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Bentley - A Racing History.


David Venables.
ISBN 978 0 85733 021 5
Published 2011. (Hardback, 311 pages).
Review date March 2012.
Bentley's racing motor-cars

UK RRP 40.

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After starting out producing aero engines during the Great War, W.O. Bentley turned his attentions to the production of fine motor-cars. Prototypes of his first car, built in 1919, were soon to see action at the Brooklands circuit, and in 1923 the firm would make their debut at the Le Mans 24 Hour race, where mechanical misfortune denied them a likely win.
David Venables, author of many books relating to the early years of motoring, both on- and off-track, has put together the story of Bentley's racing activities, from the very early days through to recent times, when parent company Volkswagen returned Bentley to winning ways in 2003 with the Speed 8.
While numerous books have been published over the years about the Bentley company as a whole, with some also looking at the drivers that, through on-track battles, heightened awareness of the company's motors, there have been few if any in recent times that have covered the entire racing history of the firm, from day one, to their most recent foray at Le Mans. Venables' book therefore seeks to plug this omission, and does so with some style.
Over 311 pages, twenty-four chapters, and four appendices, the story is recounted, accompanied by a wealth of contemporary photographs of the cars, the drivers, and the environments in which they were prepared and raced.
W.O. Bentley's early years at school and into teenage life are dealt with in the first chapter, a time that saw him grow up and begin to take an interest in motoring and motorsport, initially on two wheels, before switching to four-wheeled transport, thanks to a Riley cycle-car, purchased in 1911, later followed by a Sizaire-Naudin which served for his daily commute.
The story of his involvement with the DFP motor-car, and the growth of his interest in the use and production of aluminium pistons, later employed in aero engines of his own design, is recalled. His engineering mind, and attention to detail, coupled with a continuing interest in motor racing, lead him to lay down plans for the production of his own, high quality, sporting car. Chapter three covers this period, accompanied as before with a cross-section of 1920's photographs of the prototype car (EXP1), its engine, and descriptions of contemporary cars that influenced W.O.'s thinking - the 1913 Coupe de L'Auto Peugeot of 1914 being just one.
Preparations for an entry in the revived Tourist Trophy of 1922 are dealt with in Chapter Four, as is the firm's entry to the Indianapolis 500 of the same year, both experiences feeding back valuable information to the factory, on which future designs and competition outings would be built. Brooklands would also become a regular home for racing Bentleys, as would Le Mans. W.O. was sceptical at the wisdom of subjecting any car to the rigours of a 24 hour endurance challenge such as that organised by L'Automobile Club de L'Ouest, but was talked into the idea finally, on the condition that a 1923 entry was private rather than factory-backed, with no support from the latter.
Victory at Le Mans would have to wait another year though; the 1924 entry was fully backed by the factory, with drivers Duff and Clement lined up to drive the car and win the race. Bentley motor-cars were now a force to be reckoned with at both domestic and continental motor racing venues alike.
Further competition successes would come the firm's way, but despite this the financial side of the business was looking much less rosy. In fact bankruptcy was looking ever more likely. Conversations with car maker William Morris, in a bid to prop up the ailing business, came to nothing. Woolf Barnato, a customer of Bentley's, saw the firm's potential and this led to the original company being wound up, and a new Bentley Motors being created from the ashes, Barnato as Chairman, and W.O. as Managing Director. With financial security in place, the company could continue on its way, with a busy road and race programme set in motion for the following years. The key races are described in full, each contributing to what was fast becoming a legendary British manufacturing story.
Bentley Boys such as Henry Birkin continued to fly the flag for company and country, but by 1928 the cars were beginning to fall behind the supercharged opposition. W.O. was against the idea, but Barnato saw the potential in supercharging and so the seeds were sown for a Villiers-equipped Bentley at Birkin's workshops, while W.O. concentrated his attentions on the unsupercharged factory Speed Sixes. The development and competition career of the "blower" Bentleys is then told in detail.
In 1930 the factory, despite having won only recently at that year's Le Mans, their fifth time, announced to the world their withdrawal from motor racing, citing that they'd learnt a tremendous amount which had aided the development of their road-car programme, and that little more could be gained from continued involvement, at least for the timebeing. Birkin though, an independent Bentley operator, would be continuing with his privately-owned supercharged 4.5 litre cars. The acquisition of Bentley Motors by Rolls-Royce also features as an important landmark in the former's often tumultuous existence.
Privately-entered Bentleys continued in motorsport throughout the 1930s, and chapter by chapter their story is told. Chapter twenty-two opens the story on racing Bentleys following WW2, a time when many pre-war leviathans were dusted down to compete, fuel allowing, at hastily-arranged meetings by enthusiasts keen to see a resumption in motor racing. Bentley motor-cars would make appearances at circuit meetings, sprints and hillclimbs, although all were private entries, the factory no longer being involved in competition activities, until that was 1998 when Volkswagen took over the company, and plans for a return to Le Mans began to bear fruit. The result of this was the EXP Speed 8. The car entered the 2001 Le Mans, where it finished third, one place higher than would be achieved in 2002. Bentley drivers though would occupy the top two spots on the podium at the 2003 event, a triumphant return to form for this former-British company. Team Bentley was subsequently disbanded, and at this moment in time there are no firm plans for a return visit...
As an in-depth portrayal of Bentley's racing exploits, the politics, the characters, and the ups and downs of the parent firm that so influenced the racing department over the years, this is a great read.
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