Bentley Racing History

Ever since its 1919 founding in Cricklewood, North London, Bentley has embraced the challenges of creating high-performance automobiles. Walter Owen Bentley, better known as W.O., believed victories on the racetrack were crucial for marketing automobiles and the best way to demonstrate the capabilities of his cars. Bentley’s first foray into motorsports during the 1920s produced some of the most legendary sports cars of the decade.

W.O.’s mission was to make “a good car, a fast car, the best in its class.” His efforts made the Bentley name formidable in the road racing scene of the roaring twenties. Bentley’s success in the 24 Hours of Le Mans encouraged the development of new cars. One was a supercharged version of the 4 ½ Litre, better known as the “Blower” Bentley. Legendary for its short-run speed, it remains intertwined with the famed racer Sir Henry Birkin and author Ian Fleming, who gave James Bond a Blower Bentley in his early novels. More successful in competition was the Bentley 6 ½ Litre “Speed Six” which dominated Le Mans in the 1920s and remained a competitive racer decades later.

Bentley’s racing drivers cultivated the brand’s identity almost as much as their automobiles. Along with W.O. and Birkin, Bentley’s leading figures included Chairman Woolf Barnato, racers Glen Kidston, J.D. Benjafield, and John Duff, and motorsport journalist Sammy Davis. They became known as the “Bentley Boys,” an informal club of executives and gentleman racers who served as the marque’s brand ambassadors. Famous for their racing achievements and their lavish lifestyles, the Bentley Boys resembled the company’s desired clientele – men of means with a sense of adventure and a need for speed. There were also women, “Bentley Girls,” who embodied the same spirit as their male counterparts. Among them were Dorothy Paget, the sponsor of the first Bentley Blower racing team, and endurance racer Mary Petre Bruce. Diana Barnato, Woolf’s daughter, also became a skilled aviator and earned the nickname “Bentley’s Flying Lady.”

However, by 1930, no amount of Bentley Boys or Girls could resolve the company’s financial woes. W.O. reluctantly withdrew from motorsports, and by the following year Rolls-Royce had purchased Bentley. The marque’s performance image withered over the next several decades. It was not until 2001 that Bentley officially reentered motorsport in an effort to reconquer Le Mans. They met their goal in 2003 with a 1-2 overall finish. Bentley was back.