The oldest Bentley in existence bears the moniker “EXP 2”. It’s a prototype built just after the First World War by engineer W.O. Bentley. It features a sturdy 3-litre engine, a variation of which would be used to propel the company to victory at Le Mans in 1924. After just five years in business that’s not bad going. Such was the engineering genius of Bentley, the fledgling firm would win Le Mans three more times before financial ruin led to the car maker’s buyout by Rolls-Royce in 1931. Financial acumen and great engineering don’t always go together.
Which perhaps explains why a car manufacturer with such an illustrious beginning is somewhat of a late bloomer as far as car production numbers are concerned. On 26 March, after 102 years in operation, Bentley celebrated the manufacture of its 200,000th car. That’s a great achievement for the firm but BMW delivered over 2 million cars last year alone. It would take Bentley a thousand years to produce that many cars.
A Unique History
But production numbers don’t count for everything. Bentley has a unique history among auto manufacturers. The adventurous tales of Wolf Barnato, the man who drove Bentley to three of their four Le Mans victories, are as legendary as the early cars themselves. The 1950s glamour of the Bentley R-Type Continental, with its streamlined body and luxury interior, make it one of the most sought-after vehicles on the classic car scene. One such example sold for over $1.8 million in 2016.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the 200,000th car produced by Bentley is the Bentayga SUV. It stands as the modern embodiment of the speed, engineering and luxury synonymous with the Bentley brand. The Bentayga, which was chosen as Luxury SUV of the Year in January 2021 by 4×4 magazine (see the Motor Verso article here) is also the “fastest SUV in the world” according to Bentley.
The Continental GT
But although the Bentayga may have momentarily stepped into the limelight, the success of Bentley in the modern world is really down to one car: the Bentley Continental GT. First launched in 2003, following Volkswagen’s takeover of the firm, the GT has sold 80,000 examples in the last 18 years. That figure is nearly double the 44,418 Bentleys that were built between 1919 and 2002.
Chairman and Chief Executive of Bentley, Adrian Hallmark, said
“In 2003 the introduction of the Continental GT represented a transformative moment for the brand…and created both a new segment, and a contemporary image foundation for the Bentley business.
The pace of progress has accelerated significantly since 2003 and we are now entering the next period of transformation as we pursue our Beyond100 strategy, with the aim of positioning Bentley as the global leader in sustainable luxury mobility.”
Because if the last two decades haven’t seen enough change for the marque, the next decade will see the veteran British car company undergo its biggest transformation yet. The Crewe-based firm will move to offering only hybrid electric and battery electric vehicles by 2026 and only battery electric cars by 2030. The auto maker also aims to be “end-to-end” carbon neutral by 2030 with the factory at Crewe aspiring to be “climate positive” thereafter.
A Final Thought
After his company’s takeover by Rolls-Royce, W.O. Bentley went on to work for Lagonda and Aston Martin. He died in 1971 at the age of 82. One wonders what he would make of the cars still bearing his name 102 years after he started the company. I hope he would be proud.