high output as well as their reliability and durability.
He died in 1971, at age 83, with a loyal group of followers still making those treks to his home in Surrey in their Rolls-produced Bentleys, cars still viewed as the ultimate for dedicated members of the sporting fraternity.
The Bentley Driver's Club, they called themselves. And the dreamer couldn't have been happier.