Crewe, Cheshire - Exactly 99 years ago, on 10 July 1919, 30-year-old railway engineer W.O. Bentley founded his own car company, with the stated intention of building “a fast car, a good car, the best in its class”.

How he got to that point is a fascinating story in its own right, which is told below the video, but now, as that company enters its centenary year, present-day owner the Volkswagen Group has begun a year-long celebration of a marque so renowned for its big, heavy, very fast touring cars that Ettore Bugatti once referred to them as ‘the world’s fastest lorries’ - not a bad description at a time when he was winning Grands Prix with a jewel-like 2.3-litre straight eight and Bentley was dominating Le Mans with a 4½-Litre four!

Bentley Motors was an immediate success. Its prototype 3-Litre was up and running by January 1920, and production models of the big, powerful four-cylinder cars followed in September 1921. From the start owners raced them, competing successfully in hill-climbs, handicap races at the banked Brooklands circuit, and endurance racing. The typical Bentley driver was a wealthy, fun-loving extrovert, usually with a military or air force background (this was only a few years after the end of the First World War) and a huge appetite for speed, excitement and champagne - and they soon became known as the Bentley Boys.

W.O. Bentley at the wheel of the very first Bentley 3-Litre in 1920. Picture: Bentley Motors

Bentley himself reluctantly attended the very first ‘24 Heures du Mans’ in May 1923 (he thought a 24 hour race would be nothing more than a car-killer) and was surprised and impressed when Frank Clement and John Duff set the fastest lap and finished fourth in a privately entered 3-Litre.

From then on the Cricklewood works backed the Bentley Boys with specially built cars and pit crews for Le Mans, and Bentleys won the race outright in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930 - the final three under the leadership of Woolf Barnato, son of De Beers founder Barney Barnato, who set a virtually unbeatable record by entering Le Mans just three times - and winning all three.

W.O. Bentley’s masterpiece was the magnificent 8-Litre, a (very) grand tourer with a gynormous overhead-camshaft, four valves per cylinder, twin-spark straight six that delivered 160kW at 3300rpm and could go from walking pace to 170km/h (its factory-guaranteed minimum top speed) in top gear, in almost ghostly silence.

It was only in production for 14 months, but Bentley sold no fewer than 100 8-Litre chassis at £1850 (the equivalent of R1.9 million today) each, which were bodied by the greatest coachbuilders of the day, at a cost of as much again and more. The last few were assembled from parts in early 1932, but astonishingly, 78 of them are still running, 86 years later.

By contrast, Ettore Bugatti managed to sell just three of the seven comparable Royale supertourer chassis that he produced between 1927 and 1933, although he made a fortune by selling several hundred Royale engines to SNCF, the French national railway, for use in railcars.

But W.O. had no such luck; always underfunded, Bentley Motors went bankrupt in November 1931 and was bought by Rolls-Royce, which shut down the Cricklewood works. From then on all Bentleys were rebadged Rolls-Royce models - luxurious, of impeccable build quality, and more than adequately quick, but without the sheer muscle of W.O.’s designs.

Until 1998, when the Volkswagen group outbid BMW to purchase Rolls-Royce and, with it, Bentley. After some very complicated corporate politics, however, Rolls-Royce wound up as part of BMW AG and Bentley became a separate concern under the Volkswagen umbrella, once again building big, heavy and very fast two and four-door luxury cars.

Today’s Bentley’s are monolithic in design, conservative in shape and immensely muscular. Picture: Bentley Motors

Volkswagen put the Bentley name out there again in motorsport by entering - and winning - the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours with a rebadged Audi LMP1 car, but Bentley has since carved itself a successful niche in GT3-class endurance racing with various iterations of the Continental GT coupé.

In the spirit of W.O.’s ‘fastest lorries’, today’s Bentley’s are monolithic in design, conservative in shape and immensely muscular, capable of taking you to the next town, or the next time zone, at astonishing point-to-point speeds. We can’t help feeling that W.O. and the original Bentley Boys would approve.

Who was W.O. Bentley?

Walter Owen Bentley left school at 16 in 1908 to begin an apprenticeship on the Great Northern Railway; as a student he raced motorcycles (including two entries in the Isle of Man TT) and later, French-built DFP sports-cars.

In 1912 he and his brother Horace Millner Bentley formed Bentley and Bentley, to sell DFPs in England. Staff soon began referring to the bosses as ‘Mr W.O.’ and ‘Mr H.M.’, and the name stuck for the rest of his life.

Bentley was convinced that there was untapped potential in the DFP engine. During a visit to the Doriot, Flandrin & Parant factory in 1913, he noticed a block of aluminium being used as a paperweight and it struck him that replacing the DFP’s cast-iron pistons with something lighter would allow it to rev higher and produce a lot more power.

A very capable engineer, Bentley knew that aluminium by itself was too soft and had too low a melting point to be used for pistons, but a couple of months’ experimentation at a foundry back in Cricklewood produced an alloy of 88 percent aluminium and 12 percent copper that worked - and soon the Bentley and Bentley DFP with its lightweight ‘secret weapon’ pistons was unbeatable at Brooklands.

Aircraft engines

In 1914 Bentley set a class record of 143.52km/h for the flying mile, but by mid-July of that year Archduke Franz Ferdinand was dead in Sarajevo and the world was at war. Bentley then approached the British government, proposing that aircraft engine manufacturers should use his special pistons to give the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps a big power advantage over the engines used in German aircraft. Some did, notably Sunbeam and Rolls-Royce; some refused, especially Gwynnes Engineering, which was building the French 97kW Clerget rotary engine under licence for the Sopwith Camel.

So the Admiralty authorised Captain Bentley to update the Clerget design with his own cylinders and pistons, and by 1916 the Humber car factory was building the BR1 engine with aluminium pistons in aluminium cylinders with cast-iron liners, which was good for 110kW and was a third cheaper to make. It was followed in 1918 by the 170kW BR2 for the Sopwith Snipe, the RAF’s last - and finest - rotary-engined aircraft.

After the war Bentley was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the 1919 New Year’s Honours list, and £8000 (a fortune at the time, worth about R9.5 million today) from the Commission of Awards to Inventors, in recognition of his vital contribution to the war effort.

That was enough to start his own car company - and the rest, as they say, is history.

IOL Motoring