Looking for Robb Report UK? Click here to visit our UK site.

A Look at Bentley Through the Ages

From its founding in 1919 and early wins at Le Mans to its baronial beasts of today, the marque continues to refine performance and style.

Even for a top executive, Bentley Motors CEO Adrian Hallmark has a company car that’s rather spectacular. While his daily driver might be a chauffeur-driven Bentley Bentayga SUV, the car that comes with his title is even more impressive; impressive as in an exquisite, gleaming-black 1930 Bentley 8 Litre grand tourer.

And this isn’t just any Bentley 8 Litre. This is the former, much-loved personal car of Bentley founder, W.O. Bentley who, between 1930 and 1932, piloted it thousands of miles around the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

When Bentley Motors managed to reacquire the classic back in 2006, the decision was taken that each successive CEO should be handed the keys to W.O.’s 8 Litre as their symbolic company car.

“Not only is it such an exceptional car, for me it’s a constant reminder of our founder and our company’s heritage,” says Hallmark, 56, who took over the chief executive role in February this year. For Hallmark, it was a return to the Bentley fold 12 years after his stint as global sales director and architect of the original Continental GT.

As 2019 marks Bentley’s highly anticipated 100th anniversary, Hallmark will likely get plenty of use from his company 8 Liter, piloting W.O.’s car at the numerous centennial events being planned around the July 10 birthday.

Bentley's Mulsanne W.O. Edition by Mulliner with W.O. Bentl;ey's original 8 Litre in back.

Bentley’s Mulsanne W.O. Edition by Mulliner with W.O. Bentley’s original 8 Litre in back.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.


For Bentley Motors, it was July 10, 1919 when 31-year-old Walter Owen Bentley officially founded his new company in a backstreet London garage “to build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” Building fast, luxurious, best-in-class cars has been Bentley’s mission ever since.

Born in London in 1888 as the youngest of nine children, W.O. Bentley acquired his engineering skills in the grimy locomotive workshops of Britain’s Great Northern Railway.  During World War One, using his visionary work with aluminum, he helped design and build some of the most-advanced aero engines of the time.

With the war over, W.O. and a group of fellow engineers set about developing a remarkably advanced three-liter, four-cylinder engine. They created a rolling chassis and, in late 1919, the prototype 3 Litre EXP1 began testing. The first Bentley was born.

Those early days were marked by W.O.’s passion for racing and his belief that motorsports heightened the appeal of his cars to wealthy buyers. Between 1923 and 1930, Bentley racers went to Le Mans and took an astonishing five wins in seven years. The crowning glory was the 1929 race in which Bentley had the top four finishers.

The cars’ racing pedigree attracted the attention of a swashbuckling, close-knit group of wealthy playboys, racers, and adventurers who became known as the Bentley Boys. Men like former fighter-pilot Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, submariner Glen Kidston, prominent doctor Benjy Benjafield, and the most famous of them all, Captain Woolf Barnato, heir to the South African diamond-mining empire, Kimberly.

Classic Bentleys on display.

Classic Bentleys on display.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

Barnato, who bought his first Bentley in 1925, became an investor in W.O’s fledgling company the following year. By 1927 he’d become chairman, pouring a small fortune into building the business.

But not even success on the track and the introduction of class-leading models like the incredible 8 Litre, could fight-off the effects of the Great Depression which decimated global luxury car sales.

By 1931, with bills piling up and Barnato no longer prepared to continue pouring in his own cash, Bentley Motors went into receivership. Rival Rolls-Royce, hiding behind a shell company called British Equitable Central Trust, snapped up Bentley with the aim of removing competition to its Phantom II posed by the 8 Litre.

Walter Owen Bentley.

Walter Owen Bentley.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

Despite models like the R-Type and R-Type Continental of the early 1950s, Bentley’s lineup had become little more than re-badged versions of Rolls-Royce offerings. The pivotal year for Bentley came in 1998 when the Volkswagen Group took control of the brand, selling-off Rolls-Royce to BMW.

Since then, everything has changed. Following VW’s massive investment in the Crewe plant in England, 2003 saw the launch of the landmark Continental GT and a victory at Le Mans, while 2015 saw the arrival of the groundbreaking new Bentayga SUV.

Today, Bentley, while not without its challenges, seems to be in safe hands with Hallmark as CEO and the talented Stefan Sielaff as head of design. Annual sales are over 10,000, the workforce has risen to more than 4,000, and the company has a clear plan to have each of its model ranges electrified by 2025. And in the U.S., the new Continental Coupe and Convertible will go on sale this year, along with the Bentayga Hybrid.

