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The History of Bentley: Competing At The Top

W. O. Bentley, known to all as W. O., founded his car company in 1919. The original 3 litre Bentley was a competitive race car during the 1920s. This attracted investors and Bentley were able to develop the supercharged 4 1/2 litre Blower Bentley along with the 6 1/2 litre Speed Six. These were dominant on race tracks across Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Blower Bentley was James Bond’s favoured car in the original Bond novels. It was, however, only featured briefly in the films as the Aston Martin DB5 seemed to capture the public imagination.

By 1930 Bentley was running out of money and decided to look for a new owner. The owner came in the shape of Rolls-Royce, who were keen to take the new 8 litre Bentley off the market in order to remove competition for their own Phantom 2. Rolls-Royce bought Bentley in 1931 via an anonymous trust and promptly liquidated the company. They then began to produce Bentley badged cars that were based on Rolls Royce chassis and running gear.

From the 1930s through to the 1960s, the fact that a large number of luxury car buyers would have coachbuilders supply the bodywork for their car allowed the potential for differentiation between the Bentley and Rolls-Royce marques. An example of a post war coach built Bentley is the Continental. These cars were high performance versions of the Bentley R-series/Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn chassis. Bodies would be provided by a coach builder of the buyer’s choice. Many Bentley Continentals were completed by H. J. Mulliner in a sporting fastback style.

In the late 1940s, Bentley Continentals were the fastest 4 seat saloons in the world as well as the most expensive.

If buyers opted for the standard steel body provided by the factory, something that Rolls-Royce didn’t provide prior to world war two, then the differences between a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley would amount to little more than a different grille and possibly larger carburettors.

When the Bentley R-Series gave way to the new S-series/Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud the manufacturer continued to allow customers to buy a high performance chassis that they could have finished by coachbuilders as Bentley Continentals.

As more Bentley customers chose to buy cars that were supplied with a body shell from the factory, the the difference between a Bentley and a Rolls-Royce became ever more trivial. With the introduction of the Bentley T-series/Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow in 1965, the monocoque construction meant that coachbuilders could no longer supply alternative bodies and the differences ended up being limited to badges and trim.

As a consequence Bentley sales dropped to as little as 5% of the combined Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales figure. This would be remedied by Vickers during their period of ownership in the 1980s and 1990s. Vickers introduced new sporting Bentleys, such as the Mulsanne Turbo in 1980, which led to the sales figure for marque steadily climbing towards parity with Rolls-Royce over the course of the decade.