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Few posh motorcars approach the stratospheric level of Bentley. In fact, this illustrious British brand has long ranked second only to Rolls-Royce in sheer, expensive, largely hand-assembled elegance—and typically with a sportier nature than its costlier counterpart.
Walter Owen (W.O.) Bentley, a British engineer, was involved with motorcars and racing long before developing one under his own name. After serving in the British Navy during World War One, W.O. designed rotary aircraft engines.
In 1919, Bentley joined with two partners to construct a sporting automobile. Soon, a prototype chassis was exhibited at the London Motor Show. Another prototype raced at the Brooklands course. In 1922, production was taking place at Bentley Motors, in a facility at Cricklewood, right in London.
Bentley’s first production car held a 3-liter overhead-cam engine with four valves per cylinder—a rare configuration at the time. Though initial cars had only front brakes, four-wheel brakes were added in 1924. Among Bentley’s early racing victories was a first-place finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As W.O.’s motorcars captured more honors, race-drivers became known as the “Bentley Boys.”
Financial troubles loomed in the mid-1920s, leading to takeover by racing driver Woolf Barnato. Under his ownership, a 4.5-liter model emerged in 1927. Two years later came one of the most famous models ever: the “Blower” Bentley, with a supercharged engine. More financial ills emerged as the Great Depression worsened. Hit with receivership, the Bentley firm wound up in the hands of Rolls-Royce Ltd.
“Silent Sports Car” was the name given to the first Bentley manufactured under Rolls-Royce stewardship. Rather than hard-core racing machines, Bentleys in the 1930s were considered “gentlemen’s” motorcars.
After World War II, Bentley production resumed at a new facility in Crewe, 140 miles northwest of London. Bentleys have remained there ever since. Mark VI, the first model built at Crewe, shared its body with the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn. Through the postwar period, differences between Bentley and Rolls were generally minor, except for distinct grilles. A most notable exception was the fastback Bentley R-Type Continental of 1952, ranked as the fastest four-seat saloon (sedan) in the world. Only 208 were built, through 1955.
Next came the Bentley S-Series and its corporate cousin, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. A T-Series Bentley followed in 1965, six years before W.O.’s death.
Greater separation from Rolls-Royce was the order of the early 1980s. Bentley modified its Mulsanne saloon, adding a turbocharged V-8. In 1985, a Turbo R cost $149,500 in the U.S. Regardless, stunning performance for vehicles of their size, coupled with such a posh image, invariably captured enough customers.
Early in the 1990s, a Brooklands V8 saloon replaced the Mulsanne, and a Continental R emerged—the first Bentley in four decades that didn’t share its body with Rolls-Royce. As the new century opened, Bentley offered shoppers a choice of an Arnage, Continental R and T, Continental SC, or Azure convertible.
Then came a shock. In 1998, BMW started supplying engines to Bentley and Rolls-Royce. But when the company was offered for sale, Volkswagen paid the price and acquired both brands. At the start of 2003, Bentley and Rolls-Royce split completely. Volkswagen took command of Bentley Motor Cars, while BMW got Rolls. Days later, a Continental GT appeared at Detroit’s auto show, promising a lower price sticker than prior Bentleys. With a 552-hp 12-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive, the GT was called the “fastest genuine four-seater coupe in the world.”
Recent additions include the Flying Spur of 2005, a four-door variant of the Continental. Late in 2011, a Bentley GTC convertible appeared at the Los Angeles Auto Show. A new Continental V8 model made its debut at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, in January 2012. Modern-day Bentleys command prices well into six figures, but the marque’s adherents seem happy to pay up for the privilege.