Best of British

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 80

Bentley motor cars look timeless, but the company was once driven close to disaster. Celebrating the marque's centenary, Ed Wiseman tells the story

Bentley has achieved many great things over its century as a manufacturer, but by far its most impressive claim is to have invented the supercar. Not the first racing car – that was a De Dion-Bouton in 1887. Nor the first performance car, which was arguably the Mercedes Simplex 60hp. No, Bentley was the pioneer of the supercar, a very particular cocktail of road and race which survives to this day.

One particularly remarkable example of the breed was the 4½-liter Blower sold by Bonhams at Goodwood in 2012. Its most famous driver, Sir Henry Ralph Stanley 'Tim' Birkin, 3rd Baronet, neatly straddled two aspects of the manufacturer: he was an aristocratic 'Bentley Boy' in the Roaring Twenties, but he was a ferocious racer too, consistently proving himself on the racing circuits of Europe. The car itself changed hands for £5,041,500, making it the most expensive Bentley ever sold at auction and one of the most valuable British cars in the world.

It was emblematic not just of Bentley's history but of Britain's; indeed, the Blower is considered so culturally significant that the Arts Council has banned it from leaving the country. At the time of writing, this so-called 'temporary export deferral' list also includes the £3.4m Turner oil painting Walton Bridges and Dickens' mahogany library table, which once contained the keys to his wine cellar – for a car to be cherished to this extent is extremely uncommon. Like Dickens and Turner, Bentley is part of our identity, a thread woven into the patchwork bedspread of British life.

That thread is part of a more complex weave than many realize. The exhibition The Age of Endeavor, to be hosted at Bonhams New Bond Street saleroom this April, will illustrate the complex and fascinating history of this singular marque in honor of its centenary. A hundred pieces of memorabilia will be displayed – a piece for each year of Bentley's existence – as well as several important pre-war Bentley racers from the heady days when these cars were winning at Brooklands and Le Mans.

Bentley had been in operation for a mere decade when the Wall Street Crash brought a grinding halt to the demand for ultra-luxurious motor cars in 1929. After several missed payments, the firm was placed into receivership, then acquired in 1931 by another bastion of British motoring, Rolls-Royce. The purchase was a surprise even to founder W.O. Bentley, as Rolls-Royce had placed a sealed bid of £125,275 under the name of 'British Central Equitable Trust'. This surprise exchange permanently changed the trajectory of Bentley, with the company becoming a little less sporty than their previous racing pedigree implied, and a little more refined. Their vehicles were dubbed the "silent sports car", and W.O. conceded that these newer models – named the Derby Bentleys after their production was shifted to Rolls-Royce's factory in the Midlands – were some of the finest machines to bear his name.

But he does himself a disservice. When Bentley was founded in 1919 in London, W.O.'s aim was simple: "To build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class." His earliest motor cars – the 3-liter, the 4½-liter, the Speed Six and the supercharged Blower – were absolute world-beaters, and Bentley's performance at Le Mans is the stuff of legend. Their first entry in 1923 saw them finish fourth, and by the following year they had crept up to first. Soon the marque was unstoppable at Le Mans – its reliability and performance undeniable – with Bentleys taking first place in 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930.

In true British style, W.O. decided to withdraw from motor racing following his fourth Le Mans win, on the basis that he had achieved what he set out to do and that to continue winning would be ungentlemanly. "I would have been perfectly content to see our cars circulating around Le Mans in inglorious solitude as long as the Daily Mail gave us their front page on a Monday morning!", he joked, demonstrating that for W.O. winning at Le Mans was just a pleasant extra. Planting his marque at the forefront of the motorist's mind was his true aim. Thanks to his racing exploits, W.O. had established his cars as the perfect motor machines, as swift on the track as they were imposing on the road.

The Second World War brought both disruption and opportunity. Rolls-Royce moved its motor-car production from Derby to Crewe, which had excellent transport links and was far from major bombing targets. Construction was focused on jet engines rather than expensive luxury motor cars during the war, but by 1946 the UK government was putting pressure on companies to earn overseas currency through exports. Traditionally, each Bentley had been sold as a rolling chassis, with the customer able to choose their own coachwork, but, for export, the first 'ready-to-drive' Bentley saloon car was made. The Crewe years saw some of the most popular Bentleys ever produced, including the Continental, the Camargue and the Corniche.

Business was booming – at least for now. Production was strong and demand was high for these powerful, elegant machines, but, having faced financial difficulties within its aero-engine departments, Rolls-Royce collapsed in the 1970s. The motor-car division was made a separate entity, but Bentley's image had been hit hard. By 1980, less than 5% of cars produced under the Rolls-Royce/Bentley umbrella bore the Bentley badge.

Something had to be done. The Mulsanne was brought out as an attempt to return to Bentley's revered sporting, high-performance heritage – the name comes from the fastest stretch of the Le Mans track, the Mulsanne Straight – and the hedonistic motorists of the 1980s couldn't get enough. Bentley was back on track, metaphorically at least, and by 1991 the ratio of Bentleys to Rolls-Royces had reached 50:50.

It is impossible to celebrate the Bentley centenary without considering who has owned it for the past 20 years. At first operating at very different ends of the automotive spectrum, and on opposing sides of a bloody World War, Volkswagen would go on to purchase Bentley in 1998, one of the most significant events in the history of British motoring. The six decades up to that point had been a rollercoaster for Bentley. In some ways, it was lucky to survive – many car manufacturers did not – but somehow it emerged as one of Britain's winning brands.

The image of Bentley motor cars has been sporty, luxurious, aspirational and, finally, a combination of all three. In the midst of his financial crisis in 1929, it is doubtful that W.O. imagined his company reaching its 100th birthday. The motor cars and memorabilia that will be displayed at Bonhams in The Age of Endeavor are testament to a marque that has conquered adversity to carve out a respected place in the history not just of British motoring – but of Britain itself.

Ed Wiseman is the Assistant Motoring Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

The centenary exhibition The Age of Endeavor: One Hundred Years of the Racing Bentley Exemplified by One Hundred Artifacts is open to the public on Friday 12 April at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street.

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