Bentley is one of the most revered car companies in the world, so how has it gathered such a reputation? It’s one of Britain’s oldest manufacturers, founded in 1919 by W.O Bentley. Despite its current headquarters in Crewe in the North of England, its incorporation was actually in Cricklewood, North London, where its most iconic road and race cars were built.
Yet its grand reputation was not born out of building luxury saloons or the Royal Family’s state vehicles like today. Instead, it was W.O Bentley’s love of racing. Only a few years after its incorporation, Bentley started dominating European sports car racing with its huge and powerful racers like the aptly named ‘Bentley Blower’. It went on to become inextricably linked to bourgeois culture in England, with the legend of the ‘Bentley Boys’ encapsulating the indulgent period leading up to World War II.
By the great depression, however, Bentley’s finances were in a dire state, and after failing to make loan payments was put into receivership before being snapped up by rival Rolls-Royce. W.O Bentley retained his position after the sale, but soon left to work for British company Lagonda.
Today Bentley still represents the upper echelons of the car world, specialising in luxury sports cars that channel its envious heritage. It might not be part of Rolls-Royce, but has in the interim been picked up by the vast Volkswagen Group, forming part of its flagship collection of brands that include supercar marques like Porsche, Bugatti and Lamborghini.
Below we run down 10 of the most important Bentleys in its illustrious history; ones that for different reasons encapsulate the magic of that bygone era.
Bentley 4.5L ‘Blower’ Bentley (1926/1927)
The Bentley 4.5L ‘Blower’, as it is colloquially known, is perhaps the defining moment of the legend surrounding Bentley. W.O Bentley had been successfully winning races for some time, but racing driver Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Burton insisted that he would build and field supercharged versions of the increasingly outclassed Bentley 4.5.
These were considered the fastest cars of their time, racing against Mercedes at the very apex of period racing. Of course, neither Bentley’s ‘Blowers’ or chief rival Mercedes were known for their reliability, which meant that in 1930 Bentley’s lesser Speed Six model took the lion’s share of motorsport success in the era.
In fact, the Blower would never actually win a race, but the rebellious nature of them would continue to be a driving force of the character Bentley still channels today.
Bentley Speed Six (1929/1930)
The car that beat out the Blowers was W.O’s Speed Six, a huge racer that was known at the time as ‘the tank’ on account of its massive dimensions and extreme weight. Of course, in order to motivate so much weight to winning races was huge reserves of power, and in this case Bentley’s new Speed Six had the grunt to back it up.
The Speed Six factory racer utilised a modified version of the road car’s 6.5-litre straight six, which produced 200hp at the time. They ran on a 3,353mm-wheelbase chassis (a seven-seater BMW X7 SUV, for context, has a 3,105mm wheelbase) and won at Le Mans in 1929 and 1930.
Bentley also produced the chassis and engine for road-going applications, often employing coachworks builder H.J Mulliner to create the bodywork and interior.
Bentley Turbo R
After years of rule under Rolls-Royce, often just selling little more than a basic re-badge job, the 1985 Bentley Turbo R was revealed as a more sporting and more ‘Bentley’-like model that channelled some of its racing heritage. It was based on the Mulsanne, which came out five years earlier, but installed a more powerful engine and sporting chassis elements to make it the most dynamic Bentley in decades.
The Turbo R was in production for nearly 15 years, ending on a particular high with the Turbo RT Mulliner. This last-generation model installed a range of further upgrades including a new turbocharger for the 6.75-litre V8 engine that produced a crazy 420bhp.
As part of the upgrade it also picked up flared wheel arches, 18-inch wheels and chassis upgrades that would eventually find themselves on one of the most iconic Bentley coupes of its pre-VW era: the Continental R. Yet this lesser-known predecessor set it all in motion, with only 56 units built – all in the final year of Turbo R production.
Bentley Continental T
Before the Continental name was associated with the curvaceous coupe of Bentley’s modern era, the moniker was last used on the two-door coupe version of its full-sized saloon. The Continental was available in various forms, but the most interesting is the Continental T, which differed from its stablemates by introducing a shorter wheelbase and more dynamic stance.
From 1998, the Continental T featured the same 420hp version of the 6.75-litre turbocharged V8 engine, as well as similar flared arches and 18-inch alloy wheels. A Mulliner derivative was launched in 1999 with a yet further honed chassis setup, and even stiffer suspension.
Of course, this was still the age that Bentley’s were properly hand-made, perhaps most closely resembling the Bentleys that W.O would recognise some 60 years prior.
