There are fast cars, there are luxurious cars, and then there are Bentley cars.
Elevating high performance and luxury to otherworldly proportions, cars wearing the flying ‘B” logo have the distinction of being the most powerful luxurious automobiles on the market today. Possessing both a history and a significant pedigree, few marques can match the appeal of the fruits of the labors of Walter Owen Bentley.
Founding his company in 1919, after building engines for World War I aircraft, Bentley’s racing cars dominated the 24 Hours of LeMans for half a decade, winning the endurance race in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929 (sweeping first through fourth places), and 1930 (finishing first and second). Before the war, Bentley and his brother Horace had been in business together selling cars. But it had always been Walter’s dream to design and build his own.
The first of the Bentley automobiles was shown at the 1919 London Motor Show. Customer deliveries started in September of 1921. Proving exceptionally robust, their owners ran them in hill climbs and a variety of other competitive events. A Bentley even finished Indy in 1922 with an average speed of over 80 miles per hour.
Clearly W.O. was on to something right from the start.
He even had fanboys.
Dubbed the Bentley Boys, this group of independently wealthy individuals lived, slept, ate, and breathed Bentley vehicles. Avid sportsmen, they built a flamboyant lifestyle around the cars, which included motorsports. Good drivers too, they won more than their fair share of sporting events behind the wheels of W.O.’s powerful machines.
As fast as his cars were though, Bentley could not outrun the Great Depression.
When the economy soured, his well-heeled customer base embraced a degree of austerity and money problems soon mounted for Bentley. Unable to meet a rather significant credit obligation in 1931, W.O. was forced to sell. Meanwhile, Bentley’s cross-town rivals at Rolls Royce had jealously regarded his successes for some time. When he got into trouble, they saw their opportunity and surreptitiously bought the company—ostensibly to mitigate competition for its Phantom.
They did it so smooth; Bentley didn’t even know it was Rolls Royce buying him out until the deal was done. Rolls formed a holding company called British Equitable Trust to execute the transaction, and promptly proceeded to make Bentley automobiles play second fiddle to Rolls Royce's. From 1931 to 1998—when Rolls itself got into trouble and was acquired by BMW—the vast majority of Bentley autos were little more than badge-engineered Rolls Royces.
At first, this wasn’t such a big deal because car manufacturers in this class didn’t build their own bodies until after the second World War. Instead, they sold a rolling chassis, near complete from the instrument panel forward. This was then delivered to a coachbuilder to do a custom body. To expedite the process, some larger dealerships would have coachbuilders build standard designs and held them in stock awaiting potential buyers. This is why you see cars from that period attributed to companies like Mulliner and Park Ward, among others.
After the war, the truth of the situation revealed itself more clearly when so-called “standard steel” bodies started being made in house. Then, rather than lavishing styling dollars on Bentley cars, they designed a Rolls, changed the grille, called it a Bentley automobile and charged less for it.
This turned around a bit in the 1980’s when the company started experiencing financial troubles and realized it could benefit by giving Bentley cars more individuality. Too little too late though, and Rolls Royce found itself on the market in 1998. BMW looked to be the likely buyer, but Volkswagen stepped in at the last minute and outbid BMW. They got fried though, because the deal they made got them Bentley autos, the then-current Rolls Royce model range, the Spirit of Ecstasy Flying Lady hood ornament, and even the shape of the radiator grille—but not the Rolls Royce name, nor the RR logo.
The Rolls Royce aircraft engine company retained ownership of those elements.
BMW subsequently worked out the deal of a lifetime with the aircraft division of Rolls Royce to use the name and the logo—which cost them way less than buying the whole thing would’ve. They then worked out a deal with VW to get the Flying Lady and the grille, before proceeding to build a whole new range of Rolls Royce cars. Volkswagen put its energy into remaking the Bentley cars into something W.O. Bentley and the Bentley boys would’ve been proud to drive.
Which brings us to the contemporary Bentley vehicles.
The first all-new car to emerge under VW’s stewardship was the 2003 Bentley Continental GT. And while this Bentley was conscribed to share its platform with a VW model (Phaeton—the most powerful and luxurious Volkswagen ever) this all-wheel driven wonder boasted a six-liter twin-turbocharged 12-cylinder engine producing 552 horsepower and 479 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed transmission routed the engine’s output to all four wheels.
The 2003 Continental GT’s interior was lavish beyond belief, fitted as it was with supple leather hides, genuine hand-matched burled wood veneers, chrome switchgear and plush wool carpeting. Proving the car to be every bit as robust as the Bentley automobiless of yore, VW’s Bentley engineering team ran a Continental GT at 175 miles per hour for 18,500 miles on the Nardo test track in Italy. The Continental GT's top speed was 198 miles per hour.
A convertible version of the Continental GT followed in short order, as well as a four-door sedan version of the Continental GT called the Continental Flying Spur. Ever more powerful iterations of both eventually emerged. The ultimate evolution of the Continental models eclipsed the 600 horsepower and 200 miles per hour marks with ease.
Following the success of the coupes and convertibles, VW introduced the first of the Bentley flagship automobiles to be designed independently of Rolls Royce in over 80 years—the 2010 Mulsanne. Appropriating the name of the fastest stretch of the LeMans racing circuit, the Bentley Mulsanne was named to honor W.O.’s five LeMans victories. Easily rivaling the Rolls Royce Phantom in appointments, Mulsanne also boasts a 505 horsepower, 6.75-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine which makes a heart-shuddering 752 ft-lbs of torque.
Somewhere, W.O. Bentley is smiling—very broadly.