Few high-profile luxury brands have as checkered and tenuous a history as Bentley. Founded in 1919 by W.O. Bentley, his cars quickly caught on with the British aristocracy who wanted to go racing. The group known as the “Bentley Boys” dominated European racing in the 1920s, setting world-speed records and winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times between 1924-1930. By 1931, the Great Depression had bankrupted Bentley, and it was absorbed by Rolls-Royce in an attempt to neutralize its competition. For decades, the brand languished, relegated to selling badge-engineered cars that were little different than their Rolls-Royce cousins. New ownership in the 1980s began a reboot of Bentley’s performance heritage that was kicked into high gear when the brand was separated from Rolls-Royce and sold to the Volkswagen Auto Group in 1998.
Since then, Bentley has re-committed to building big, luxurious performance cars with reckless abandon. The results have been an astounding success, with year after year of record-breaking sales numbers that make the bad old days feel like a long time ago. The 2015 Continental GT V8 S has journalists in Britain and America calling it the best Bentley ever, and shows how far the marquee has come in just two decades.
Bentley’s complicated past is filled willed with world-class performance cars that stand in stark contrast to the brand’s buttoned-down image. Here are the 10 cars that Bentley built its performance reputation on.
1. 1919-29: The Bentley 3 Litre
Unlike modern cars, the first Bentleys were sent unfinished to coach builders, where bodies could be built for the cars based on the owner’s specifications. While the Bentley could be outfitted as a proper touring car, W.O. Bentley and his buyers prized the 3 Litres for their world-class performance and then-unheard of ruggedness. Bentley also sent a road-ready 3 Litre to compete in the 1922 Indianapolis 500, where it finished a respectable 13th place. Their size and speed dominated European motorsports in the 1920s, which led Etorre Bugatti to famously claim that the big cars were nothing but “the fastest lorries [trucks] in the world.” Lorries they weren’t – 3 Litres won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1924 and 1927.
2. 1929-31: The 4½ Litre Blower Bentley
Bentley followed up the successful 3 Litre with the 4 1/2 Liter, which promptly won at LeMans in 1928. In 1929 the Bentley Boys got permission from the factory to modify and supercharge 55 cars to satisfy the Le Mans production requirements. The result was a shockingly radical car: A supercharged inline-four that produced an incredible 240 horsepower, disc brakes, a fuel tank moved to the rear of the car, and an aviation-grade wood and canvas body. The supercharger hung over the front axle, well in front of the radiator, and the entire front end was covered in chain-link mesh, giving the car a menacing, all-business look. The Blower Bentleys were too temperamental to win races, but they showed Bentley was willing to embrace new technology to give their cars the edge.
3. 1952-1955: The R-Type Continental Coupe
Following World War II, Bentley briefly returned to its 1920s racing glory with the R-Type Continental Coupe. Based on the conservative R-Type, the Continental’s streamlined shape was developed in a wind tunnel, and featured a radical all-aluminum body to keep weight down. The Coupe was also one of the first cars with tail fins, which engineers claimed aided stability at high speeds. The result was a two-ton grand tourer with a top speed of 117 miles per hour, and a car that is considered to be one of the most beautiful cars ever built.
4. 1985-1997: Bentley Turbo R
Bentley’s performance pedigree languished for decades under the ownership of Rolls-Royce, who seemed content selling a re-badged Rolls to Bentley brand loyalists. That changed when Rolls/Bentley were bought by Vickers, a British aerospace firm in 1980. The new owners quickly seized on Bentley’s sporting reputation, and began its transformation back to a sports brand. The 1985 Bentley Turbo R was the first step in regaining their performance pedigree. With an all-aluminum body and a 300 horsepower turbo-charged V8, the two-and-a-half ton R could do 0-60 in a shocking 6.7 seconds.
5. 1991-2003: Bentley Continental R
By 1991, Bentley was so confident in their performance cars that they brought back the legendary Continental nameplate for their new coupe. The Continental R was a significant break from Rolls-Royce, as it was Bentley’s first exclusive body since the 1960s. The coupe could go 0-60 in 6.6 seconds with a top speed of 145 miles per hour.
6. 1996-2002: Bentley Continental T
The Continental T looks very similar to the R, but looks can be deceiving. Built on a shortened wheelbase, the T sported flared arches, an engine-tuned aluminum dashboard reminiscent of the Blower Bentleys, a revised suspension, and was 200 pounds lighter than the R. The Result? 0-60 in 6.2 seconds, with a top speed of 155 miles per hour.
7. 2003-15: Bentley Continental GT
The first all-new Bentley released under new parent company Volkswagen, the Continental GT was a radical departure for Bentley, and proof that it was finally free of any Rolls-Royce influence. Built on the same platform as the Volkswagen Phaeton, The GT was powered by an Audi-based twin-turbo W12 engine that put out 552 horsepower and rocketed the big car from 0-60 in 4.7 seconds. A massive success, the Continental is now on its second generation and immensely popular, accounting for 57% of their sales in 2013.
8. 2003: Bentley Speed 8
As if to put an exclamation point on their sporting intentions, Bentley returned to Le Mans after a 68-year absence to reclaim their sporting reputation on the world stage. It was in new owner Volkswagen’s best interest to have Bentley regain its long-gone racing pedigree, and gave Bentley carte blanche to build a winner. The Speed 8 won in spectacular fashion at the 2003 24 Hours of Le Mans, taking first and second place, and announcing to the world that Bentley was back – and ready to race. Just 16 cars were built built between 2000-2003, and Bentley has let only one fall into private ownership. It sold in 2012 for $2,530,000.
9. 2014: Bentley Continental GT3-R
A decade after winning at LeMans, Bentley revealed the GT3, a track-only car to pick up where the Speed 8 left off. For a street-legal GT3 experience, Bentley has created the GT3-R. Bentley has taken their capable Continental, lightened it, lowered it, and created a grand tourer with a blistering 0-60 time of 3.6 seconds, making it the fastest Bentley ever.
10. 2015: Bentley Continental GT V8 S
The culmination of Bentley’s performance and luxury heritage as it approaches its centennial, the Continental GT V8 S is the perfect example of the 21st century Bentley. With a revised suspension and a 4.0 liter twin-turbo V8 engine, the car can comfortably seat four in an opulent wood and leather interior, go 0-60 in 4.3 seconds, and has a top speed of 192 miles per hour.
Despite a long and uneven history, Bentley has returned to its roots and is as committed to performance as it was when W.O. Bentley helmed the company. No longer considered a distant second banana to Rolls-Royce, it is now considered to be a sporty alternative to the storied brand. After a long time in the wilderness, Bentley is thoroughly back and creating some of the world’s best cars.