The Flying B: A History of Bentley Cars

Bentley Supercharged 4 1/2 Liter. Bentley Motors

Bentley Begins: 1912 - 1921:

W.O. Bentley (WO to his friends) and his brother HM bought Lecoq and Fernie, a French auto company, renaming it Bentley and Bentley, with headquarters in Mayfair. In 1919, after a stint making airplane engines during WWI, the company was resurrected as Bentley Motors. The first Flying B insignia appeared on the 1920 Bentley 3 1/2 Liter test car, which was built near Baker Street in London, and the first production car, another 3 1/2 Liter, was delivered to Bentley's first customer in 1921.

The Race for More Power: 1921 - 1930:

Bentley saw its first win at Brooklands in 1921, then entered its only Indianapolis 500 in 1922, where it qualified and finished last. A privately owned Bentley took 4th place in the first-ever Le Mans in 1923, prompting W.O. Bentley to support a factory team. (He called it "the best race I had ever seen," according to "Bentley: The Story.") Engines grew ever larger in Roaring Twenties, with a 6 1/2 Liter, a 4 1/2 Liter, a supercharged Speed Six, and an 8 Liter that weighed two and a half tons rolling out of the Cricklewood factory. Driver Tim Birkin got private financing to build the supercharged Birkin Blowers.

Rolls-Royce Buys Bentley: 1930 - 1939:

WO's dedication to quality created beautiful cars -- and a financial mess. In 1926, he was demoted to managing director to make room for Woolf Barnato to become chairman. By 1931, things were no better. Rolls-Royce bought the company and kept WO on, if only to keep him from creating a new company that could compete with R-R.

The first Rolls-produced Bentley, the 3.5 Liter, debuted in 1933, and WO left the company for Lagonda in 1935. In 1939, the Bentley factory at Crewe opened.

Swallowed Whole: 1940 - 1982:

"Bentley: The Story" calls Bentley's period of Rolls-Royce ownership "the blackest of all." The MkVI of 1946 was the first Bentley to be built using Rolls components, and the 1952 R-Type Continental was the last Bentley built without a Rolls equivalent.

Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were built side-by-side at the Crewe facility, with a Bentley-badged clone for every Rolls that rolled off the assembly line. WO Bentley died during this time, in 1971 at age 83.

The Rebirth: 1981 - 1998:

The tide turned for Bentley with the introduction of the 1982 Bentley Mulsanne Turbo, named for the straight at Le Mans. In 1984, the Bentley Corniche was renamed the Continental, harkening back to the company's roots. The Bentley Continental R, which debuted in 1991, was the first Bentley to have its own dedicated body since 1954. With Bentley outselling Rolls by the early '90s, the companies celebrated 50 years of partnership by using a green background on the Flying B for all 1993 models. The next year, Rolls made a deal with BMW to the German company to supply engines for the two British marques.

Divorce from the Enemy: 1998 - 2006:

Volkswagen bought Rolls-Royce in 1998, including Bentley. BMW then bought the rights to the Rolls-Royce name and announced that as of December 31, 2002, Rolls and Bentley would be two separate companies after 67 years of barely tolerating each other. VW announced that it would invest nearly $1 billion (in today's dollars) to revive Bentley.

The Hunaudieres concept car debuted in Geneva in 1999 and proved to be a step in the direction of the new Continental. In 2001, Bentley returned to Le Mans, then dropped out again in 2003. The 2006 Bentley Azure became the resurrected Bentley's flagship luxury sedan.

Toward the Future: 2006 - Current:

Since its introduction at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show, the Bentley Continental lineup has expanded from one very fast sedan to seven even faster sedans and convertibles, including one flex-fuel vehicle. Each has the 6-liter W12 engine, but the Continental Supersports, as part of Bentleys commitment to reducing its carbon footprint company-wide, can run on either gasoline or biofuels. With the introduction of the Bentley Mulsanne in the summer of 2009, though, Bentley was back on firm ground with a long, luxurious, gasoline-powered sedan.