Early Days

 Early Days

A brief story by John Hamperl                                                    

The early life of W. O. Bentley

There is some dispute about the date but, nowadays, it is generally accepted that the petrol-engined motorcar was invented by Karl Benz in 1886.  Two years later – 1888 – an event occurred in Highgate that was to have a tremendous effect on the, as yet, unimagined world of motoring.   A boy was born into a family of eleven.  That boy was Walter Owen Bentley.

W. O., as he eventually became universally known, did not have a particularly distinguished career at school, except, perhaps, on the cricket field; which immediately identified him as a pretty decent chap.


He developed a great love of steam locomotives and the railways.  When he left school at the age of sixteen, he persuaded his father to pay £75 to have him enrolled as a Premium Apprentice at the Great Northern Railway works in Doncaster.  This meant that he would receive first class training.  He studied hard at the same time as learning “hands on” engineering on the shop floor.  During this time he was paid the princely sum of five shillings (25 pence) per week. 

Much to his disappointment, they did not let him near a steam engine until he had over 18 months training – and then he was only given the simplest of jobs!  A comment he made in later life was that “the underside of a car after a few thousand miles is as hygienic as an operating theatre, compared with a locomotive in for overhaul”!

Sometimes, he could go home at weekends, when he would travel down to Kings Cross and, return to his digs in Doncaster by the last train on Sunday evening.  He claimed that the last year of his apprenticeship was one of his happiest times as he was now achieving his (upto then) lifelong ambition of becoming an Engine Driver.  Well, he was not actually the driver but was working regularly on the footplate between Kings Cross and the North as a Fireman.  Bliss!  It kept him fit, too.  A round trip to Leeds and then back to Kings Cross from Wakefield non - stop, was around 400 miles and used about seven tons of coal.  Every lump had to be shovelled!

He was now nearly 22 and as his apprenticeship drew to a close he realised that, much as he loved the railways, his career prospects were not in keeping with his ambitions.  He was too far down the pecking order, promotion would be incredibly slow and he estimated that he would never be able to earn more than £250 per annum.  He began to explore an extraordinary and heretical idea.  Maybe the future lay not with steam but with the rapidly improving internal combustion engine. 

 W O was the youngest of 9 children but he was still the very first Bentley ever to own any type of motor vehicle.  Soon a couple of his elder brothers caught the bug and copied him.  One had a Quadrant, similar to W O’s; the other bought a Triumph which W O considered to be far superior.  The brother known as A W, who had the Triumph, casually announced that he was going to ride from John O’ Groats to Land’s End and try to beat the record.  W O was amazed, as A W was not in the least bit mechanically minded and would need an awful amount of luck.   There were no bypasses in those days, poor roads, very few signposts or streetlights and the lighting on the Triumph was primitive, indeed.  Needless to say A W took the record with ease, in a manner that, nowadays would be called “laid back”.   The following year A W, with the other brother (H M) took the same record for motorcycles with sidecars!      W O took his Quadrant to Doncaster by train and used it up there, until it occurred to him to ride it back to London one Saturday.  He arrived home, worn out and filthy, at about 9.00pm.  This was no mean feat as his top speed was not much more than 30mph and the A1, or The Great North Road as it was then called, passed through every town and tiny village on the way. Enthusiasm now gripped the three brothers and they joined a number of motoring clubs.  Before long A W persuaded W O to enter the London – Edinburgh Trial.  This was very ambitious as it was a major event, drawing works teams with professional drivers.  Needless to say, the ever lucky A W, sailed through the event with flying colours and won a Gold Medal.  W O, however, had a puncture at about Morpeth but was helped out by a passing enthusiast from Newcastle.  He broke down again with a fractured contact-breaker wire, within sight of Edinburgh.  To repair it required a major operation as it was sited in such an awkward place.  He managed it and arrived at the final control with seconds to spare and so, he also qualified for a Gold Medal.  This was to be the first of many.           As soon as he could afford it he bought a 5hp twin Rex, which was no more reliable than the Quadrant but much quicker.  Soon he had Gold Medals in the London – Plymouth – London and London to Land’s End – and – back Trials. W O began to try to modify and tune his engines to coax a few more mph out of his bikes.  He also worked on his driving techniques, particularly cornering.  His favourite piece of road was from Barnet to Hatfield, where he achieved speeds on the public road that horrified even him in later life.  He wanted to race.  Trials were OK but…  He was accepted, possibly to his surprise, as an entrant in the 1909 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, against some of the most experienced professional riders in the world.  When the great day came, he skidded on a wet patch on the first lap and crashed.  Fortunately, he was not seriously hurt, otherwise the history of Motor Racing and the British Motor Industry might have been different.    He rode in the Isle of Man TT race the following year, this time riding an Indian, which was a superb American bike.  Unfortunately, this time he had to retire with the failure of a brand new tyre that shredded on lap 2.  However, he did have the satisfaction of beating some of the best riders up the Snaefell Hill-climb.  Soon…  He gets a proper job, goes into business and starts racing cars!



