Legends: Walter Owens Bentley

Wheelbase Communications

Born in 1888, Walter Owen Bentley was the youngest of nine children. Affectionately known as “W.O.”, the littlest Bentley was a railway engineer apprentice in England before he was anything else. He later joined his brother, H. M. Bentley, who was selling French DFP cars out of an office in England. The Bentleys — with W.O. as the mechanical brain of the family — soon bought out the DFP's agency, renamed the business Bentley and Bentley and gradually built up the image of the new company by winning races. W.O.'s innovations helped the duo take many track records from 1913-'14.

During the First World War, W.O. helped develop aircraft engines, such as the one used for the Sopwith Camel.  After the war, in August of 1919, he formed Bentley Motors Ltd. With ideas for prototypes sizzling, he created a car like no other with leading-edge technology and ideas. A new two-door car was named after its three-liter engine, a first for a British car. It sold for a little more than $1,500 and the waiting list grew to two years as Bentley’s company built 21 in 1921, 100 more the next year and 100 more than that in 1923 before finally hitting the peak in 1928 when more than 400 cars were delivered. Bentley was winning in the showroom and winning on the track. He was reinventing clutches, brakes and enlarging engines. Then came the Eight Liter . . . with the onset of the Depression, the timing for the vehicle was terrible. Bentley was already in receivership eight months into 1930, the year the Depression hit England and the year Bentley’s Eight Liter hit the market. Bad quickly went to worse. With a friend set to acquire Bentley, and Bentley set to design a new twin-overhead-camshaft sports car for him, a mysterious third party outbid the friend to the tune of $30,000: it was Rolls-Royce. W.O. was kept as an employee but he had little say in the car that took his name. Unhappy, he left when his contract came up. He worked for Lagonda and Armstrong Siddeley until 1950, creating engines and complete vehicles. In all cases, his engineering revolved around strong, simple and clever construction. W.O. died in 1971, at age 83.

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