W.O. Bentley and the Bentley Boy Years #001

The Bentley Chronicles trace the history of Bentley. In Part 1, we will look at the origins of the company's founder, W.O. Bentley, and the Bentley Boys, who were born with the aim of creating the ideal sports car.
Starting with the 3 Litre in 1919 and ending with the 4 Litre in 1931, these models were dazzlingly successful on the racing field, especially in the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race. Their record of four consecutive victories, five in all, and the memory of the young men known as the 'Bentley Boys' remains deeply engraved in the collective imagination.

text:Hiromi TAKEDA
Cooperation: Bentley Motors Japan
Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi

Walter Owen Bentley

In the early 1910s, when W.O. Bentley was in his twenties, he was passionate about motorcycle racing and competed in races such as the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. He was then employed as a works driver for DFP and enlisted as an engineer in the Navy before launching the vehicle that bears his own name, Bentley. It was a natural progression from these origins that Bentley would later find success in the racing field.


■Founded by an Engineer, Aged 31, to Build the Ideal Sports Car

Bentley Motors was founded 89 years ago, in August 1919, in Cricklewood, near London, by W.O. Bentley, a young engineer with a sparkling flair and a passion for motor sport. He was only 31 years old when he founded the manufacturer with the sole aim of creating his ideal sports car.
Born 16 September 1888 in London, the youngest of nine children in a well-to-do family, Walter Owen Bentley (1888-1971), known as 'W.O.', was a quiet, mild-mannered boy who loved tinkering with machines from an early age. The first machine that fascinated him was the camera. He was obsessed with photography, which was a very extravagant hobby at the time. Then, like many wealthy and progressive young men at the beginning of the 20th century, he became drawn to motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles, which were the state-of-the-art technology of the time. In 1905, after completing his formal education at the prestigious Clifton College, W.O. decided to enter the world of railways, another hallmark of cutting-edge technology that had fascinated him as a child, joining the Great Northern Railway Company based in Doncaster, South Yorkshire in north central England to train as a railway engineer. However, as a quiet man from an upper-class background, the apprenticeship on the railway was too arduous for him, and W.O. left the Great Northern Railway in 1910 to take up a position with the National Motor Cab Company in 1910.
While working for the National Motor Cab Company, W.O. also became interested in automobile and motorcycle racing under the influence of one of his brothers, Horace M. Bentley. In 1912, he and Horace bought a small company called Lecoq and Fernie, which held the import rights to the French petrol car, the DFP (Doriot, Flandrin & Parant), in London's West End. Here, W.O. directed the development of his own tuned DFP racing cars and also took on the role of works driver himself.
The DFP tuned by W.O. gradually proved to be faster than the works machines of the DFP headquarters, which raced in the under 2-litre class. W.O.'s great distinction in tuning DFP engines became the pistons that he himself had done much to develop. W.O. had introduced new technology, a light alloy of aluminium mixed with copper, which was quite novel at the time. The following year, with the outbreak of World War I, W.O. joined the Royal Naval Air Service, the predecessor of the famous RAF (Royal Air Force), as a technical officer and applied the aluminium alloy pistons he had developed to aircraft engines. The air-cooled, star-shaped, 9-cylinder engine he designed was mass-produced in the Navy in approximately 4,000 units, and was officially adopted as the power source for the Sopwith fighter and Avro bomber aircraft. It was widely used throughout World War I, and was regarded as one of the finest engines used in British military aircraft at the time.
After the end of World War I, W.O. returned to the world of automobile design and set up his own car manufacturer, something he had always dreamt of doing. W.O. presented the first model bearing his name, the 3 Litre, at the London Show in October 1919, two months after the company had been founded. After nearly two years of development, the model was officially released in 1921.
The automobiles built by W.O. were as majestic as steam locomotives, full of power and extremely fast. Moreover, they had a robustness that other sports cars of the time could not hope to match. The vehicle's functional exterior and visually appealing interior, with its hemp rope steering wheel and large-diameter instruments, were also designed to W.O.’s taste , as he himself was an enthusiast. W.O. had never intended his to be luxury cars for the wealthy. The maiden 3 Litre and its successors were expensive, ultra-luxury automobiles, but they were also unmistakably pure sports cars. They would go on to burnish a glorious history in the sports car racing of the day, one that would remain legendary for all time to come.

The 3 Litre was the first model to bear W.O. Bentley's own name, launched in 1919. The model in the photograph is the oldest surviving 3 Litre (CH./No002), which is on display in the Crewe head office showroom.


The Bentley Motors factory in Cricklewood, near London. As these were ultra-luxury automobiles at the time, each one was of course meticulously handcrafted by skilled workers.

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Flying B No 001 (2008). The information provided here was accurate at the time of publication.

Translation: Mako Ayabe and Michael Balderi