The year is now 1913 and you will remember that W O and his brother, H M had gone into business importing a French car made by Doriet, Flandrin et Parent – the DFP. They were becoming successful and their relationship with the manufacturer was very good indeed, as they had never before sold so many cars to England. The story goes, that W O was in the DFP Paris office one day, when he noticed a little alloy paperweight on the desk of M. Doriet.  It was in the shape of a piston and was clearly a salesman’s give-away item.  In those days, pistons were not made of aluminium as it was not considered a suitable metal for use in engines.  Aluminium would melt at high temperatures and, anyway, was considered too weak.  Cast iron or steel was the standard. W O had a flash of genius.  If he could invent an alloy that was strong enough and that would not distort or even melt, when under hot and stressful conditions, he could have pistons that were much lighter.  Engines with aluminium pistons would be lighter and cooler, enabling engine speed to rise. He experimented at the foundry used by DFP and quickly arrived at the very simple formula of 88% Aluminium and 12% Copper.  It worked.  His alloy dissipated heat better, as well as being lighter than metals then currently in use.  He resolved to keep it secret for the time being. Very soon he was fitting his new pistons in his own competition car and destroying even the strongest opposition.   He was beating all comers and nobody knew why.  Of course, he did not tell them! In 1914, W O held the record in the 2 litre class at the Aston Clinton Hill Climb.  The Aston Hill Climb was discontinued in due course, so the record probably still stands.  As an aside, the “Aston” part of the name “Aston Martin” relates to the events held at Aston Clinton, which is  a village near to Aylesbury, about 45 miles to the north west of London.  

Although, just prior to the First World War, aluminium pistons were fitted to the sports versions of the DFP that W. O. and his brother sold in England, he seems to have managed to keep the secret of his success concealed from his rivals in the motor industry, as well as in motor sport.




When the war came, he offered his services to Commander Wilfred Briggs, RN, who was responsible for building up the engineering department of the Royal Naval Air Service. W O was quickly commissioned as a full Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, apparently with no formal naval training.

 Patriotically, he passed his secrets to the Royal Navy and was soon given the task of liaising with several motor manufacturers, many of whom were his former rivals, and persuading them to build aero engines for the RNAS, using – guess what – ALUMINIUM PISTONS.

His duties also included trouble shooting and he went to France a number of times to find out, first hand, from the pilots and ground crews of fighting squadrons what was going wrong with various aero engines under the stress of combat.  One type of engine in particular was causing great alarm as, under battle conditions it had a life of only about 15 hours before breaking up or, at least needing a major rebuild.  Pilots and observers (gunners) were dying as a result of engine failure.   The engine in question was the French Clerget, made, under license by Gwynnes of Chiswick.  Clergets were of an air-cooled rotary design.  
 W. O. was quickly able to identify that some of the problems were mainly due to overheating and subsequent distortion and/or seizure.  After much diplomacy some improvements were made.  One reads between the lines that the management of Gwynnes did not much like being told how to build their engines by this young whipper-snapper in uniform.

 Early in 1916 he was given orders to undertake engine work at Humbers in Coventry.   The engineers at Humbers, who were tired of building army bicycles and field kitchens, welcomed him with open arms.  He was given all the facilities he needed to experiment, build and develop an entirely new rotary engine of his own design. 

After a few early snags, the new engine was a great success; more powerful and far more reliable than the Clerget.  Very soon they were in production and ‘planes fitted with the new engine were reaching the front early in 1917.  It became the favoured engine for mounting in the naval version of that famous scoutplane (fighter), the Sopwith Camel.

Initially, W. O.’s engine was called “The Admiralty 1”, but after a while, their Lordships decided to name it “The Bentley Rotary 1”, which subsequently became “The B.R.1”.

Very soon, a bigger and even more powerful rotary engine was in production.  This developed some 200hp and became known as the B.R.2.  They were even more successful than the B.R.1. and were fitted in great numbers during 1918, notably to the Sopwith Snipe which was a successor to the Camel. 

The war ended.  Governments usually cancel military contracts very quickly when peace arrives.  Although the B.R.2 continued to be used in many parts of the world for several more years, British Government orders dried up.  Of the 7,300 BR2s that were ordered, only some 3,700 were delivered.  A few, (a very few) survive in museums to this day. 

On 1st April, 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps merged to form the Royal Air Force.  At the end of the war W.O. left the Services as a Captain, (Military, not Naval) in the R.A.F.  

His reward for his considerable contribution to the war effort and victory was a reluctant grant of £8,000 and a very modest MBE.

The war over.  It was time for  W O to  bring to fruition an idea that he had nursed for some time and set about building  the motor cars that have become famous throughout the world. 



 The W.O.Bentley Memorial Foundation, W O Bentley Memorial Building, Ironstone Lane, WROXTON, Banbury, Oxfordshire, OX15 6ED, England.  

Tel: +44(0)1295 738886, Fax: +44(0)1295 738811,     

Email: info@bdcl.org  or   ian.scott@bdcl.org


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