“To build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.”
Bentley's cars successfully blend two ingredients together that are usually exclusive – high-class luxury and world-class performance.
Bentley is one of the most prestigious brands in the world, with A-list celebrities like Robert Downey Jr, David Beckham and Arnold Schwarzenegger amongst their clientele.
With almost a century of experience building luxury cars, that feature some of the most beautiful interiors and high-performance engines around, it's little surprise that some of the richest people in the world are actually outclassed by their own rides.
Let’s take a look at how the story began.
Walter Owen Bentley founded the company just as the First World War draw to a close. He was a man of taste and turned his nose up at the noisy, dangerous and unsophisticated cars built by his competitors. He set out to build cars that would satisfy someone like him – both an engineer and a gentleman.
To this end, Bentley's first car was delivered to a wealthy playboy and racecar driver in 1921. It sported Bentleys signature radiator casing and their flying 'B' insignia, and was one of the most powerful, comfortable (and expensive) cars of its time.
It was, indeed, the first of many.
The Bentley 3-litre released in 1924 went on to dominate the 24 Hour of Le Mans for years after.
The next year also produced a champion when Bentley’s new 6.5-litre model hit the roads. It was said to be able to drive all day at over 110kph.
When W.O. Bentley took the car out on a test run, he recognised a Rolls-Royce test-driver at a junction and the race was, inevitably, on. The impromptu street race finished when the Rolls-Royce driver's hat blew off and he had to turn around and get it. At least that was his public excuse!
The famous “Blower Bentley” was launched. This supercharged 4.5-litre engine broke several speed records, reaching 222kmh, as well as winning the year's 24 Hours of Le Mans for Bentley once again. Next year Bentley topped this by taking all of the first four places at Le Mans.
The 8-litre Bentley took the Olympia Motor Show by storm, and rightly so. This super-luxury car had the biggest rolling chassis Bentley had ever made. Unfortunately, it was released just after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and fewer and fewer people could afford its impressive price tag.
This was to be the last new model Bentley released before its financial collapse and sale to Rolls-Royce Limited. A sad sign of the times.
The first new car built after Bentley's acquisition was the new 3.5-litre, which was later upgraded to become the 4 1/4-litre.
The car paled in comparison to the 8-litre in terms of performance, but made up for its lack of 'oomph' with a surfeit of style. It was dubbed the “Silent Sports Car” due to its cat-like grace, and became a firm favourite among the upper classes.
Bentley released the R-Type and the R-Type Continental. The Continental could reach speeds upwards of 190kph, making it the fastest four-seater car in the world. The R-Type Continental is an immensely rare collector's item. In 2015, an original, unrestored R-Type Continental sold for over $1 million USD.
Bentley went back to the drawing board for the first time since the Second World War to produce the S series.
The S1 was larger than the R-Type, with room for five or six people, and was made of pressed steel and aluminium. It was Bentley's last production car to have an independent chassis.
The S2 was released, which took the grace of the S1 model and gave it a new, powerful V8 engine. This was followed up by the S2 Continental and the S3, which gave the car twin headlamps and a fancy new face lift.
The T-Series was another fresh start for Bentley. The T-series had four-wheel independent suspension, cutting edge disc brakes and automatic levelling.
It was the sister car of the near-identical Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow but sported a more subdued design. For some it signified style and class without showiness.
Bentley celebrated their racing legacy with the new Bentley Mulsanne saloon, named after a famous straight at Le Mans. The car was handcrafted and given Bentley's characteristic power from a Rolls-Royce V8 with aluminium alloy cylinder heads coupled with a 3-speed automatic transmission.
The 1982 Bentley Mulsanne Turbo was called the “new Blower Bentley” by the motoring press due to its incredible sporting prowess.
Bentley revisited the R-Type with the new Bentley Turbo R. This four-seater saloon car packed a punch and could top 240kph, with a 0-100kph of under seven seconds. It used the powerful engine from the Mulsanne Turbo but was given retuned suspension and wider tires. Eventually, the engine was given fuel injection for even more torque. The motor industry press called this “the first Bentley in decades deserving of the famous name”.
The 1990s and beyond
In the early 1990s the Bentley Continental T stepped Bentley's performance up a gear. With a top speed of over 270kph and a 0-100kph of just 5.7 seconds, this car went like the world's most comfortable speeding bullet. The car also had a whopping 875Nm of torque – the highest ever recorded for a production car.
1998 saw the new, four-door Bentley Arnage hit the market. Bentley launched the car at the Le Mans race track, which really let it show off its 4.5-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 engine to its full potential.
The Bentley Arnage's younger sisters, the Arnage Green Label and Red Label, stepped up the game once again with a 6.75-litre V8 that provided more power and torque than any other production saloon in the world.
The Continental GT was the first Grand Tourer produced by Bentley, and the first to be released after the company was bought by Volkswagen AG in 1998. It was the first Bentley ever to be made by “mass production” techniques – previously, the majority of the work had been carried out by hand. Far from losing the prestige of the Bentley brand, though, this car turned Bentley into a global success.
Bentley has managed to remain the status symbol for the elite for almost a century – from gentleman engineers to rap superstars, and they still have a lot more to give. Bentley is a marque synonymous with an almost aristocratic grace and elegant engineering.
Long may it be so.
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