Walter Owen Bentley MBE (known universally as W. O.) was the man behind the flying B. Even after bad luck, betrayal and mistreatment he had created something very special, something that would inspire future generation.
Bentley was a design engineer, aero-engine designer, racing driver and founder of Bentley Motors. Born in Hampstead, London, the youngest of nine children, he studied at Clifton College, Bristol from 1902 to 1905. He left to join the Great Northern Railway as an apprentice. In his spare time he raced Quadrant, Rex and Indian motorcycles with much success. Bentley completed his apprenticeship in 1910 and decided to leave the Great Northern Railway and attended King`s College London for a short time. He then joined the National Motor Cab Company and took charge of their fleet of 250 Unic cars as Fleet engineer.
In 1912 he joined with his brother Horace Milner Bentley (known as H.M.) to form Bentley & Bentley Motors selling French DFP cars. W.O. already believed that success lay in racing and modified his DFPs with alloy pistons and improved camshafts. Through 1913/14 he set several records at Brooklands. In 1914 he married Leonie Gore, a baronet`s daughter. Marital happiness was short-lived as she died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919.
War was declared in 1914 and Bentley & Bentley designed a rotary aero-engine for the Sopwith Camel fighter-plane. So successful was it that one German pilot in Von Richtofen`s flying circus saved one from a wreck and fitted it into his Fokker D-VII. The Kaiser was not pleased!
After the war, the demand for aero-engines fell away so W.O. Bentley returned to making and racing his own cars. In 1919 his wife Leonie died and the next year he met and married Poppy (Audrey Hutchinson).
Through the 1920′s Bentley built a huge reputation in racing with his team, known as the Bentley Boys. The team leader was Woolf Barnato, heir to the Kimberly Diamond empire. W.O.`s ambition new no bounds and he fell in love with the Le Mans 24 hour race. This kind of racing was expensive. The 1925 race was a failure and the company was in trouble. Barnato quietly bought all the Bentley shares he could and became the company chairman. W.O. was still head of the company but was effectively employed by Barnato, a case of the tail wagging the dog.
In 1930 the Great Depression hit and Barnato withdrew his support. Bentley was insolvent to the tune of £136,220. However, help was at hand. Napier Motors stepped in to guarantee Bentley`s debts. Then the skulduggery surfaced. Barnato had not only withdrawn his funds from Bentley, he had also bought a large slice of Rolls-Royce. They stepped into the ring, outbidding Napier and taking control of Bentley Motors.
The deal was conditional on W.O. working for Rolls-Royce. Barnato became a director of Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd at the same time. There was a strong smell of betrayal in the air. It was a bad year for W.O. His second wife Audrey Hutchinson divorced him and he was even deprived of a company car. This was humiliating treatment. Fortunately Bentley still had some friends left and one of them, W.E. Rootes put a Hillman car at his disposal, ostensibly for weekend road tests. Rolls Royce used him to test their cars, both in the UK and on the continent. This was not what his wife, Poppy, had signed up for and she divorced him.
W.O.`s contract expired in 1935 and he walked away, straight into the arms of Lagonda. Fresh from their Le Mans victory in 1935 they knew that Bentley would be an asset to them. As Lagonda`s technical director he set about designing the mighty V12 DOHC engine. Successful years followed. In 1934 WO had married Margaret Roberts-Hutton. This happy marriage lasted for the rest of his life. Unfortunately every silver lining has a cloud.
In 1947 Lagonda found themselves in financial trouble. The cavalry came over the hill in the shape of David Brown (tractors) Ltd. David Brown had just bought Aston-Martin and saw Lagonda as an excellent stable-mate. The deal was done and David Brown grafted W.O.`s 2.6 litre DOHC 6-cylinder engine into his new Aston-Martin DB2. This car was as fabulous as it was successful and started the chain of beautiful Aston-Martins.
After a while W.O. Bentley moved to Armstrong-Siddeley Motors. He designed a 3 litre DOHC for Armstrongs and shortly after retired. Sadly, W.O. Bentley was not blessed with children, however his name lives on as a great pioneer.
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I was born in Hereford UK in 1948 and brought up in Gloucester UK. I played Rugby football internationally as a schoolboy. At the age of 17, a new and wet driving license in my paw, I entered motor racing. I was supported and financed by my parents and so my journey began.
In 1965 I bought a 1293cc Mini-Cooper `S` and campaigned it for a season. Having quickly made some good friends in the racing fraternity, several interesting opportunities came my way. I joined a sports-car team and raced in the Le Mans 24 hours in 1968 and 1969 in a Lola T70. Mechanical failure defeated both efforts. During that period I owned and raced a `D type` Jaguar and an AC Cobra. In those days cars like that were available and not too expensive, now they reside in museums and private collections. I had a chain of interesting cars through my youth including Jaguars, Minis, Mustangs and Lotus-Cortinas.
As a young driver I had my share of accidents too. Often the car would only be worth scrap-metal value by the time I got it home! I worked for an Aston-Martin/Jaguar dealership for a while, which enhanced my experience and gave me the opportunity to sample some very exotic machines, Ferrari, Facel-Vega, Iso and Maserati to recall a few of them.
At the end of 1969 I moved to South Africa to work on my uncle`s farm but the S.A. government had other ideas and drafted me into the army. After five years had passed I was thanked and released from the service. While I was there I bought a beige Cadillac Eldorado, previously the property of Marilyn Monroe. While I was away on a patrol my girlfriend had it re-sprayed pink! I was unimpressed by both the joke and the bill for the work!
When I returned to UK in 1974 I left it behind. On my return I found that the once-mighty British motor industry was in decline and was headed for oblivion. Motor racing was now very expensive so I turned to commercial transport. Driving large trucks gave me freedom and a chance to see some of the world. I don`t remember ever making a career choice but for the next thirty years a truck was my home. For about ten years in that period I owned two trucks of my own.
I also owned a famous MGB-GT, known as `Lucky`. If you`d like to read `The Story of Lucky` there is an article in Inopian`s archive. I finally retired, due to ill-health, in 2008. Since I had varied knowledge and many experiences on our subject I decided to share the stories of the cars I enjoyed (and hated) with the new generation.
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