Unless you know about the Bentley Boys, you can't fully appreciate Bentley Motors. When WO Bentley started building cars back in 1920 he was shrewd enough to realise that the best way to demonstrate to potential buyers that his cars were rugged and robust was to race them.
The gents who owned the first Bentleys were rich, decadent and bored. They approached the emerging golden age of motoring as their children's generation would strive to adventure into space. There was an air of optimism. Anything, it seemed, was possible. Bentley's cars attracted aristocrats, playboys and hedonists, gentlemen racers who craved the adrenaline they'd experienced in The Great War, and who gravitated to Bentley because it was the best.
"These were often larger than life characters... well known to the public and the social icons of the day," says Richard Charlesworth, head of the Bentley Heritage Collection. "Whatever they got up to was newsworthy. They had a reputation for a devil-may-care, very competitive attitude that rubbed off on the cars as well."
"It was their sense of fun, adventure and a desire to push the limits that makes them so important," adds Paul Jones, head of product management at Bentley Motors. "With their style and flair, men like Birkin, Barnato, Davis and Duff made Bentley a dominant force on the track. They were the original generation of dashing British drivers who mixed bravery and brilliance in equal measure."
Even their names were rakish. Woolf "Babe" Barnato inherited his father's diamond fortune at a very young age. He became a very accomplished racing driver and won at Le Mans three times, a record yet to be broken. He later invested in the Bentley company, saving it from bankruptcy and became its chairman in 1926. Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin was an ex Royal Flying Corps fighter ace from the First World War and a very accomplished driver. It was Birkin who developed the supercharged 4.5-litre "Blower" Bentley - with his own money and against WO Bentley's wishes - to fend off the threat of the supercharged Kompressor Mercedes. Dr J Dudley "Benjy" Benjafield - nicknamed "The Bald Chemist" - was a bacteriologist by day and one of the few Bentley Boys who worked for a living. He raced cars for fun and was so good behind the wheel of his Bentley 3.0-litre that WO invited him to race for the company.
The wealthiest was Glen Kidston. A former submarine commander in the Royal Navy - on one eventful day in 1914 he was torpedoed three times in the same morning - he was a record-breaking aviator as well as a talented motor racing driver. Meanwhile, SCH "Sammy" Davis was a racer and journalist - he was sports editor of The Autocar - and John Duff was a Canadian racing driver who had begun his career racing at Brooklands.
The only one who wasn't born into a wealthy family, Frank Clement, was WO's test driver. Admired for his driving skills, he achieved Bentley's first racing success, winning in EXP2 at Brooklands.
This cast of characters were all united by their love of speed and the cut of a fine suit. When it came to racing they were fiercely competitive.
"These were guys who were very independently-spirited but pulled together to create an unbeatable team," says Charlesworth. "When they won races or achieved speed records, reports of these exploits would be front page news. They were very much the heroes of the day."
In 1929 Bentley dominated Le Mans (it was placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th). But even then the Bentley Boys won in style.
"The team orders where to not show the full potential of the new Speed Six car that went on to win," explains Charlesworth. "But the drivers didn't like that and said they wanted to go flat out. One of the drivers suggested that if he had to go at anything less than full throttle then he would stop off and have a drink on the way. When he was told to obey orders, this was what he did. He stopped off and had a glass of champagne, then rejoined the race and carried on. Bentley was the team manager and could influence their behaviour [but] they were stubborn and in many cases they owned the cars they were driving.
"These guys lived life in the fast lane. They raced hard and partied hard. There was a corner in Grosvenor Square known as "Bentley Corner" where they all had their London apartments. It was said the police used to turn a blind eye to the parties there. They used to drive their cars to Le Mans... stop off at Leeds castle - the home of Dorothy Paget, a sponsor of the race team - for a black tie dinner, then drive on to the race, win it and drive back again."
The personalities, racing successes and lifestyle of the fabulous Bentley Boys helped put the company on the map. But their involvement wasn't planned, it evolved (it was the media, for example, who named them).
Through their exploits, the Bentley Boys helped WO Bentley perfect his "no compromise" way of building road cars. At a time when, as writer Anthony Bird put it, racing car engines were built on "air and optimism", with designers concerned primarily with making large engines as lightweight as possible, WO's approach was to improve performance by adding more capacity. "His philosophy was that you have a big capacity engine operating at fairly low revs and producing maximum power at low revs so that the engine is never really stressed. He didn't agree with putting an engine under greater pressure," says Charlesworth.
And so they remain: Bentleys today are still big, fast and bloody loud - there really is no other car quite like it.
The Bentley Boys, too, are still doing their bit: "Our customers like the fact they are buying into this bloodline," says Charlesworth. "They love the stories and the pedigree. They love its wonderful provenance - it's one of the reasons they buy a Bentley, this attitude that you live life to the full, that you work hard and play hard."
This article featured in our <a href="/bespoke/december">December issue of Bespoke</a>.