A brief history of Bentley

From the beginning to the beginning of the Mark VI

The massively built 8-litre, 6 ½ Litre and 4 ½ Litre Bentleys of the late nineteen-twenties made motor-racing history in the hands of Babe Barnato, Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, Sammy Davis, Jack and Clive Dunfee, GIen Kidston, Bernard Rubin, Scrap Thistle­thwayte and Beris Wood. Known as the Bentley Boys,” this group won inter­national fame at Le Mans (no less than five times), Montlhery, in the Ulster T.T., the Nurburg Ring and elsewhere. The distinctive bellow of their cars exhausts became a kind of signature tune to the speed fans of the era.

At the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, how­ever, the depression created financial difficulties for those sponsoring Britain’s motor-racing and in spite of the fact that there had been generous individual support, by the likes of Miss Dorothy Paget, who had financed a racing team of Bentleys, a colour­ful era came to an end.

About this time, however, the directors of Rolls Royce Limited had decided to produce a sporting car, similar to the Bentley, and, rather controversially, that they were able to acquire the Bentley concern and to form Bentley Motors (1931) Limited.

The first product of the new organisation was a 3 ½ Litre version of the Bentley, advertised as the “silent sports car” because, although it had faster acceleration than WO’s cars, it was much quieter and more comfortable.

By 1936 much valuable experience had been gained with the 3 ¼ Litre model, both in racing and in hill-climbs and several successes were recorded. R-R then replaced it with a 4 ¼ Litre model, by fitting a larger engine in the same chassis. This car was to have made its racing debut in the famed 24 hour race at Le Mans, but the event was abandoned owing to industrial unrest in France and instead the Bentley was pitted against a Bugatti, six Delahayes and three German B.M.W.s in the over-3000cc class of the 1936 Tourist Trophy over the Ards circuit. Driven single handed and without stopping over the 478 mile course by E.R. Hall, the car averaged 80.81 m.p.h., to finish second on handicap to a Riley! – beaten by 26 seconds but first home in its class by nearly nine minutes.

 

In the three years up to the outbreak of War the 4 ¼ Litre car was further developed and a special streamlined saloon, built for a private owner, was driven at 112 m.p.h. for five minutes on the Autobahn. Later, the same car covered 114.7 miles and hour on the old Brooklands circuit.

During the war Rolls-Royce played a key role with its Merlin and its jet successors that, to this day, are the finest in the world. To listen to the sound of a Merlin engine in the famous Spitfire, turn your speakers to full blast and listen to this audio file!

 

Rolls-Royce was a remarkable company (the Aero Engine Company still is) and its history is inextricably linked with the twentieth century. No other British Engineering Company has contributed so much and few other companies the world over, are held in such high regard. However, by the mid thirties cars represented only 6% of production, the majority of the business was aero engines, and they were losing money on every car sold.

Although the Silver Ghost had earned the company the reputation for making the best car in the World, by 1935 that was no longer the case. The massive American Automobile Industry was churning out millions of cars, some of outstanding and all of good quality (Cadillac, Packard, Lincoln, Cord, Duesenburg etc.) and all relatively simple and easy to maintain. R-R by contrast were making only a few hundred cars a year, had three models that shared no common parts and although they were exquisitely made, they were too complicated for ordinary mechanics to service and maintain. To make matters worse, the bodies were hand made and trimmed by independent coachbuilders and, although some were outstandingly beautiful, they were all much more expensive than pressed steel bodies and far less durable. Furthermore, customers often demanded bodies that were too large and heavy for the chassis with a consequent loss of performance and dubious handling.

In 1936 Mr EW Hives made the case for continuing car production to the board and was subsequently appointed General Manager and given the task of rationalising the range. His plan was to have one basic engine that could be made with four six or eight cylinders in line and one chassis that could be made in different lengths to suit differing requirements. Worked started fairly quickly and had there not been a war, the new models would have appeared far sooner. As it was the MKVI Bentley was announced in 1946 with some trepidation. There was concern that the Labour Government of the day might penalise them for making such an expensive luxury car. They did! I have the company’s invoice to Murkett Bros of Bedford for JTM50 in 1951 and on a price of about £2400, nearly £800 extra was charged as purchase tax. I believe purchase tax was double on any car costing more than around £1000. Jaguar managed to get their XK120 just under, but there was no hope of R-R doing the same!

The MKVI Bentley was R-R’s first car to have a steel body made by Pressed Steel Fisher and to have been completely built in house and it was beautifully made. John Blatchley had joined the company from the Coachbuilder, Gurney Nutting and had, in his words, tidied up the rather ordinary pre-war body that was being used as a prototype. The result was an almost perfectly proportioned, quintessentially British motorcar. It made no concessions to the requirements of a potentially much larger market the other side of the Atlantic; It was unashamedly forties “New Look” and, until the arrival of the Jaguar XK120, the style icon of its era.

It was also the most successful car that R-R had made to that date and probably the second and last time a company car could claim to be the best in the world.

The Press raved about it, Raymond Mays and a few other famous racing drivers were so impressed with the handling that they used them, not only to drive to Grand Prix Circuits, but also round them to learn the track and save their racing cars.

Most MKVI’s covered huge mileages in a shorter time than previous models and a few mechanical problems surfaced that will be described later but overall, it was a remarkable car and one that, in recent years has started to become extremely valuable.

ashley james

Some further reading for extreme enthusiasts...

road testBentley Continental Road Test

road testBentley Mark VI Road Test