Bentley is undisputedly rooted very close to the centre of the automotive world. The company recently celebrated its centenary and this feature takes a look at the history of this famous car maker – the triumphs, occasional tragedies, motorsport success and of course the amazing cars produced during the last 100 years.

Our story starts less than a year after the First World War ended. The company was founded by Walter Owen Bentley. Born in 1888 as one of eleven children, he was nicknamed “Bun” as a child due to his dark eyes and rotund physique. He was said to be aloof and independent in nature and he attended a fee paying school, but not university.

Known by his initials, W.O's focus was simple; to build the best cars available. A keen amateur racer and talented engineer, he had pioneered the use of lightweight materials such as aluminium in aircraft engines during the war. He gained his engineering skills as a premium apprentice for the Great Northern Railway in Doncaster, paying £75 for 5 years' training.

The first Bentley, codenamed EXP1 (or Experimental 1) rolled out of the doors of the first Bentley workshops, just off Baker Street in London, in October 1919. It was followed shortly afterwards by EXP2, built at the new Cricklewood factory, and displayed at Olympia. This remains the oldest surviving car. It is owned by Bentley and is seen at various motoring events throughout the world.

The cars were received positively by motoring journalists – EXP1 was hailed as the perfect car for “continental journeys where speed limits need not be observed” – how times change!

The first customer cars were delivered during 1921; the very first car cost £1,050 – approximately five times the annual wage in the UK.

To give this some context, an Austin 7 cost £145 and a Rolls Royce £1,600. Interestingly, approximately 30% of the weekly wage was spent on groceries, with a loaf of bread costing 10d – the equivalent of £28.60 today!

The performance of the cars attracted the attention of enthusiast racers, many of whom were former RAF pilots and sufficiently wealthy to indulge their pastime. As the 1920's unfolded, various Bentleys achieved competitive success both in the UK and further afield and in 1926, a year after buying a 3 litre which he raced successfully, Captain Woolf Barnato bought Bentley.

Between 1927 and 1930, Barnato and his fellow Bentley Boys won Le Mans four consecutive times, initially using 3 litre cars, followed by the larger 4½ litre engine and then the Speed Six which won twice (1929/1930) and included the famous victory in 1929 where Bentley swept to the top 4 places.

The Speed Six was developed initially as a stronger and heavier chassis to facilitate production of larger limousine bodies but the potential for a strong, reliable and powerful racing car made it inevitable that it would be developed into the most successful British racing car at the French circuit for almost another 30 years (Jaguar, 1957, in case you were wondering). 

The Bentley Boys epitomised the era – young, wealthy men who had in the main fought during the war and lived life to the full. Their escapades became the stuff of legend; winning a bet that your Bentley could beat a train between the Cote D'Azur and Calais was just one feat and one that even a modern Bentley GT3R struggled to beat almost a century later.

As the decade drew to a close, Bentley took the original chassis to perhaps its ultimate expression of luxury, size and performance with the 8 litre and at the same time withdrew from motor racing as a manufacturer.

The start of the new decade brought a change for Bentley – although not one they would have preferred we suspect. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 saw the start of a global depression which impacted on Bentley's sales leading to insolvency and their acquisition in 1931 by none other than Rolls Royce and ushered in the era of the Derby Bentley, so named for the Rolls Royce factory where Bentley production resumed after a brief pause in the early 30's.

By the middle of the decade, W.O. left Bentley for Lagonda and the cars were being marketed as “The Silent Sports Car” – a phrase which stuck for another 20 years.

From this point forward, Bentleys would be based around existing Rolls Royce chassis with the emphasis being on sporting luxury; the parent company remained to cater for those seeking an emphasis less focused on performance.

Bentleys produced from this point until the onset of the World War Two had a distinctly sporting nature. Most were sporting saloons using initially the tried and tested 3½ litre moving to 4½ litres before the introduction of the Mark V in 1939.

As was common practice of the era, Bentley would manufacture the chassis and offer customers a choice of coachbuilt body. Companies such as Mulliner, Park Ward and Hooper became the tailors to those buying a Bentley and the Mark V was also sold as a bare chassis with the body being supplied by a builder of the customer's choosing.

The outbreak of war saw Rolls Royce increase production of aircraft engines, including the Merlin of which over 25,000 were made, to a new factory near Crewe in Cheshire and car production resumed at this location after the war. This began the Crewe era of cars which continued through to the late 1980's.

The biggest change to production was a factory built complete car. Whilst the bodies were manufactured by a third party, assembly and final finishing of the Mark VI was carried out at Crewe although the tradition of offering customers freedom of choice remained. This move reduced production costs and enabled cost effective export of the “standard steel” saloon bodied cars worldwide.

