Barker Boattail: 1931 Bentley 8 Litre

This imposing Barker-bodied Bentley 8 Litre was one of the highlights of yesterday’s kickoff of the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic – a drive from Washington down to the famed Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance​, which is next week.

Bentley will be one of the celebrated makes this year, since Bentley Motors, Ltd. was founded 100 years ago in August of 1919 (actual cars took a few more months) and no doubt the 8 Litre will be a star – but the big 8, grandest of all vintage Bentleys, was not quite like the other Cricklewood (the location of the original factory) cars. It was also the last car of the original Bentley line.

Bentley 8 Litre by Barker

Within in a decade the make was legendary – by 1929 3-Litre, 4-1/2-Litre, and Speed Sixes had racked up four Le Mans wins, with a Speed six earning another in 1930.

All those race wins and the exploits of various “Bentley Boys” like Woolf “Babe” Barnato, Tim Birkin, and Dr. Dudley Benjafield painted the make’s image as one of hard-core performance, but as the lineup grew to include the 6-1/2L, W.O. Bentley also built cars with an increasing eye towards luxury buyers.

Bentley’s finances were always shaky and after 1924 the company survived mainly because of periodic cash injections by Mining-heir and financier Barnato. Eventually, Barnato had spent over £200,000 keeping the company afloat.

Last, and possibly best.

To expand the range and hopefully make Bentley profitable, the 8 was to be a big luxury car aimed squarely at Daimler and Rolls-Royce. The 8 was developed in 1929-30, and was formally introduced at the Olympia show that October.

A massive machine, it had a rigid new “double drop” (to lower the center of gravity) ladder frame offering a 12’ or 13’ wheelbase. Suspension, steering, and brakes were evolved from the 6-1/2, but refined for a bigger, smoother car. At the heart was a 7,983-cc 200-230hp straight six enough to do 100+ mph, as confirmed by The Autocar.

It was world’s fastest sedan (and the fastest Bentley for the next 23 years) and a masterpiece – it genuinely worried Rolls-Royce. It came too late, however, to reverse the tide – with the economy in meltdown after October of 1929, just 63 were sold before Bentley went bankrupt in the summer of 1931.

W.O. Bentley later credited the 8 Litre for postponing the inevitable for about 9 months – the profits from the cars went directly into keeping the company going but eventually the tap ran out, despite a last minute effort at mating the 8 Litre chassis with a 4L Ricardo engine for a very compromised, but cheaper, alternative that Bentley himself hated.

In all, 100 were made before Rolls-Royce ceased production of the cars and closed Cricklewood.

The Barker Boattail

Bentley 8 Litre by Barker

8 Litres are consequently very rare, but few are as rarified as this one, chassis YR5099. Most 8 Litres were stolid, long-wheelbase sedans – just 21 had open bodies from new. This one-off boattail roadster was built by Barker for a Mr. P.M. Stewart in the summer of 1931, and the body was likely inspired by similar Barker Speed 6 from 1930.

This car eventually got a different body (many vintage Bentleys have been through more than one), but the boattail was restored in the 1980s.

Rolls-Royce took over, scuttling a proposed takeover by Napier, who Bentley felt would have been a better partner, and moved the enterprise to Derby. The new management froze W.O. Bentley out of much of the day-to-day activity and keeping him far away from the factory until he finally quit in 1935.

Not all of the cars that drive the Motoring Classic will enter the concours, but all will venture there. Later today, they’ll be an album featuring some more of the cars from yesterday’s start.

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