It’s almost a century since one of the world’s great motoring names — Bentley — got it start.

July 10, 2019 marks Bentley’s 100th year of operation and the company is celebrating this milestone, with memories of the life of founder W.O. Bentley.

Walter Owen Bentley – or W.O. as he is fondly known – was born in 1888 in London, when horse and carriage was still the most common form of transport.

One of nine children, he was just 16-years-old when he left school and to start an apprentice with the Great Northern Railway.

It cost his father the not inconsiderable sum of £75 to enrol his steam-obsessed son as a Premium Apprentice in Doncaster, in the north of England.

W.O. earned 25 pence a week as he trained for five years on the job, although it was 18 months before he got to work on the steam engines he loved.

Towards the end of his apprenticeship, he decided to explore a new area of transport, turning his attention to the rapidly improving internal combustion engine.

W.O. was so enthused, he began racing motorcycles at events around the country, including the famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.

He went into business with one of his brothers importing French cars, before secretly creating a new alloy of aluminium and copper to produce lighter weight pistons for his own racing car.

Then the First World War intervened,

Commissioned into the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), W.O. patriotically shared his lightweight piston idea to create a more powerful and reliable version of the RNAS’s existing aircraft engine.

Impressed with his efforts, his superiors allowed him to set about designing a new rotary aircraft engine from scratch.

He was afforded every available facility to experiment, instructing engineers at the Humber plant in Coventry, England.

The engine was a great success and was soon in mass production for the War effort.

That unit became the favourite engine for mounting in the naval version of the famous fighter-scout aircraft, the Sopwith Camel.

The single-seat bi-plane flew into the history books and is one of the best-known aircraft of the 20th century.

The engine was initially known as the Admiralty 1 but later it was later renamed The Bentley Rotary 1 subsequently became the BR1 – a fitting tribute to W.O.’s inventiveness.

W.O. went on to develop a more powerful 230bhp version called the BR2, a nine-cylinder unit which was fitted to aircraft in great numbers in 1918.

The engine was still in use when the War ended and continued to be used in many parts of the world for years to come.

It was the most powerful rotary engine in military service.

Having demonstrated a natural ability as an innovative engineer, W.O. took his first steps into the automotive world when the War was over, using his skill to create a car bearing his own name.

When hostilities ended, he was presented with a Commission of Awards To Inventors grant of £8,000 for his vital contribution to the War effort, as well as an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

In 1919 W.O. used that capital to fulfil a dream and create his own car company.

His guiding principle to create: ‘a fast car, a good car: the best in its class’ — a goal he would achieve time and time again.

W.O. Bentley died shortly before his 83rd birthday on August 13, 1971. He was married three times and survived by his third wife, Margaret, but had no children.

Fast forward and the latest Mulsanne W.O. Edition by Mulliner pays homage to the founding father of the company, with a genuine piece of Bentley history in every car.

Inside each of the 100 limited edition Mulsannes, a slice of the original crankshaft taken from W.O. Bentley’s personal 8 Litre – the last model he designed for Bentley Motors back in 1930 – is displayed.

To celebrate its centenary, Bentley has a year-long series of special activities planned, with celebrations at events around the world.

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Riley

Chris Riley has been a journalist for almost 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.