The Mark VI morphed into the R-Type which was visually identical in most respects to the Rolls Royce Silver Dawn and production was relatively short. The R-Type did, however, produce one of the most elegant and arguably timeless motor car designs during its short life – the Continental.

Produced in low numbers (just over 200), it was a large Grand Touring orientated fastback car. Bodies were made by various coachbuilders with Mulliner making most. It remains a much sought after Bentley with some examples selling in today's market for over £1,000,000.

The mid 50's saw the introduction of the S1. This was a completely new design and closely followed the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Continental versions followed with the option of bespoke bodies once again. This was the last Bentley to use a six cylinder engine which could trace its origins back over more than 30 years.

The S2 and S3 models followed, each being evolutionary in design and appearance and featuring the newly introduced V8 engine which would remain in service for another 50 years. It also marked a move away from coachbuilt bodies, with far fewer being ordered throughout the lifespan of the S Series cars, the majority being factory-built “standard steel” cars.

The 1960's saw the T Series introduced. Once again based around Rolls's Silver Shadow, the new car did away with the separate chassis approach of its predecessor and introduced a monocoque bodyshell with separate front and rear subframes to mount engine, gearbox and suspension – a practice being followed by car manufacturers across the industry.

Initially available as a 4-door saloon, it was joined by a 2-door version and convertible, both made in limited numbers and only available as a Bentley – Rolls did not offer a 2 door version of its similar car.

It was replaced in the mid 70's by the T2 which was once again an evolution in terms of design but featured improved steering and interior and, towards the end of its lifespan, fuel injection – crucial for some overseas markets, particularly the USA as emission regulations were tightened.

The eighties then arrived – the decade of excess and questionable fashion but for us the cars and music almost make up for some the faux pas elsewhere!

Bentley gave us the Mulsanne – named for the historic straight, almost 4 miles long, which forms part of the Le Mans circuit and was of course the scene of their famous victories half a century previously.

Much of the chassis, engine and suspension was carried over from the T2 but the body was a squared-off design synonymous with the decade and this was further reinforced in 1982 with the introduction of the Mulsanne Turbo, boosting power to almost 300hp (Bentley, in common with Rolls Royce, rarely quoted specific power output figures, usually referring to them as “adequate”).

The Eight was introduced as a more affordable and sporting Mulsanne. Visually almost identical, it lost some of the standard car's features but gained stiffer front suspension to reinforce its sporting credentials.

The Turbo R gained stiffer suspension and replaced the Turbo in 1985

The Mulsanne S was a further evolution of the model and was subsequently replaced with the Brooklands which was ultimately available in R specification with improved suspension lifted from the final specification Turbo RT model – power for the range topping car had by now reached around 400hp by the time the Mulsanne range reached the end of its production run, in the late 90's.

At this point, we're going to rewind slightly but with very good reason.

Since Bentley's acquisition by Rolls Royce, almost all models had been based around a Rolls Royce platform. The exceptions to this were the S Series Continentals of the 50's and 60's which did not have a sister Rolls and Bentley revived the Continental name once again in 1991.

The Continental of the 90's followed the route of its illustrious ancestors – a big, 4 seater, 2-door coupe designed for long distance journeys in ultimate luxury and comfort. Power came via the venerable V8 turbocharged engine also seen in the Turbo R/RT models and the Continental lost its roof, gained the Azure model name and evolved through S, T and other special build variants including a Sedanca model with removable targa roof panel throughout the 1990's.

The Mulsanne range was replaced in 1998 with the Arnage. It's worth mentioning at this point that Rolls Royce, and by extension Bentley, had been owned by Vickers since 1980 and both brands were sold to Volkswagen in 1998 following negotiations with both the German giant and BMW. This was further complicated as BMW was able to claim rights to the Rolls Royce brand, resulting in VW-owned Bentleys being powered by BMW engines for several years following the acquisition – this is a much simplified summary of the takeover – the long version would fill an entire article on its own!

So, back to the Arnage. The car was separated from its Rolls variant (the Silver Seraph) and had sporting credentials significantly emphasised by the use of a BMW V8 bolstered by twin turbochargers whilst the Rolls “made do” with the company's V12 which had previously seen use in their range topping 7 and 8 Series cars.

Due to the aforementioned battle with BMW, the decision was taken to switch propulsion back to the 6.75 litre V8 which by now had been in use in various Bentleys since the late 50's – the result was seen by many as a backward step as the BMW engine originally fitted was more modern, lighter and produced both more power and lower emissions.

Over a 3 year period, VW reworked the engine to improve efficiency and power and it was fitted to the 2001 Arnage with improvements across the board with further changes made in 2007 to produce 500hp in its ultimate form, endowing the big Bentley with performance rivalling other fast saloons of the period.

