As Bentley marks its centenary year, the Crewe-based luxury car maker celebrates the life of the innovative British engineer whose drive and ingenuity started it all.
Walter Owen Bentley – or W.O. as he is fondly known – was born in 1888 in London, when horse and carriage was still the most common form of transport. Growing up in a busy household of 11, and despite an undistinguished school career, W.O. used his enthusiasm and innovation to succeed. After an apprenticeship on the railways and then in motor racing, the young engineer joined the armed forces, designing the highly regarded BR1 and BR2 rotary engines for military aircraft, including the renowned Sopwith Camel.
A couple of years later, in 1919, W.O. created a company that would become synonymous with the finest hand-built British motor cars and which today is still one of the most sought-after luxury car brands in the world.
Bentley was just 16-years-old when he left school and started as an apprentice on the Great Northern Railway. It cost his father the not inconsiderable sum of £75 to enrol his steam-obsessed son as a Premium Apprentice in Doncaster, in the north of England.
He earned 25 pence a week for five years training on the job – although it was 18 months before W.O. finally got to work on the steam engines he loved. Later in his life he recalled: “The underside of a car after a few thousand miles is as hygienic as an operating theatre, compared with a locomotive in for overhaul!”.
Realising it would be years before he would climb up the pecking order, towards the end of his apprenticeship W.O. decided to explore a new area of transport. With great foresight, he turned his attention away from steam to the rapidly improving internal combustion engine.
So enthused was he with the combustion engine, W.O. began racing motorcycles at events around the country, including the famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT). He went into business with one of his brothers importing French cars, before secretly creating a new alloy of aluminium and copper that would be used to make lighter weight pistons for his own racing car.
His innovative early years in the automotive industry, however, didn’t come without interruption: commissioned into the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War One, W.O. patriotically passed on his lightweight piston idea, which was then used to create a more powerful and reliable version of the RNAS’s existing aircraft engine.
Impressed with his efforts, W.O.’s superiors then allowed him to set about designing a new rotary aircraft engine from scratch. He was afforded every available facility to experiment, instructing engineers at the Humber plant in Coventry. The engine was a great success and was soon in mass production for the war effort.
That unit became the favourite engine for mounting in the naval version of the famous fighter-scout aircraft, the Sopwith Camel. The single-seater bi-plane flew into the history books and is arguably one of the best-known aircraft of the 20th century.
The engine was initially known as the Admiralty 1 but it was later decided to honour the name of its founder, so the Bentley Rotary 1 subsequently became the BR1 – a fitting tribute to W.O.’s inventiveness.
Bentley went on to develop a more powerful 230bhp version called the BR2, a nine-cylinder unit which was fitted to aircraft in great numbers in 1918. The engine was still in use when the war ended and continued to be used in many parts of the world for several years to follow. It was the most powerful rotary engine in military service.
Having demonstrated a natural ability as a pioneering engineer, W.O. took his first steps into the automotive world when the war was over, using his skill to create a car bearing his own name.
When hostilities ended, he was presented with a Commission of Awards To Inventors grant of £8,000 for his vital contribution to the War effort, as well as an MBE.
In 1919 W.O. used that capital to fulfil a dream and create his own car company. He built the brand on the guiding principle of creating ‘a fast car, a good car: the best in its class’, a goal he would achieve time and time again.
As Bentley enters its 100th year, the company’s Mulliner division is marking the occasion in a way that W.O. would most surely have approved: by creating a rare, limited edition, ‘exquisitely crafted’ car: the Mulsanne W.O. Edition pays tribute to Bentley’s founder, and even contains part of his very own car. The production run is limited to just 100 cars, each of which incorporates a genuine piece of Bentley history: inside every one of the 100 limited edition Mulsannes a slice of the original crankshaft taken from Bentley’s personal 8-litre car is displayed.
20 years ago, the crankshaft of W.O.’s car reached the end of its natural life and had to be replaced. The Mulliner engineers were amazed to discover that it used incredibly similar materials, engineering and production processes to the Bentley crankshafts made today.
To commemorate Bentley’s Centenary, this defining piece of the company’s engineering heritage was carefully cut into 100 sections for display in the new Mulliner cars. Each finished piece is proudly displayed between the two rear seats, visible through a window in the veneered tray of the bespoke drinks cabinet. With no two sections the same, ‘every car is truly unique’ say the makers.
The 8-litre was W.O.’s final creation, designed in 1930 – and is widely considered to be his finest. His largest and most luxurious ‘town carriage’, it was guaranteed to be capable of at least 100 mph, whatever kind of body the customer chose.
July 10, 2019 marks Bentley’s centenary and to celebrate the occasion a year-long series of special activities has been planned, with events around the world that will showcase Bentley’s motoring evolution over the last 100 years, highlighting its global success today and “the exciting future ahead”.