The legend of Big Ben continues
From rags to riches describes the Bentley brand. The story reads as though it was a soap opera. Bentley, a once formidable thoroughbred was purchased and the brand was forced into a virtual subservience. The legend of Big Ben continues. While the snooty Rolls Royce rode off on its high horse…Big Ben was left cleaning the stables. It’s a classic fairy tale; Cinderfella suffered numerous indignities but managed to land on his feet. Not many are aware of his plight.
Did you ever wonder how the formidable Bentley brand ended up wearing hand-me-down architecture from “you-know-who?” It’s more of a tear-jerker than “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” There’s more drama than “The Valley of the Dolls.” It has more suspense than “The Stepford Wives.” It seems…Rolls Royce was the “Perfect Stranger…” Rolls Royce isn’t the Flo Ziegfeld of the auto industry as you may have thought – And now, here’s the true story of how Big Ben became the bastard at the Rolls Royce family reunion…
Once upon a time in a town called Cricklewood near London in the UK there lived a man whose vision led him to build some of the fastest and most durable cars in the land. His name is Walter Owen Bentley who simply went by W.O. He always wanted to design and build his own range of automobiles that would bear his name. W.O. was in partnership with his brother Horace Milner Bentley selling French DFP automobiles. It was a trip to the DFP factory in 1913 when W.O. glanced at an aluminium paper weight and had a brainstorm of crafting internal engine pistons out of this lightweight material instead of cast iron. The first Bentley aluminium pistons were installed in aero engines for the Sopwith Camel during WWI.
On August in 1919, Bentley Motors LTD was registered. Ex-Royal Flying Corps, Officer Clive Gallop designed a 4-valve per cylinder engine, and a running version of W.O.’s Bentley became reality by December of 1919. The company began taking orders for the cars delivery for June 1920. Their development took a tad bit longer and weren’t ready until September 1921. These vehicles were so awesome that their durability earned widespread acclaim. The Bentley began making its debut at such places as the tracks at the famous Brooklands.
The NOTORIOUS Bentley’s first major event was the Indy 500 in 1922. The car finished in 13th place with an average speed of 75 mph. But it gets better…let’s fast forward to 1925. Enter the famous Bentley Boys! They were a group of wealthy British motorists that demonstrated the prowess of W.O. Bentley and his cars. One of the group, Woolf Barnato got a 3.0 litre Bentley in 1925 and began winning numerous races at Brooklands.
Bentley Motors LTD had become struggling financially. Influenced by the 1924 LeMans win by Bentley Boys John Duff and Frank Clement, Woolf Barnato agreed to finance the company. He invested a little more than 100,000 pounds into the company with a financial reorganization carried out, gaining control of the entity thus becoming the CEO in the process. With subsequent financial injections into the company in 1927, 1928, and 1929, W.O. was able to design the next generation of Bentley automobiles.
The Bentley Boys continued to exploit the Bentley’s indomitable spirit and durability. Woolf Barnato, Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, George Duller, aviator Glen Kidston, automobile journalist S.C.H. “Sammy” Davis, and Dr. Dudley Benjafield are the Bentley Boys that brought the Bentley brand into formidable high-performance notoriety. These spirited and talented young men had a zest for life garnering four consecutive wins at LeMans from 1927 until 1930. Kudos to Tim Birkin for developing the light weight “Bentley Blower” in 1929; however, this car was raced before W.O. had a chance to perfect it. Its refinement was positively executed to make the Bentley Blower a formidable opponent.
Here is the illustrious timeline for Big Ben during his infancy: from 1921-1929 it was the heyday for the trusty 3.0 litre, from 1926-1930 the larger 4.5 litre and the Bentley Blower were the stars, 1926-1930 the 6.5 litre, it was 1928-1930 the 6.5 litre Speed Six took the roads by storm, 1930-1931 the 8.0 litre roamed the tracks, and in 1931 it was the 4.0 litre on the prowl. The 3.0 litre was the original but displacement had to be increased to accommodate the larger bodies installed on the chassis. The most notable from that genre was the 4.5 litre Bentley Blower with its supercharger peeking forward at the bottom of its grille.
