Born to wealthy Australian parents in Hampstead, London he was educated privately at Clifton College, Bristol but like Royce showed little academic aptitude and joined the Great Northern Railway at Doncaster. Unlike Royce, he was a premium apprentice and saw out his full five year term. He also studied theoretical engineering at King’s College, London and raced twice on the Isle of Man with Rex and Indian motorcycles.
In 1912 he and his brother imported French DFP cars. WO thought these could be improved by using aluminium pistons and modifying the engine’s camshaft which saw such a performance boost that the DFP broke several records at Brooklands in 1913 and 1914.
Bentley used this knowledge during WW1 via his commission in the Royal Naval Air Service convincing aero engine manufacturers such as Sunbeam in Wolverhampton, Gwynnes of Chiswick (makers of the French Clerget engine under licence) and, notably, Rolls-Royce to convert their engines to run with lighter aluminium pistons.
He was later given a team to make his own BR1 and BR2 rotary aero engine at the Humber factory in Coventry. In recognition WO Bentley was awarded an MBE and granted £8000.
WO used this bonus to form Bentley Motors Limited in 1919 in a small factory in Cricklewood. His team included Frank Burgess of Humber, Harry Varley of Vauxhall and Col Clive Gallop. His aim was to design a high quality sporting tourer of 3-litres capacity. With four cylinders and four valves per cylinder, a single overhead camshaft with bevel-geared shaft drive, certain features were derived from a Grand Prix Mercedes confiscated by Bentley on the outbreak of war.
The 3-litre touring Bentley was one of the fastest and most reliable cars of its day. A win at Le Mans in 1924 cemented Bentley’s reputation for speed and reliability. WO increased the size of his engines to 4 1/2-litres, 6 1/2-litres and 8-litres to compete with the carriage trade of Rolls-Royce.
Disaster struck on 10th July 1931 when a Receiver was appointed after dwindling sales at the height of the Depression and the withdrawal of WO’s wealthy backers. Rolls-Royce topped a rival bid at the last minute. All later Bentleys were made under the auspices of Rolls-Royce with limited input from WO.
WO was a magnet for skilled engineers, poaching Stewart Tresllian, Frank Stark, Reg Ingham and Donald Bastow to work on projects at Lagonda. Their Lagonda V12 engine was a technical masterpiece but lacked sufficient development before another war intervened. Postwar, WO was called-in to inject some life into Armstrong Siddeley by their engineering team but the company’s autocratic owner vetoed most of what WO envisaged.
Author: Brian Palmer