GRINDING GEARS: Gadabout Bentley Boys celebrate 100 years

Gentlemanly brand featured at this weekend's All-British Field Meet

If you believe the forecast, this Saturday should see the sun shining down on attendees at the annual All-British Field Meet.

Even if you (correctly) regard the British motoring industry as having a suspiciously lax attitude toward minor mechanical details like, oh, not having the doors fall off, the ABFM is well worth a visit.

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The gates open at 10 a.m., although you can head down a bit earlier if you want to see some of the nearly 500 show cars roll onto the lawn. And/or help their owners out with a bit of a push. Tickets are less than 20 bucks, or $40 for a family of four.

Each year it’s enjoyable to pick out your own favourite best-in-show. In 2018, I particularly enjoyed a gorgeous, freshly-restored Jaguar XK120 drophead in battleship grey, because I met the owner and got the sense that he was going to actually drive the thing – it’s since emerged that he’s already done the Lillooet loop with it this spring. I also awarded top marks to a much less attractive brown rubber-bumper 1980 MGB, simply because the owner was a young man in his teens who had faithfully restored it on a budget that wouldn’t get you a breakfast sandwich combo at Tim Hortons.

This year there’ll be lots to choose from, with several marques featured. Lovers of motorcycles might enjoy a few rare AJS bikes, and if you like the original Mini, there’ll be a staggering 48 of them on display.

However, for one more genteel brand, this year marks a very important anniversary. Bentley is turning 100, and the show will feature a number of examples, including a half-dozen pre-war cars.

These days, Bentley is a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, and thus has to turn a profit, leading to indignities to the brand like the Bentayga crossover. Oh I’m sure it’s fast and reliable and well-made, but it looks like somebody fitted four headlights and 22-inch wheels to one of Winston Churchill’s buttocks.

The real Bentley, the one worth celebrating at 100, is a gentleman’s sporting brand. The cars weren’t exactly thoroughbreds – they were too large and heavy for the comparison – but they did have a glorious racing pedigree. If Rolls-Royce made the cars that ferried the nobility about, then Bentley made the war chargers that carried the well-moneyed into battle.

The Bentley story begins with a couple of brothers selling French cars in North London. Walter Owen, who preferred to be called W.O., wanted more out of the car business than just the selling side. He wanted to build cars.

Anyone who knew ol’ W.O. could have seen this coming a mile away. He’d been repairing his own bicycles since he was nine, and had completed a full apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway by the age of 21. He also found time to compete in long-distance motorcycle racing, once winning a gold medal in a London-Edinburgh event despite his bike breaking, since he was able to put it back together on the side of the road before anyone else caught up.

He was quick, and he was mechanically minded, and when he got the idea to make pistons out of aluminium, Bentley was off to the races. Those first pistons were used in a modified car to set a speed record at Brooklands, and later fitted to the rotary engine that powered the Sopwith Camel. He went to the front to see how things were going, and was promptly strafed by the Red Baron.

By 31 he was already a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and the first Bentley car rolled out of his north London garages. Emphasis on “rolled,” as the mock-up didn’t have an engine, and in fact the first Bentleys weren’t delivered to customers until two years later.

In 1922, a Bentley took part in the Indy 500, and finished 13th. Such a result doesn’t seem particularly remarkable, until you dig a little deeper and find out that the Bentley in question was a slightly tweaked road car competing against specialist racing machines. That’s like showing up in F1 in your crossover and beating the pants off Lewis Hamilton.

However, it was the 24 Hours of Le Mans where Bentley would make its name. The first car to race there was an early three-litre Bentley, campaigned by Frank Clement and John Duff in 1923. They came fourth, but W.O. Bentley thought they could do better. He was right: Bentleys won Le Mans in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930.

Most of the success was down to the Bentley Boys, a loose collective of independently wealthy playboys with a thirst for adrenaline. These men were ex-fighter pilots, submariners, and even an Olympic fencer.

Chief among them was Woolf “Babe” Barnato, heir to a South African diamond mining fortune, a First World War Royal Artillery captain, amateur boxer, and all around sportsman.

Barnato wrestled his Bentley three-litre to several wins at the Brooklands circuit, and liked it so much he ended up buying the company. His investment allowed Bentley to come up with the now-famous 6 1/2-litre Bentley, which chalked up numerous racing wins. Notably, Barnato twice raced trains in his Bentleys, betting that he could reach London from Cannes before the train pulled into the station at Calais. He won both times.

The Great Depression put an end to most of this fun, and indeed ruined W.O. Bentley himself. He would go on to design cars for Lagonda and Armstrong-Siddley, but had to leave Bentley behind. The company was snapped up by Rolls-Royce, who considered Bentley to be an emerging competitor.

Most of the models built after this period ditched the leather-helmeted pilot image for a more luxurious effect. Bentleys were now, in essence, the sporting variants of Rolls-Royces, and shared many parts with them. Some are, nevertheless, extremely graceful.

There was also a resurgence of the breed in the 1980s and 1990s. At the beginning of the decade, Bentleys were only five per cent of total output at Rolls-Royce. By 1991, the split was about 50/50. Cars like the Brooklands and the Continental preserved the sporting image of their long-ago ancestors, and more than a few were quite powerful, with turbocharged engines. I remember one period review referring to a Bentley Turbo R as a rocket-propelled drawing room.

Volkswagen acquired Bentley in 1998, and jabs at the bulbous Bentayga aside, has mostly stewarded the company in a favourable direction. The Continental does a good job of providing British handcrafted luxury while letting German engineers sort out the bits required to actually get you where you’re going.

So, stop in at the Bentley section at this year’s ABFM and imagine yourself behind the wheel as a Bentley Boy (or Bentley Girl – there were many accomplished female racers and pilots in the group). Many car companies have come and gone in the last 100 years. Somehow, W.O.’s dream lives on.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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