As Bentley motors into its next century, here are nine cars—wearing that famous Flying B badge—that have defined this luxury brand.

1919 3-Litre EXP 2

What we have here is the oldest surviving Bentley, and the first Bentley to ever win a race. It’s also the prize of the Bentley heritage collection. Back in 1919, a young W.O. Bentley used his experience in designing aircraft engines to create a highly-advanced 3-liter automobile engine featuring four valves and two spark plugs for each cylinder, and made with a high percentage of aluminum and magnesium.

The 1919 Bentley 3-Litre EXP 2.

The 3-Litre EXP 2.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

He built three EXP experimental 3-litre roadsters, though only EXP 2 and 3 survive. This spindly wheeled car, after being unveiled at the London Olympia motor show in 1919 was re-bodied in1921. That same year, it was entered as the first “works” Bentley at a race on the banked, wall of death Brooklands track in England on May 16. It won.

1929 Birkin Blower

Just the mere whisper of “Blower Bentley” is enough to widen the eyes of any dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast of the marque. The two words conjure-up images of daring-do Bentley Boys hammering around Le Mans, silk scarves fluttering in the wind.

“Blower” is the nickname for a supercharger that literally blows air into an engine. The pioneer of supercharging at Bentley was one of the most passionate Bentley Boys of them all, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. He added a blower to Bentley’s 4.5-liter straight-six engine, dramatically increasing the horsepower in the process.

A 1929 Birkin Blower.

A 1929 Birkin Blower.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

These were the supercars of their day, and in 1930, a team of three Blowers was entered in the 1930 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. With Birkin at the wheel of one, he diced for the lead with Mercedes-Benz ace Rudi Carracciola, passing him down the flat-out Mulsanne straight with two wheels on the grass.  Birkin didn’t win but gave the Blower Bentley iconic status. Just 50 Blowers were built, and, these days, an example commands upwards of $5 million at auction.

1930 Bentley 8 Litre

Considered to be W.O. Bentley’s masterpiece, the 8 Litre was the largest and most luxurious Bentley of its time. Powered by a turbine-smooth 7,983cc straight-six, this potent four-door grand tourer was capable of reaching 100 mph in eerie silence. While this was one of the most advanced luxury sedans of its day, timing wasn’t on its side. The Great Depression hurt Bentley’s finances and W.O. was forced to sell his company to rival Rolls-Royce in 1931. Only 100 8 Litres were built before Rolls-Royce ended production the following year.

W.O. Bentley's personal 1930 8 Litre.

W.O. Bentley’s personal 1930 8 Litre.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

This stealthy-black example was W.O.’s much-loved company car until 1932. After being sold, it finally came back to the brand 74 years later in 2006. Today, passionate Bentley enthusiasts can get a slice of W.O.’s 8 Litre—literally. During an engine rebuild, the original crankshaft was replaced and set aside. This year it was sliced into 100 sections and each piece was integrated into the rear beverage tray of 100 special centennial examples comprising the Mulsanne W.O. Edition by Mulliner.

1930 Blue Train Bentley Speed Six

Back in 1930, swashbuckling Bentley Boy and company chairman Captain Woolf Barnato, was dining aboard a yacht in the South of France. During the festivities he wagered £200—a considerable sum at the time—that he could beat the famously-rapid Blue Train over the 570 miles from Cannes (on the Cote d’Azur) to Calais (on France’s northern-most coast). Wager accepted, he climbed behind the wheel of his rakish, custom-bodied Bentley Speed Six coupe the next day, and as Le Train Bleu left Cannes railway station at 5:45 PM, he set off.

The Blue Train Bentley Speed Six.

The Blue Train Bentley Speed Six.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

Despite horrendous downpours, refueling problems, and a blown tire, Barnato arrived in Calais at 10.30 AM. With time in hand, he took a ferry across the English Channel, and drove the 80 miles to London where he pulled up outside his club at 3: 20 PM—four minutes before the train arrived in Calais. It matters not that some speculate that it was another Speed Six that Barnato drove; the fastback-bodied, racing-green coupe will always be known as the Blue Train Bentley.

