In 1930, shortly after that year’s Le Mans brought the expected Bentley victory, came an unexpected announcement. Bentley had closed its competition department. W.O. approved the decision reluctantly. The firm was in deep trouble. His board of directors had concluded that many potential customers were dissuaded from purchase because the marque’s racing prowess suggested that only one of “the Bentley Boys”- as the famed factory team was known – could drive the car properly. Thus it was ordained that the next Bentley would be a road automobile only.
Larger by several hundred cc’s than the Rolls-Royce Phantom II, the 8 Litre was an uncompromising luxury car. Wheelbases were either 144 or 156 inches. Chassis price was $9000. Poddering about town at 10 mph in high gear would be as easy for this new Bentley as 100+ mph in the country – even with sedan coachwork. W.O. was clearly proud of the new car. Its enthusiastic reception at the Olympia Motor Show in the fall of 1930 was among his few pleasures all year, for red ink was everywhere in the company ledgers. The board’s decision to introduce a cheaper companion model to compete with the 20/25 Rolls was a disaster. W.O. would have nothing to do with it. By the summer of 1931 Bentley Motors was in receivership. Shortly thereafter Bentley Motors belonged to Rolls-Royce.
As a swansong, the 8 Litre was superb, the car on display especially so. Most of the 100 8 Litres produced carried formal coachwork on the long wheelbase chassis; this one originally carried a Gurney Nutting saloon on the 13 foot chassis. It was shortened in the 1930s and rebodied by the North London firm of Corsica Coachworks, one of two very special Corsica-bodied 8-Litres. Not only does this Bentley have a sporting Corsica body on the short chassis, it was one of the few 8-Litres with speed-enhancing modifications by L.C. McKenzie, high priest of Bentley tuners. In 1950 another McKenzie-tuned 8-Litre covered an officially timed flying mile on the Jabbeke-Ostend highway in Belgium at 134.75mph – which was a new record. At 20 years of age, that 8-Litre was the world’s fastest sports car. That was W.O.’s kind of Bentley.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more