“Tiger” Tim Birkin
The 4.5 litre was popular in the media. It was used in early James Bond novels before the films. The quintessential “bad boy” John Steed (Patrick McNee) drove one of these in the cult British detective series “The Avengers” in the 1960s.
Another famous race from the early years was The Blue Train Races. Woolf Barnato wagered £100 that he could beat “Le Train Bleu” which was going to travel from Cannes to Calais in France, and be sitting at his club in London before the train could reach Calais. He and his Mulliner-bodied Bentley battled inclement weather; uneven pavement, public highways…even blowing out a tire having to use his only spare, but managed to get to a packet steamer to take him to Dover England. Woolf was sitting at his favorite club on prestigious St. James Street in London just as Le Train Bleu pulled into the station at Calais – proving how swift the Bentley was and verifying the notorious reliability of this eminent grand tourer.
The Great Depression and The Wall Street Crash of 1929 presented a challenge for the brand. People weren’t purchasing luxury items because self-preservation was more important. In 1931 on a fatal day in July, Woolf Barnato defaulted on two mortgage payments. Bentley Motors LTD went into receivership. According to The Times, dated Saturday, October 24, 1931… Napier & Son, aero builders, had reached an agreement to take over Bentley Motors LTD which was in voluntary liquidation…
The plot thickens
Napier & Son worked an agreeable deal with the receiver to purchase the company. The final deal was to close in November of 1931…when out of nowhere, a competitor by the name of British Central Equitable Trust swooped in like vultures with a counter proposal which out-bid Napier in a sealed bid auction. Are you ready for the shocker? One guess who British Central Equitable Trust is? They were a front for Rolls Royce Limited who purchased the brand for a sum of £125,000! With that apparent shock and that being said, Woolf Barnato received £42,000 for his shares in Bentley Motors LTD. He had already purchased a sizable stake in Rolls Royce not long before the Bentley Motors LTD liquidation. By 1934 Barnato was appointed to the board of the new Bentley Motors Limited.
Oh what a tangled web we weave…
The total obliteration of Bentley Motors LTD and its founder was the outcome of a highly personal vendetta involving W.O. Bentley and Ernest Hives. The two engineers had a rivalry that began when W.O. was the official liaison between the Government and aero engine manufacturers. And add the fact that Woolf Barnato had already purchased shares in Rolls Royce – the entity that would eventually buy the Bentley brand – and his ‘default’ on the crucial mortgage payments that sent the brand spiraling into financial doom. Rolls Royce acquired Bentley using an entity by the name of British Central Equitable Trust. W.O. himself, didn’t know the identity of this organization until the deal was finalized…
The new Bentley Motors LTD (1931) was formed. The Cricklewood factory was closed and sold with production of the Bentley brand ceased for two years. W.O. was unhappy with his position at Rolls Royce. He left when his contract expired at the end of April in 1935; he resigned to join Lagonda, a British luxury car marque that was established in 1906. The connivery and deceit combined with W.O.’s financial situation resulted in one of the greatest thoroughbreds ever, to be stifled and silenced.
All Bentleys from 1931 until 2004 wore hand-me-down architecture; therefore, they were merely badge engineered Rolls Royces. The Bentley gave the Phantom a run for its money in the 1930s…Rolls Royce took advantage of economics and the financial limitations of W.O. Bentley to gain control of the entity. I truly believe that if W.O. had been more cost conscious and he had found better financial backing, the Bentley would have been equally as exclusive, if not more than Rolls Royce.
1973 Bentley T saloon
A rude awakening…
We now fast-forward to contemporary issues. The Bentley brand had sales fallen badly during the 1970s and early 1980s. Less than 5 percent of Rolls Royce Motors Limited carried the Bentley badge. Vickers plc purchased Rolls Royce in 1980. Under Vickers, the Bentley now regained its high-performance heritage with the introduction of the Bentley Mulsanne for 1981. The sporting image stirred a renewed interest in the Bentley brand. By 1986, Big Ben reached 40 percent of the Bentley/Rolls Royce, 40/60 percent production totals.
