The Bentley Trail
It begins in the early morning gloom, the tires of the Bentley Flying Spur V8 S slapping softly on the cobblestones as we idle along a quiet back street in North London. It’s a journey that will take us 500 miles (805 km) across England and back almost 250 years to a man without whom it might never have been possible. We stop in front of a dark brick building with white window frames, two black garage doors, and a blue plaque on the wall. “This is the birthplace of the Bentley Motor Car,” it reads. “Number One was produced here in the year 1919.”
Back then, Chagford Street, just off Baker Street and around the corner from Madame Tussauds in Central London, was known as New Street Mews, and number 47 was a workshop. It was here, in September 1919, that Walter Owen Bentley fired up for the first time a prototype 3.0-liter, single overhead cam, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine with twin-spark ignition. Within three months the engine would be powering the first prototype Bentley car, EXP 1.
The youngest of nine children, W.O. Bentley grew up only a couple of miles from New Street Mews. After training as an engineer with the Great Northern Railway, he dabbled in racing, on two and four wheels, and in 1912 acquired the British import rights for French-made DFP cars. Less than a year after World War I ended in November 1918, he had formed Bentley Motors.
We amble through early morning London in the Flying Spur, first heading 6 miles (10 km) north to Oxgate Lane in Cricklewood, the site of the factory where Bentleys were built from 1922 to 1932. Then we head back down through Central London, past 28 Brook Street, Mayfair, where Henry Jervis Mulliner ran his coach-building business from 1900 to 1906. In 1957 H.J. Mulliner’s managing director, Arthur Talbot Johnstone, would name the elegant, coupélike four-door body his company created for the Bentley Continental after Clan Johnstone’s heraldic mascot—the Flying Spur.
It’s fascinating to wonder what W.O. would make of the Flying Spur V8 S. His ambition was simple: “To build a fast car. A good car, the best in its class.” The Flying Spur V8 S is both fast and good. Best in class? Of its rivals, the Mercedes-Maybach S600 delivers a better luxury car ride, and the Rolls-Royce Ghost more elegant luxury car proportions. But neither has quite the all-round capability and charisma of the Bentley; the V8 S, with 21 hp and 14 lb-ft more than the entry-level Flying Spur V8, is eclipsed only by its smoother, more powerful 12-cylinder siblings. That’s especially true of the car we’ll see later at the Bentley factory in Crewe, the new Flying Spur W12 S. It packs a mighty 621 hp and 605 lb-ft and is the first Bentley sedan in history with a certified top speed of more than 200 mph (322 km/h).
Woolf Barnato would have approved of a 200-mph (322-km/h) Bentley sedan. Barnato was a playboy millionaire, heir to a South African gold- and diamond-mining fortune. A keen sportsman—he raced powerboats, bred horses, and was a strong swimmer, a good shot, an amateur boxer—he bought his first racing Bentley in 1925. Within 12 months he owned the company.
Barnato became one of the Bentley Boys, a group of wealthy enthusiasts who drove their Bentleys hard and partied even harder. And by the late 1920s Ardenrun Hall, Barnato’s country house in leafy Surrey, south of London, was party central. Nothing remains of Ardenrun Hall today—the place burned to the ground in 1933—but we cruise the Flying Spur along the quiet lanes around where the house once stood, riding in the wheel tracks of snarling Blowers, imperious 8 Litres, and Barnato’s own glorious “Blue Train” Speed Six with its iconic coupé body by Gurney Nutting; they’re Bentley ghosts from a gilded age.
Storm Doris is lifting her skirts across England, with winds gusting to 94 mph (151 km/h), as we head north from Ardenrun. We pass two semis blown on their sides within 10 miles (16 km) of each other near Cambridge. Although Doris occasionally rocks the Flying Spur on its axles, inside it’s calm and comfortable as we lounge amid sumptuous gray and black leather, glossy piano-black wood veneers, and splashes of bright chrome. We’ll be OK if the storm closes the roads, opines Mrs. MacKenzie. There’s chocolate and a surprisingly good bottle of English sparking wine chilling alongside the cut-glass champagne flutes in the fridge behind the rear seat, one of almost $67,000 USD worth of options fitted to this particular car.
