Walter Owen Bentley (1888-1971) was about as racy as his cars. The Bentley Drivers’ Club sanctifies him in a way he scarcely needs or perhaps deserves. As I wrote in The Sunday Times of 11 September 1988, he had been a flop at running his company, and Royce’s opinion of him was perhaps near the mark.
WO Bentley’s engineering was empirical rather than theoretical. A cornerstone of his reputation in 1920 was having made an indifferent and unreliable French aero engine into one of the most powerful used by the Allies in the First World War. He was not a mathematician, and the Bentley 3 Litre was the first time he had ever planned anything wholly original. He never claimed to be a designer. He had been “responsible for the design” of cars, which means he told formally qualified technicians what he wanted, and let them draw it up. Perceptive journalist and author Michael Frostick, who recognized humbug when he saw it, compared him with Enzo Ferrari, a motivator who knew what sort of car people wanted and led the team to achieve it.
Anthony Bird was more picturesque: “In the first years of the century racing car engines were composed of air and optimism encased in the least possible thickness of metal; designers were concerned primarily with making very large engines of the least possible weight, rather than with high specific output.” WO’s style was to make engines big rather than efficient. High compression ratios and fast crankshafts were too difficult.
WO made his engines light, with aluminium and magnesium alloy for the sump and camshaft housing, but was so concerned with strength and reliability elsewhere that, as Laurence Pomeroy, technical editor of The Motor and son of the distinguished Vauxhall designer pointed out, “…some items were grotesquely heavy such as the cam-action filler caps… yet the main chassis members came so far short of full capability (they were only 4in (10.16cm) deep) that they had to be buttressed by cantilevers. Racing Bentleys would have pedals and levers drilled for lightness, saving ounces, while pounds of metal were lavished at all four corners.”
Nowadays WO would have qualified for a knighthood. He managed an MBE, one rung below the OBE the Bentley Drivers award him. The secretive honours scrutiny committee of the 1930s was sensitive over private lives and while three marriages was OK (WO’s first wife Leonie Gore, whom he married on New Year’s Day 1914, died in the 1919 influenza epidemic) his second finished in divorce.
On 7 April 1920 WO aged 32 married 25 year old Audrey Morten Chester Hutchinson (Poppy) at Holy Trinity, Brompton. Racing driver Clive Gallop was best man and the couple moved to 7 Pelham Crescent, South Kensington. The marriage lasted until June 20, 1932 when Audrey sued for divorce. A decree nisi was granted on 12 December, becoming absolute on 15 June 1933, and WO moved to 54 Queen’s Gate, South Kensington.
On 31 January 1934 at he age of 45 WO married Margaret Roberts Hutton, 41, at Kensington Register Office. As Malcolm Bobbitt recounts, in his insightful WO Bentley The Man Behind the Marque, Breedon Books, 2003, The Times carried details of Mrs Hutton’s divorce, on the grounds of her frequent adultery with WO, and claims by her husband of £5,000 in damages. Supposing that the creator of the Bentley was wealthy turned out to be a mistake, however his brother was a partner in a good law firm, and the damages were reduced to £1,000.
Divorce proceedings at the time involved correspondence, detailing the couple’s residence at the Grosvenor Hotel, Victoria in May and June 1932, testimony that the BDC described as mere tittle tattle. WO Bentley died aged 83 on 13 August 1971. In 1989 Mrs Margaret Bentley died aged 98, having survived WO by 18 years. Rolls-Royce nurtured the Bentley as The Silent Sports Car for 60 years after 1934. German engineering recreated it as a Pan-European masterpiece of the 21st century.