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The company was founded in 1919 by engineer W.O. Bentley in north London. Early cars were praised for their reliability, and were successful in motorsport. Bentley won the Le Mans 24 hours race in 1924 and again from 1927-1930. Most of the racing was done by the “Bentley Boys”, a famous group of wealthy British amateur drivers.
Like many companies, Bentley was virtually wiped out in the Great Depression, and was sold to Rolls-Royce in 1931. Production stopped for two years and the London factory was sold off. When production restarted from the Rolls-Royce factory in Crewe in 1933, new Bentley models were little more than rebadged Rolls-Royces.
Parent company Rolls-Royce collapsed in 1970 as a result of problems in its aero engine business. The motor car business, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, was split from the aero division, and after a decade of independent operation was bought by Vickers in 1980. By this time, Bentley had been virtually ignored for many years and its models made up less than five per cent of overall Rolls-Royce production. Vickers rejuvenated the Bentley brand and provided greater differentiation to Rolls-Royce models, and by the early 1990s the production split between Rolls-Royce and Bentley was virtually even.
By 1997, Vickers decided to sell its automotive business. A bidding war between BMW and Volkswagen for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars eventually ended up with BMW owning the Rolls-Royce brand and Volkswagen owning Bentley (plus the Crewe site and all company assets).
Under Volkswagen’s ownership, Bentley has massively increased its production levels.From a starting point of only 400-odd units in 1998, production has steadily grown to exceed 10,000 units in 2013, with 2016 expected to increase significantly once again thanks to the introduction of the new Bentayga SUV model. In the UK, Bentley delivered just under 1,400 new vehicles in 2015.
For a while, some models were built at a Volkswagen factory in Germany to keep up with demand. As of late 2016, the Bentley Mulsanne and Continental models are built in Crewe, while the new Bentayga SUV is built alongside the Audi Q7, Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne in Slovakia.