100 years of Bentley

By: Unique Cars magazine

bentley 100 years 2 bentley 100 years 2

From the Bentley boys to hybrids

Wild times. That’s probably the best way to describe the making of the Bentley name when it came to fast cars. We’re talking the 1920s, so the decade after the establishment of the company by Walter Owen Bentley (with involvement from his brother Horace). He was no shrinking violet, by the way. A talented engineer who designed engines for cars and aircraft, Walter also dabbled in car and motorcycle racing.

Then came along the Bentley Boys, who helped make his brand famous. A band of war veterens, they were a mixture of work hard and play hard ethos, along with a reputation for being both courageous and outrageous.


This snippet from the bio of one of their number, John Duff, will give you an idea: "John Duff was the first Bentley driver to win the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1924. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he made his way from Lushan in China across pre-revolutionary Russia to enlist. He was wounded at Ypres. After the war ended he took up motor racing and was responsible for persuading WO Bentley to take the marque to Le Mans; Duff finished fourth in 1923 with Bentley works driver Frank Clement and won the following year. He retired from motor racing after a serious accident in the 1926 Indianapolis 500. An Olympic swordsman, he taught fencing to Hollywood stars in Santa Monica, USA and doubled for his friend Gary Cooper in sword fighting scenes."

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Pictured above is another of the crew, Dr JD Benjafield, who evidently kept a relatively low profile. According to his bio: "Every group of friends has its quiet figure, teased yet regarded with huge affection by the others. Harley Street specialist ‘Benjy’ played this role to perfection alongside his high-spirited teammates. Modest, thoughtful and deceptively skilful, Benjafield wasn’t the fastest of the Bentley Boys, but he had the discipline to follow team orders to get a result. He and Sammy Davis gave Bentley their most celebrated Le Mans win of all in 1927, bringing home ‘Old Number 7’ after the rest of the team had been eliminated in the infamous White House corner crash. In 1928 Benjafield made an equally significant contribution to British motor sport when he set up the British Racing Drivers’ Club."

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These two, among others, in one way or another contributed to the marque winning an extraordinary four Le Mans 24 hour races on the trot from 1927 to 1930.  However, while it’s managed to survive where many marques did not, it has seen some tough times and a few changes of ownership over the years. Rolls-Royce acquired it in 1931 (the onset of the Great Depression saw it on the financial ropes), the Vickers aircraft group in 1980 and the Volkswagen group in 1992. Over that time the product swung from bespoke manufacture to modified Rolls-Royce product, through to the current situation where it has access to an array of tech under the VW umbrella, including from Porsche.

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While the company continues to build some very quick GT cars, it’s also increasingly commited to exploring hybirds and electric vehicles.

In the meantime, its hero car is the Continental GT W12, an example of which recently broke the Pikes Peak production record, with Kiwi Rhys Millen at the wheel.


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