Walter Owen Bentley (September 16 1888 – August 3 1971), often known as W.O. Bentley or just "W.O." was the founder of Bentley Motors.
Before Bentley Motors
One of five brothers and four sisters, he was educated at Clifton College, a boarding school near Bristol, England from 1902 until 1905 when he left to start work as an apprentice railway engineer with the Great Northern Railway at Doncaster. After a period with the National Motor Cab Company, Bentley in 1912 joined his brother, H.M. (Henry) Bentley, in a company called "Bentley and Bentley" selling French DFP cars. Unsatisfied with their performance, W.O. designed new aluminum alloy pistons and a tuned camshaft for the DFP engine, taking several records at Brooklands in 1913 and 1914. During World War I, he was a Captain in the Royal Naval Air Service, where he played a major role in improving the design and manufacture of Clerget engines for the Sopwith Camel and the Sopwith Snipe aircraft. These were known as the BR1 (Bentley Rotary 1) and BR2 and were made by Humber. For this he was awarded an MBE, and an award of £8,000 from the Commission for Awards to Inventors.
Bentley the manufacturer
After the war, he founded his own motor car company, Bentley Motors, in 1920. W.O. designed a high-tech four-cylinder engine and sturdy chassis, the Bentley 3 Litre. This car was the first to use 4 valves per cylinder and dual spark plugs, and its durability earned widespread acclaim. The 3 Litre won the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1924 and following models repeated this each year from 1927 through 1930. His racing manager was an old school friend, Richard Sidney Witchell. Bentley set many records at Le Mans: "Bentley Boy" Woolf Barnato was the only driver to win on all three times he entered, giving him the highest victory percentage. Bentley's racing success failed to keep the motor car company afloat, and W.O. was forced to sell a majority share to raise cash. The "Bentley Boys" came up with the money, with Woolf Barnato, heir to Kimberley diamond magnate Barney Barnato, becoming the majority shareholder. W.O. stayed on to design another generation of cars, the six-cylinder 6½ Litre, but his control was slipping. Against his wishes, Barnato allowed the supercharged "Blower" version of his 4½ Litre car to be built, but durability was poor and the car failed on the track.
The Wall Street Crash affected Bentley's business greatly, especially as the company had just launched the 8 Litre as a grand car for the ultra-rich. After unsuccessful attempts to save the company, Barnato and Bentley were forced to sell to an anonymous holding company, British Central Equitable Trust, in 1931. This turned out to be archrival Rolls-Royce, who had been disturbed by the 8 Litre's encroaching on the market turf of their Phantom II. W.O. remained with the company until 1935, working on the 3½ Litre and other models. But Rolls-Royce closed the racing department, and Bentley eventually decided to go.
After Bentley Motors
Bentley moved with the majority of the racing department staff to Lagonda, which was recently saved from receivership by Alan Good. There, Bentley again went racing, and his Lagonda MG45 Rapide, won Le Mans in 1935. His 4480 cc V12 engine was a masterpiece of engineering, developing 180 hp (134 kW).
After World War II, Lagonda was bought by David Brown, who combined it with Aston Martin. Brown had purchased Lagonda largely to gain Bentley's engineering expertise, and immediately placed his 2.6 L straight-6 engine under the bonnet of his DB2. This durable DOHC engine would continue in use at Aston through 1959. Bentley remained as an engineer at Aston Martin for a time, moving to Armstrong Siddeley where he designed a twin overhead cam 3 litre engine before retiring.
W.O. married three times, first to Leonie who died in 1919, then to Poppy and finally in 1934 to Margaret. He had no children. Bentley died in 1971 as a revered patron of the Bentley Drivers' Club. His widow Margaret lived until 1989.
- Channel 4: Bentley v Mercedes Site with a short biography of Bentley.
- Bentley: The Man behind the Marque Author - Malcolm Bobbitt (ISBN 1-85983-352-8) 2003