1952 R-Type Continental

It was this sleek, wind-cheating two-door coupe that introduced the Continental name to the Bentley lexicon 66 years ago. Back in its day, the R-Type Continental was the fastest four-seater money could buy; a car designed to cross continental Europe at triple-digit speeds; a car to reestablish Bentley as a maker of high-performance vehicles. The team at coachbuilder H.J. Mulliner was commissioned to build the streamlined aluminum body based on the chassis of the R-Type sedan.

A 1952 Bentley R-Type Continental.

A 1952 R-Type Continental.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

With its light weight and muscular 4.5-liter straight-six under that mile-long hood, the Continental was described at the time as having the swiftness of a Ferrari, the agility of an Alfa Romeo, and the luxury of a Rolls-Royce. In the early 1950s, there was simply no other car like it. Between 1952 and 1955, just 207 Continentals were built. Today, pristine examples sell for up to $1.5 million.

1985 Turbo R

By the early 1980s, Bentleys had become little more than a Rolls-Royce with a different grille. The racing heritage of those iconic Blowers and Birkins had long evaporated, the glamour of the 1960s Continentals a distant memory. Then along came a young sales and marketing whizz named Peter Ward, with a vision to bring back Bentley’s sporting image.

A 1985 Bentley Turbo R.

A 1985 Turbo R.  Photo: Courtesy of RM Sotheby's.

Taking the slow-selling Mulsanne Turbo, Ward demanded suspension that was dramatically stiffer for less body roll, and lower gearing for swifter zero-to-60 mph acceleration. He specified wider, grippier tires fitted to lightweight alloy wheels—a first for Bentley. He also asked for heavier, more responsive steering. It was the return of the sporting Bentley. In 1983, Bentley accounted for a mere four percent of Rolls/Bentley sales. With the 1986 introduction of the Turbo R, Bentley shot up to 40 percent.

2001 EXP Speed 8

This was the car that took Bentley back to the 24 Hours of Le Mans after a 68-year absence. And the racer that, two years later, would finish first and second at the legendary French circuit, repeating the one-two finish of the thundering Bentley Speed Six in 1930. In the 2001 race, the Speed 8 finished on the podium in third position with a new generation of Bentley Boys behind the wheel.

The 2001 Bentley EXP Speed 8.

The EXP Speed 8 from 2001.  Photo: Courtesy of RM Sotheby's.

The fearsome machine is powered by a 670 hp, 3.6-liter twin-turbo V-8 that pushes the carbon-fiber projectile to a top speed in excess of 200 mph. The Le Mans program with the Speed 8 was only intended to run for three years. After the 2003 victory, the team was disbanded. This 2001 third-place car sold for $2.35 million when it went across the block at the 2012 RM Auction in Monterey.

2003 Continental GT

This is arguably the most important Bentley model ever. Certainly, the unwrapping of the swoopy, fastback-bodied Continental GT at the Geneva auto show in March 2003 changed everything for the company. New owners, Volkswagen Group, had spotted a gap in the luxury marketplace between high-end Mercedes-AMGs and Italian exotica and filled it with this hand-crafted two-door with four seats.

The 2003 Bentley Continental GT.

The 2003 Continental GT.  Photo: Courtesy of Auctions America.

Using componentry from the over-engineered VW Phaeton, including its potent six-liter twin-turbo W-12, the car was an instant success. It accounted for a staggering 6,900 sales in the first full year of production—the previous year, total Bentley sales were just under 800. And the car quickly spawned variants like the GTC Convertible and Flying Spur sedan. Fifteen years on, the all-new Continental GT is still the luxury coupe of choice for many.

2015 Bentayga

To a multitude of Bentley aficionados, hell froze over when it was revealed that the luxury automaker would introduce an SUV. But once drivers had experienced the high-up driving position, felt the thrust of its 600 hp W-12 engine, enjoyed its load-carrying versatility, and luxuriated in its diamond-quilted leather interior, they were smitten.

Bentley's Bentayga SUV.

Bentley’s Bentayga SUV.  Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Motors.

Now, two years on from its introduction, the Bentayga continues to be Bentley’s best-selling model, its appeal enhanced even further with the arrival of a less-pricey—and more dynamic—V8 version. And taking Bentley into its next 100 years is arguably its most innovative model ever, the highly-anticipated 2019 Bentayga Hybrid with a three-liter V-6, electric motors, and a 31-mile zero-emission range. It will drive Bentley into the future, as every one of the marque’s new models will be electrified by 2025.

Penske Luxury

Sponsored Content