Bentley Arnage T
Successor to the Turbo R and the last Bentley to be built in conjunction with a Rolls-Royce derivative, the Arnarge is the model that brought Bentley into the 21st Century. It also coincided with the business being bought out by the vast Volkswagen conglomerate. The Arnage was available in a huge variety of variants, being sold between 1998 and 2009.
For a short period, the Arnage lost its 6.75-litre V8 engine and instead utilised a 4.4-litre engine borrowed from BMW, but its VW ownership soon saw a stop to that. Bentley invested in modernising the old L-series V8 and produced some quite astonishing results.
The most powerful Arnage T Final Edition offered an astounding 507bhp and 1000nm of torque, making it equal to the Mercedes S65 AMG as the torque-iest car on sale. That was until Bentley brought out a short-lived two-door version called the Brooklands.
The Brooklands wasn’t the first or indeed most opulent Bentley coupe, but it was one of the most auspicious. Released in 2008, it was based on the Arnage, Bentley’s flagship saloon at the time, and was therefore beneficial to its quite unique collection of attributes. One of those was Bentley’s usual 6.75-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine, but here tuned to its highest outputs yet. It produced 530bhp, but an even more impressive 1050nm of torque – the most of any production car at the time.
Look past the numbers, though, and the Brooklands was more revered for its entirely hand-built nature. Each had hand-formed rear wings that were physically too big to be stamped in the factory, while the interior was entirely finished by hand. This contrasted against modern tech, such as its huge carbon-composite brakes and pillarless window opening.
Only 550 units were produced, each bridging the gap between past and present like few others.
Bentley Continental Supersport
The 2003 Bentley Continental GT has often been credited as the turning point for the Bentley brand. It brought scale to a manufacturer that was more specialised in producing tens of cars, rather than thousands, and while the original was lambasted upon launch for lacking a certain Bentley-ness (and perhaps rather too much Volkswagen-ness) it was the original 2009 Supersport that signalled Bentley’s despondent nature was still alive and well.
Building on the 6-litre W12 engine found in lesser Conti GTs with bigger turbos and a far more focused chassis setup, it produced a massive 621bhp. This was put to the ground via a newly rear-biased, all-wheel drive system that split its torque 60% rear to 40% front. This fundamentally changed the way the Supersport drove, giving it a fabulous reputation of being a more rebellious Bentley – one matched with a shockingly supercar-like soundtrack from its rifled exhaust tips.
Bentley Mulsanne Speed
The Mulsanne was Bentley’s last car to use the iconic 6.75-litre V8, bringing to end the production of an engine that was able to trace its roots back as far as 1959. In its final twin-turbocharged ‘Speed’ form, the L-series V8 produced 530bhp and an astounding 811lb ft of torque, making light work of its near-three-tonne mass.
Of course, despite the Speed moniker, the Mulsanne wasn’t about sporting driving characteristics. Instead it was about providing the most opulent old-money driving experience possible. As a direct replacement of the Arnage, and therefore built on its line at the Crewe factory, the Mulsanne didn’t just feature Bentley’s traditional engine, but also its truly British hand-built mentality.
The Mulsanne was the last of the old-world Bentleys.
Bentley Continental GT3
If the Bentley Continental Supersport was the model that revealed Bentley’s true spirit, it was the later GT3 that proved it could be pushed and pulled in all sorts of new directions. Powered not by Bentley’s W12 engine, but a twin-turbocharged V8, the GT3 shrugged off a lot of mass in its development to be widely commended as the most dynamic Bentley of the modern age.
This was apt, though, as the Continental GT3 coincided with Bentley’s return to racing. It raced a GT3-regulation version of the continental GT in international racing series, from the FIA World Endurance Championship, which included Le Mans, to separate international events like the Australian Bathurst 24hrs.
Yet while the GT3 might not have been a true homologation special, it did channel the spirit of the race car more than any Bentley had done in generations.
A big part of Bentley’s history has been surrounded by the notion of coachworks, with long-time partner Mulliner creating some of history’s most iconic Bentley models. Now, long after Bentley brought the Mulliner name in-house, the marque is reverting back to real coachworks projects, of which the open-top Bacalar was the first to be revealed.
Despite being named after Italian salted cod (yes, look it up), the Bacalar is a vision into what Bentley sees itself producing – high-end, low-production models that are more eloquent and finely detailed than even its luxurious base range.
An example with the Bacalar is its driftwood interior elements, which utilise thousand-year-old petrified woods for certain trim pieces of the interior. Not only that, but the Bacalar is also touted to be the most dynamic Bentley of its new era. Yet it seems only a lucky few will ever be able to test that theory out.