In 1997, Vickers decided to sell Rolls Royce Motors. This instigated a back-biting brawl between Volkswagen AG and BMW AG. BMW had provided the engines; the V8 for the Bentley Arnage and the V12 for the Rolls Royce Silver Seraph beginning the 1998 model year. After a tumultuous and highly publicized battle both reached an amicable agreement, VW had control of the Bentley brand and BMW had control of the Rolls Royce brand. The most mind-boggling aspect of this was the fact that Volkswagen AG built both Rolls Royce and Bentley automobiles from 1997 until 2002 with the end of production for the Rolls Royce Silver Seraph.
“Just in fun…the fight begun – before long a web of hate was spun…Rolls Royce pretended…same with Bentley…but friends again they’d never be – so they scandalized…and criticized and soon they learned how to despise…”
From 2003 forward, Volkswagen AG maintained the Bentley brand, while still building the Arnage as the Flagship until 2010 when they introduced the Mulsanne to give the Rolls Royce stiff competition in the ultra-luxury car segment. BMW launched the new Rolls Royce Phantom in 2003 under the new legal entity of Rolls Royce Motor Cars Limited. RR constructed a new facility in Goodwood, West Sussex, in England where the new Rolls Royce models would be built. Bentley under Volkswagen AG retained the Crewe facility. VW spent over $845 million dollars to renovate the facility to process the new generation of Bentley motorcars and to increase the production capacity.
Now, fast-forward to the present day. Big Ben landed on his feet quite well. The brand now has an interesting array of models from which to choose. The Mulsanne is the most sumptuous Bentley in the model hierarchy. It remains the Flagship and is giving the Rolls Royce fierce competition just as it did back in the 1930s. In fact, many believe that Volkswagen AG got the better deal retaining the Bentley brand because it sells twice as many cars as Rolls Royce.
The Bentley brand has a comprehensive array of automobiles. It has a car for every enthusiast. The ferocious Bentley Continental is just as formidable as it was at one time. The Continental Supersports ISR set a record as the fastest production cabrio on ice in the world. Bentley has infiltrated the motorsport arena as well. Under the leadership of Volkswagen AG, the Bentley brand received new life. Its dignity has been revived, its performance is once again formidable…it retained its high revs at low rpm status as a Bentley hallmark. The venerable brand has regained its stature in the automotive world. Rolls Royce is no longer throwing it shade. The two brands are once again rivals and share a rare arena where other brands dare to venture…
2015 Bentley Continental GT Speed
2015 Bentley Flying Spur saloon
Walter Owen Bentley had a vision. His emphasis was on precision hand-crafting that involved exemplary fit and finish. The use of aluminium in key automotive components was his brain child and quickly spread throughout the auto industry. The extremely lightweight material dominates the contemporary Bentley models. W.O. left an indelible impression upon the industry. His valuable insight developed principles of which today’s Bentley is built upon.
Excellence without compromise, impeccable craftsmanship, and engineering with cutting-edge technology makes Big Ben an omnipotent presence in the ultra-luxury automobile arena. It is out from under the imperious shadow of “you-know-who” and has become synonymous with the good life. W.O. would be proud to see the results of his genius. Big Ben survived the connivery and deceit, not to mention The Great Depression to become one of the world’s foremost automotive brands. NotoriousLuxury salutes Big Ben…long may he reign – and the brand lived happily ever after… giving Rolls Royce “the blues…”
The limited edition 2009 Bentley Brooklands
Bentley enters the world of motorsports
Extremely rare Bentley Mulsanne L 1984-1985 only 2 were built
Photos courtesy Bentley Media
Special thanks to Daniel Schmitt
Bentley Turbo R 400
The only Bentley badged Camargue in existence
1964 Bentley Series III
Special thanks to Balmoral UK
1963 Bentley Mulliner Flying Spur
Special thanks to Park Ward Motors Museum
The legend of Big Ben will continue…