Northwest of Cambridge we pull off the motorway for a quick detour into the sleepy little village of Alwalton. Here, along Mill Lane and past a picture-postcard thatched cottage, was the childhood home of man whose part in the Bentley story was as important as W.O.’s—Henry Royce.
Even though they shared a passion for engineering, the two men couldn’t have been more different. W.O. was the son of a wealthy retired businessman and grew up in Victorian-era middle-class comfort. Royce’s father ran the mill in Alwalton, but the business failed, and the family had to move to London. Royce senior died in 1872, and young Henry, after only a year of formal education, had to go out to work to support the family.
Intriguingly, both men did engineering apprenticeships with the Great Northern Railway. W.O.’s father paid for a premium five-year apprenticeship in the GNR’s sheds in Doncaster, in the north of England. Royce’s aunt paid for his apprenticeship at GNR’s works in Peterborough, just down the road from Alwalton. But the money ran out after three years, and he ended up back in London working for the Electric Light and Power Company.
After buying a French-made two-cylinder Decauville car, the meticulous, perfectionist Royce decided he could do better. By 1903 he had designed and built his own engine, and his first car by 1904. Royce was introduced to the wealthy, aristocratic, entrepreneurial enthusiast Charles Rolls that year. Rolls died in 1910 in an airplane crash, but by 1931, even as the Great Depression ravaged the global economy, the company he founded with Royce was a successful maker of high-quality luxury cars.
Bentley, on the other hand, was in trouble. By early 1931 Woolf Barnato had decided even his fortune wasn’t large enough to sustain ongoing losses at Bentley. On July 10, the company went into voluntary liquidation. Worried by the impact of Bentley’s highly regarded 8 Litre model on Phantom II sales, Rolls-Royce launched a secret bid to buy Bentley. The deal was finalized on November 10, 1931, and much to W.O.’s shock and surprise, the assets Rolls-Royce now owned included his services.
Derby is still a Rolls-Royce town. There hasn’t been a Rolls-Royce or Bentley car built there since the early 1940s, but it’s still home to the Aerospace Division of Rolls-Royce plc, the engineering company that sold BMW the rights to the Rolls-Royce logo in 1998, foiling VW Group boss Ferdinand Piëch’s audacious bid to own both Rolls-Royce and Bentley. (When VW bought Rolls-Royce Motors from British engineering company Vickers, it acquired the Crewe factory, all rights to the Bentley brand, and rights to the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy mascot and the famed grille. But without the logo, which was owned by the aerospace company, it couldn’t call any car it built a Rolls-Royce.)
The main frontage of the Nightingale Road factory, which was built to produce the Silver Ghost in 1908, still stands. Now home to creative work spaces and community services for the Derby area, the massive red brick structure with carved stone facings impassively reflects the studied confidence of a Britain that once controlled an empire upon which the sun never set.
W.O. knew Nightingale Road. During World War I, before he’d established Bentley Motors, he’d worked with Rolls-Royce on aluminum piston technology for aero engines. He used experience gained while developing aluminum pistons to improve the performance of the DFP cars he’d sold and raced before the war. But he spent little time there after the Rolls-Royce takeover, his role limited to testing prototypes of a new line of Bentleys designed under the direction of Henry Royce. When his contract with Rolls-Royce ended in 1935, W.O. became technical director for Lagonda.
After World War II, production of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars was moved from Derby to a factory in Crewe that had built the V-12 Merlin engine that powered Spitfires and Lancaster bombers during the war. You can still see traces of wartime camouflage on the brick walls on the oldest parts of the factory. Look past the echoes of history, though, and you’ll see a gleaming state-of-the-art manufacturing facility—the result of massive investments by VW Group over the past 19 years.
Crewe produces all W-12 engines for the VW Group and assembles Continental GT, Flying Spur, Mulsanne, and Bentayga models. Parts of the factory are currently screened off as work proceeds on the assembly line for the all-new Bentley Continental GT, code-named BY634, which will be revealed at the Frankfurt show in September. What makes Crewe unique, though, is despite its high-tech systems and processes, it’s a factory where craftsmen and women still teach young apprentices to hand polish wood veneers, hand-stitch leather facings, and hand-finish raw body panels.
