The Reinvention of Bentley: A History Lesson and a Look Forward

I’m cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway back toward Los Angeles. I’m not behind the wheel, however; I’m lounging in the back of Bentley’s first plug-in hybrid sedan, ensconced in leather and wood veneer that’s as thick as a yacht’s hull. L.A. traffic means there’s plenty of time to consider how far Bentley has come in the past 103 years — and just how preposterously far it must go if it’s to achieve its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2030. Since its founding in 1919, Bentley Motors has seen many ups and downs, but it’s never faced a challenge quite like this.

The story began after WW1, when 31-year-old Walter Owen Bentley turned his attention from making rotary engines for England’s Sopwith Camel fighter planes back to his pre-war passion: making and racing fast cars. The company’s first factory was in a North London suburb, and from its gates came a steady stream of machines favoured by “enthusiastic motorists” and fat-cat playboys with little to do after the war besides race cars, drink, and party — not necessarily in that order. A group of them became known as the “Bentley Boys,” and they were as notorious for making headlines off the racetrack as on it. 

In the 1920s, the company had a penchant for building some of the most advanced engines of the day, which were then stuffed into enormous sports cars. Ettore Bugatti, upon seeing a Bentley, described it as “the fastest truck in the world” — perhaps a little envious that no Bugatti made it into the 1924 Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race, which was won by a team driving a Bentley 3 Litre. “The policy was simple,” W.O. Bentley said. “We were going to make a fast car, a good car, the best in its class.” It’s worth noting that, among the companies whose cars finished Le Mans that year, only Bentley is still a going concern.

But making good cars, let alone the best in class, is easier said than done. The past 103 years haven’t always been kind to Bentley. It went into receivership as the market for big luxury cars dried up almost overnight in the 1930s. Rolls-Royce bought the company and, gradually, Bentleys became little more than Rollers with a different grille. In the 1970s, when Rolls-Royce nearly went bankrupt, Bentley bounced around under various owners until finally coming under the Volkswagen Group umbrella in 1998. But not even that was smooth sailing. “During the last 20 years under VW Group ownership, [Bentley] tried to go more performance-oriented, to get back to some of the origins of the brand,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Detroit-based auto industry research firm Guidehouse Insights, in an interview. But modern customers didn’t necessarily associate Bentley with its racing exploits of the 1920s and ’30s. “[Bentley] struggled a bit [to] find their way, trying to define what Bentley is.”

Before the pandemic, as sales failed to meet the impossibly lofty expectations set by VW Group brass, some key shareholders publicly expressed their displeasure with Bentley’s meagre profitability. A new CEO, Adrian Hallmark, took over in 2018 and set about streamlining the business and refocusing it on what it was good at: old-school craftsmanship, wood veneer, and refined leatherwork.

In 2020 and 2021, Bentley posted back-to-back years of record sales, thanks largely to the popularity of the Bentayga SUV, the outstanding new Continental GT coupe and cabriolet, and the sublime new Flying Spur sedan. The Spur and Continental strike an especially beautiful balance between comfort and handling, once again making them cars for “enthusiastic motorists” and socialites alike.

bentley concept car

But Bentley didn’t stop there. In 2020, Hallmark announced he was going to make Bentley — the grand old firm that made more V12 engines than any other — carbon-neutral by 2030. What he envisioned was “a new, sustainable, wholly ethical role model for luxury.” By 2026, Bentley will exclusively offer plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles, and only electric vehicles by 2030. To make that happen, Hallmark announced earlier this year that the company will invest £2.5 billion ($4.1 billion) to reinvent itself for a sustainable future, transforming both its products and its factory in Crewe, England. The first two plug in hybrids, the Bentayga and the Flying Spur, are already in showrooms, and the company’s first EV is in development and slated for release in 2025, with four more EVs following over the next four years. “Luxury brands in the future will be sold more on values, not only on the product itself,” says Christophe Georges, president and CEO of Bentley Motors Americas.

bentley history beyond 100

Our first experience in an electric Bentley was superb. What the car lacks in thundering big-bore V8 power, it more than makes up for with smooth electric torque. Perhaps W.O. Bentley — an unabashed proponent of big internal combustion engines — wouldn’t approve, but there’s no doubt that the new $254,800 Flying Spur plug-in hybrid is the best car in its class. In fact, it occupies a class all its own. With roughly 35 kilometres of electric-only driving range, much of the trip back through L.A. to Beverly Hills was done on battery power alone. The Spur’s twin-turbo V6 only kicked in when more acceleration was needed. We can confirm the only thing better than a big Bentley sedan is a big guilt-free Bentley sedan. If the firm can pull off its ambitious sustainability plan, Bentley’s second century should be even better than its first.