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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

History Of Bentley Auto

Author: Irving Robbin

(Article orginally published 1960)

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Two tons of car! Big, rugged, solid, careening around a track, the screaming wail of the supercharger rising above the engine's roar - that was the famous "Blower Bentley."



Ten mad years! Jazzy, noisy, fun loving, fast moving, a devil-maycare attitude about everything - those were the "Roaring Twenties." The decade and the car went together. The car was the hard-driving, earsplitting complement to the gay life. What the Stutz Bearcat meant to the college youth of America, the Bentley meant to the young bloods of England. It underscored, and quite noisily, the hysterical relief and reaction that followed World War I. And when the twenties ended, the Bentley was ended. It became sedate, silent, and aristocratic; for it was now being made by Rolls-Royce.

The original Bentley Motors, Limited, existed for only twelve years, from 1919 until 1931. A short life, but a fast-paced whirl of racing success and financial problems. As in so many other automotive com panies, two brothers were involved - W. O. and H. M. Bentley. W. O. was the engineering genius, racing driver, and irascible head of the firm. His brother quietly handled the business management.

The Bentley brothers got started in 1912 with a sales concession for three cars: Buchet, La Licorne, and the D. F. P. which stood for Doriot, Flandrin and Parant. The D.F.P. was a racing machine for which W. O. designed new aluminum alloy pistons. His success with the D.F.P. led to the adoption of the pistons by Rolls-Royce and Sunbeam, and to the design of an aircraft engine.

Following World War I, Bentley decided to build a car that would completely satisfy him. He had a fine concept. The Bentley car would be reliable, solidly built, docile at a city-street pace, but also capable of brutal acceleration and savage speed - a stock car that could race.

The new stock cars did race and they began to win. The races provided advertising, and sales followed - but very slowly. Very often cars were built just in time for delivery, and sometimes the demonstration car was the one to be sold. But both the press and the public were excited about the Bentley racing success, and soon there was a clamor for a Le Mans victory. The twenty-four-hour Le Mans run in France was the big race of the year, and the British sportsmen could not bear to be outdone by the French, Germans, and Italians. In 1923, a 3-liter Bentley finally placed at Le Mans. It came in fourth, but more important, it had recorded the fastest lap time during the race.

Finally in 1924, the great moment arrived. Drivers Duff and Clement muscled the big green car into the lead, held it against forty other machines, and came home with the trophy. But the company remained in financial straits. Bentleys were expensive, and people were afraid to drive them. The reputation for speed had created the impression that driving a Bentley was like trying to handle a skittish horse. Things looked bleak until 1926, when Woolf Barnato, millionaire and racing driver, saved the firm by buying most of the stock and becoming its managing director. Racing did not stop, and the 1927 Le Mans provided the strangest accident in racing history. It may not seem possible, but the three 41/2-liter Bentleys in the race all crashed into each other!

It happened at night. Callingham in the lead Bentley was speeding into one of the severe turns on the course. Pulling down to 70 miles per hour, the correct speed for the corner, he suddenly saw a car broadside in front of him. It was a Schneider which had hit the wall and bounced back on the track. Callingham avoided it, but smashed into the ditch. He had barely left the car, when Duller in the Number Two Bentley came flying into the corner. Seeing the Schneider, Duller tried Callingham's tactic, but Number One already occupied the ditch. He crashed into it, and both cars bounced out into the right-of-way. Next came ace driver Sammy Davis in Number Three. At 82 mph he attempted to avoid the tangle of wrecked machinery. He deliberately threw his Bentley into a skid, hoping to hit the mess tail first. Only partly successful, Davis came to a stop as part of the pile of cars. Then there was a frantic search for the drivers. When Davis was satisfied that the Bentley team was alive - though battered - he drove Number Three back to the pits. It came in, one headlight out, two fenders dragging, and the front axle bent. Benjafield relieved Davis, lashed a flashlight in place of the headlight, and took the wounded machine out again. Through the night and the rain, the wrinkled and flapping car sped at over 90 mph: When daybreak arrived the big green car was still running and Davis returned to the wheel and drove it to final victory. This machine, in its fully battered state, was actually brought into the elegant dining room of the Savoy in London, where it was the guest of honor at the celebration dinner. Such were the Twenties!

In 1928 the racing green of Britain was carried by Bentley to another victory at Le Mans, and 1929 saw the big machines take the first four places. But the most spectacular thrill came in 1930.

Bentley entered the event with three supercharged 41/2-liter and three new 61/2-liter cars. The only real competition was a single silver Mercedes piloted by the great Rudolph Caracciola. Birkin, driving the lead Bentley chased the German car relentlessly, finally passing it on the grass shoulder to the right. With the Bentley in front of him, Caracciola saw an amazing sight. The left rear tire of the Bentley began to shred into ribbons, but the beautifully balanced car held the road as it screamed through corners and flashed down the straights. After a wheel change it returned to the race. During the night the generator of the Mercedes burned out and the Germans retired the car. Once more Bentley had captured the Le Mans trophy. Four years in a row!

Then Barnato announced that Bentley would retire from racing. The expenses were too high and the public was getting the wrong impression of the car. A beautiful passenger limousine was built with a mon strous engine of 8 liters, almost twice the size of a modern American engine! This car had two accelerator pedals, one for the city and the other for the open road. It could not stave off the coming financial disaster, and in 1931 Bentley Motors Ltd. closed its books. Rolls-Royce bought up the assets and began to produce Bentleys. They turned out many elegant motor cars which reflected the Rolls-Royce luxury, but slowly the Bentley became a copy of the Rolls-Royce. Today it is an exact duplicate, retaining only its own radiator grill as a memory of the fierce green cars of the Twenties.

The last appearance of the old "Blower Bentley" was at Le Mans in 1950. There, largely as a nostalgic gesture, one of the big green brutes entered the race against all the streamlined modern machinery. For the first time in two decades, the old Bentley thunder sounded again, this time amidst the staccato rap of the Ferraris, Maseratis, Mercedes, and many other entries. It was a voice from the past. The old car looked huge and clumsy against the sleek, aerodynamic speedsters. But the old voice still spoke with authority. The twenty-year-old car came in fifth!



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