Four months ago I spent $270,000 USD of someone else’s money specifying a Flying Spur W12 S for Bentley’s U.S. media fleet, and today we’re here to see the car come off the line. Mixing and matching colors on a configurator or even spending—as I did—half a day in the commissioning suite at CW1 House in Crewe, comparing and contrasting paint and leather samples, is one thing; actually having the car built is a whole different level of commitment.
I closely watch Bentley designer Chris Cooke’s face as we walk over to the light tunnel on the final inspection line to see my Flying Spur for the first time. When he smiles, I’m relieved. The W12 S—finished in Extreme Silver with black wheels and accents, an interior trimmed in Damson (purple), Linen leather, and dark-tinted turned aluminum veneers—looks spectacular.
Crewe might be where the Bentley story ends for now, but we point the Flying Spur V8 S east, back across the country in the direction of the Yorkshire Moors, and the coastline beyond, to celebrate the accident of history that started it all.
We stay off the motorways as much as possible, using the sat nav to find the most direct route point to point. More than 17 feet long and 6 feet wide, the Bentley’s a big car to hustle between the hedgerows on the narrower lanes. But it devours the open, sweeping roads across the wild and windy moors with haughty disdain. In addition to extra muscle under the hood, the S specification delivers a touch more precision to the steering and body motions, thanks to retuned suspension. Thankfully that doesn’t come at the expense of ride quality when the air springs are left in the default setting. There’s noticeably crisper throttle response, too, especially with the eight-speed automatic switched to Sport mode.
The V8 S neatly splits the performance differential between the entry-level eight-cylinder Flying Spur and its 12-cylinder sibling: the 0–60-mph time of 4.6 seconds and 190-mph (306-km/h) top speed claimed for the V8 S are right between the regular V8’s 4.9 seconds and 183 mph (294 km/h) and the W12’s 4.3 seconds and 199 mph (320 km/h). But you’re still more aware there are fewer pistons under the hood than you are in a V-8 powered Continental GT. Even an engine pumping out 521 hp and 501 lb-ft of torque sweats a little when hauling around 5,329 pounds (2,417 kg) of luxury limousine.
We come off the top of the moors and down to sea, down to the ancient port of Whitby, overlooked by the ruin of a 13th-century Benedictine abbey. More than 120 years ago this brooding Gothic pile inspired Bram Stoker to write his epic horror novel, Dracula, and provided the backdrop for much of the action in the early chapters. At the base of the cliff is Tate Hill Sands, where the ship carrying Dracula ran aground, its crew missing and its captain lashed to the wheel. The 199 steps leading toward the abbey ruin up East Cliff are those up which Dracula, in the form of a black dog, ran after coming ashore. St. Mary’s Churchyard, in the shadow of the abbey, is where Lucy Westenra was attacked by the vampire.
And looking out over the view that gave the world Dracula is the statue of the man without whom there might never have been a Bentley: Captain James Cook
Born in nearby Yorkshire village, Cook moved to Whitby in 1747. From there, he learned his trade as a mariner on the colliers that plied the tricky Yorkshire coastline. When He joined the Royal Navy in 1755, his skills as a navigator and cartographer while mapping the mouth of the St. Lawrence River during the Seven Years War brought him to the attention of senior officers. Between 1768 and 1776, Cook would be sent on three voyages that would take him around the world, as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as the Antarctic Circle—incredible feats in an era when most people spent their whole lives within a handful of miles of where they were born.
In 1770, Cook sailed a converted Whitby collier named Endeavour up the eastern shore of a previously unknown landmass on the other side of the world. Eighteen years later, the British sent a ragtag collection of troops and convicts to establish a colony a few miles from where Cook had first come ashore. They called it New South Wales, the first of a series of colonies to be established in Terra Australis: Australia.
Barely 80 years after Cook first sighted the mysterious great southern land—allowing the British to claim and colonize it ahead of the French and the Dutch—another Yorkshireman named Thomas Greaves Waterhouse would announce the birth of a daughter, Emily, in Adelaide, the capital of the then 17-year-old colony of South Australia (and my hometown). Emily Waterhouse would later move to London, marry a British businessman who, like her father, had made a comfortable fortune in Adelaide, and give birth to a son in 1888.
She named him Walter Owen Bentley.