We've deliberately made minimal reference to the various bespoke and simply special cars Bentley have made over the last 100 years but there are two important exceptions to this – bear with us, as we hope you'll agree that they're worthy of mention.

Firstly, in 1999 Bentley showcased a mid-engined supercar concept at the Geneva Motor Show; powered by a W16 engine and producing over 600hp, this concept formed part of the basis of Bugatti's milestone Veyron in 2005; Bugatti being another brand acquired by VW. The concept was named the Hunaudieres, after another straight at the Le Mans circuit.

The second was made in 2002 for a special customer, with the pair of State Limousines made for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and with plenty of input to the design of the car from The Queen. They use the Bentley V8 6.75 litre engine and continue a long tradition of Royal ownership of Bentley motor cars.

The new millennium also saw Bentley return to motorsport and the site of its most famous victory, with a 1-2 win at the 2003 Le Mans race with their Speed Eight GT car. This was based around Audi's R8 Le Mans winning car and despite some describing the car as a rebadged Audi, the victory was well deserved at one of most demanding races in the world and the cars were British Racing Green Bentleys – which was all that mattered to many.

It also ushered in the first car designed and built solely under VW's ownership of Bentley – one that continues to be made today and now in its third generation and continuing one of Bentley's great model names – the Continental, this time with a GT (or GTC, or R or numerous other editions) badge attached.

Mechanicals first – the GT was launched with a 6 litre engine with 12 cylinders in a revolutionary W formation. We won't bore you with the technical explanation today, but the numbers alone make this a very impressive engine, with 550hp equating to a top speed approaching 200mph.

The body was, and remains, a fastback 4-seater and designed, in the best traditions of the badge, to comfortably transport one across large swathes of any given country or continent with minimal fuss in the best traditions of the Continental name.

It spawned numerous special editions and 3 generations and 17 years later continues to be Bentley's best-selling car, now available with a more conventional V8 engine in addition to the W12.

Bentley continued within the motorsport arena, this time with a GT3 variant of the Continental and campaigned by well-heeled privateer racers, much the same as those who raced Bentleys almost a century before.

It also paved the way for a return to large saloons with a more sporting edge although of course there was no longer an equivalent Rolls Royce model and in 2005 the Flying Spur was launched – essentially an extended saloon bodied GT, it used the same W12 engine and latterly V8 options and the third generation of this model now sits as flagship of the range with a new chassis and body design away from the GT.

Bentley resurrected the Mulsanne badge in 2010 with its large saloon and it remained as the flagship car in the range for 10 years, continuing to use the 6750cc V8 engine so that by the time it was replaced by the latest Flying Spur in 2020, the engine had been in almost constant inclusion in the range for a scarcely believable 60 years.

2016 saw Bentley's first SUV, and possibly their most controversial car to date, enter production. The Bentayga arguably began the current trend for super luxurious sports/utility vehicles and has been joined by other similar cars including the Aston Martin DBX and Rolls Royce's Cullinan. It has featured W12, V8 and diesel engines and Bentley recently announced a refreshed model with a hybrid powertrain and the W12 versions to follow later in 2020.

One thing the Bentley SUV has done is to increase new car sales globally, which exceeded 11,000 in 2019, meaning that sales have now exceeded 10,000 for the seventh consecutive year. The GT remains Bentley's most popular model with the Bentayga close behind and accounting for almost half of 2019's sales.

Interestingly, over 75% of last year's sales are export, with just under 1,500 cars being sold in the UK and Bentley's dealer network globally now numbers almost 240 in 68 countries and 2019 marked a return to profitability with an operating profit quoted as €65 million – how coronavirus will impact the figures remains of course to be seen but Bentley remain a major manufacturer and employer in the UK with significant export activity.

2020 also saw the reveal of the Bacalar – a bespoke, 2 seater barchetta without any roof of which only 12 are to be made and with styling cues echoing the GT but also giving a reasonable preview of Bentley's future design ethos, both externally and for future interiors. It also marks a reintroduction of the Mulliner brand which looks set to continue to produce low volume models for Bentley in the years ahead.

Bentley's future looks more secure than ever and their place as a maker of ultra-luxurious motor cars across several categories looks set to continue. Their ownership by VW will no doubt see further use of common hybrid technology to ensure that they remain as relevant today as when W.O. built his first car over 100 years ago.

Lockton are proud to be an insurance partner to the Bentley Drivers Club and since 2017 we have provided many Bentley owners with market leading insurance cover for cars made across all eras of this famous and evocative marque.

Whether you have a vintage Bentley, a Derby or Crewe Standard Steel Saloon or a Continental of any era, talk to us today and find out why Lockton is different – we look forward to talking to you.

We're grateful to Michelle McDermott for her insight and assistance with this article – she will be working with us on future content.