W.O. Bentley and the Bentley Boy Years #007

In 1930, the 8-litre Bentley was the largest Bentley of the W.O. era, a distinction it still holds today. It had a strong formal colour scheme, but was unable to stand up to the R-R in the luxury automobile market.

■The Bentley Boys off the Circuit


The Bentley Boys had great success on circuits other than Le Mans. Their love of Bentley, however, extended beyond the world of racing. For example, in March 1930, Barnato took his private car, a Bentley Speed Six Sports Saloon by Gurney Nutting, on a betting race against the Blue Train, the 1930s sleeper express, and won the route between Cannes in southern France and the London RAC Club by a four-hour margin.
The Bentley Boys also loved to party, not only in Britain but also in the south of France and at continental ski resorts, and when they won Le Mans in 1927, they took the winning car to the Savoy Hotel in London and made it the star of the show, quite a bold move at the time.
The Bentley Boys were naturally popular with the ladies, and one year, as part of the entertainment at a Christmas party, a ladies-only raffle game was held, with the prize being the right to be escorted to the next party in their favourite Bentley.
The Bentley Boys enjoyed their Bentleys, racing and, above all, life itself. Although they were only active for a short time, their halcyon days still fascinate Bentley enthusiasts today.

■Withdrawal from Racing and the Struggling 4 Litre
Legendary successes and speed records in motor sport, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, undoubtedly made Bentley's reputation worldwide. At the same time, however, Bentley's finances were always in trouble.
In 1926, Woolf Barnato, a young businessman from South Africa who had won three consecutive Le Mans races as one of the Bentley Boys, became Bentley's chairman. He replaced W.O. Bentley, who was a brilliant engineer but unsuitable for corporate management, at the helm of the company. However, the Great Depression, triggered by Black Thursday, which hit New York's Wall Street on 24 October 1929, proved fatal to Bentley's financial plight. In addition to over-investment in motorsport, the cost of producing the 4 1/2 Litre 'Blower', of which 55 models were built at Tim Birkin's request, was also weighing heavily on the company's finances. In addition, the 8 Litre, launched in 1930, competed with the R-R Phantom II, a formidable rival. This proved fatal to Bentley's inferior brand power in the luxury automobile market.
In order to avoid imminent financial ruin, Barnato's Bentley was forced to take the most 'un-Bentley-like' of measures. After winning the 1930 Le Mans race in his own car, Barnato withdrew from racing with the works team Bentley Boys. The 4 Litre, launched in the same year, was built with the main aim of restoring Bentley's immediate cash flow by cutting costs. The 3915 cc in-line 6-cylinder engine was the only Cricklewood Bentley of the W.O. era that was not SOHC, nor did it have four valves per cylinder. It was just a tourer for the Bentley enthusiasts of the day, who had favoured the spartan W.O. Bentleys. Such a model could not meet the demands of a luxury automobile market that was in the midst of a major recession, and Bentley's financial difficulties only worsened. Then, in the early summer of 1931, when a huge loan was required to be repaid, Barnato asked for a reprieve, forcing the creditors to make the hard decision to put everything into receivership.
What happened to the Bentley between June and November 1931 was, quite literally, dramatic. The company's administrators were negotiating a takeover with Napier & Sons of London, who were already well established in the field of aero-engines, while W.O. himself, at Napier's request, had begun work on a new model, which was to be called the Napier-Bentley. Events, however, took a wildly different turn. When representatives of Bentley and Napier & Sons appeared in a London court to have a takeover deal signed, an entity completely unknown to either company, the British Central Equitable Trust, appeared on the spot with a sudden and sizable takeover offer. Napier, astonished, immediately responded with a higher offer, but the judge in the proceedings urged him to be more cautious, and a bidding process was held later to decide Bentley’s acquisitional fate. At the end of the day, the British Central Equitable Trust beat Napier's bid by ?20,000: they had effectively stolen Bentley from Napier & Sons.
But that was not the only event that astonished W.O. A few days after the shock bidding dispute, it was discovered that British Central Equitable Trust had immediately transferred Bentley to Rolls-Royce. This more than suggested that British Central Equitable Trust was only the ostensible actor in the drama, while Rolls-Royce had been working behind the scenes, the strategic mastermind behind the Bentley takeover. Not only did Rolls-Royce succeed in preventing the rise of Bentley, a strong competitor against the Phantom II, which was also a high-performance GT, but they had also acquired a brand that already boasted high prestige due to its racing success and its iconic chief engineer. What's more, it must have been a terrific coup for Rolls-Royce to deal Napier & Sons a financial blow, as the latter had been a fierce rival in the field of aero-engineering. At the same time, the acquisition was seen by some as the sole blight on the reputable history of Rolls-Royce, a company that had always been known for its equitable business practices. Still, it would only be fair to acknowledge that Rolls-Royce had to grasp at any straw they could in the midst of the Great Depression.
Thus, Rolls-Royce and Bentley entered into a 'marriage' that lasted nearly 70 years.

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

At the request of Tim Birkin, Bentley was obliged to produce 50 (plus 5) 4 1/2 Blowers. The production of this masterpiece was decisive in Bentley's financial plight.