Powered by a 487-cubic-inch straight-six engine, W. O. Bentley’s run of just a hundred 8 Litre chassis represents the pinnacle of what Bentley Motors was all about before its takeover by Rolls-Royce. Bentley’s ambition to build a 100-mile-per-hour luxury car resulted in an overbuilt engineering masterpiece that cost around half a million dollars in today’s money thanks in part to a coachbuilt body. You may think that was reasonable considering that a 2021 Rolls-Royce Phantom starts at $463,350, yet the 8 Litre came out during The Great Depression, while nine decades later, Bentley under Volkswagen had to discontinue its flagship Mulsanne due to low sales.
Of the 100 Bentley 8 Litre cars, only 65 featured the longer, 156-inch wheelbase, which made these models the largest car in the early 1930s after the Bugatti Type 41 Royales. In terms of performance, Bentley left Rolls-Royce far behind, competing more with Duesenberg’s J cars on paper. With a lighter, open body, the 220-horsepower Bentley could offer up to 125 mph in a reliable fashion, which led to many four-doors being cut up later to create replica tourers. Of the 78 surviving 8 Litre Bentleys, Jay Leno’s garage has three—sort of. This highly original Mulliner sedan that previously served as a chicken coop in Chile, an open car, and the street legal twin-turbo hot rod Leno’s team built on a much smaller 3 Litre chassis.
As a six-time Le Mans champion manufacturer by then, W. O. Bentley believed there was no replacement for displacement. Having started out with a five-year apprenticeship at Great Northern Railways, the company founder became the pioneer of aluminum pistons for aero engines before setting up his automotive venture just as the dust had settled after World War I.
Bentley of today may be building wonderfully executed new Blowers to 1929 specifications, yet W. O. Bentley was never a fan of forced induction, having achieved all his racing success with torquey naturally-aspirated engines instead. The 1930 8 Litre was his largest and final Bentley design, being a single-overhead-cam with four valves per cylinder, twin-spark ignition, a one-piece cast-iron block with no head, a crankcase made of the magnesium alloy called Elektron, and cams driven by conrods instead of a chain, or a belt. Bentley also added a stronger, non-synchro four-speed gearbox, a 25-gallon fuel tank, servo-vacuum-assisted mechanical brakes, and all the refined luxury features one could have expected for the money.
After the bankruptcy, Rolls-Royce turned its feared competitor into a second-tier brand, while W. O. Bentley landed at Lagonda to create its brand-new V12 engine. Today, this unmodified and fully restored 1931 Bentley 8 Litre Mulliner is one of Jay Leno’s favorite rides, and a pre-war car certainly capable of over 100 miles per hour, or a cross-continent drive at 80. Choose this or a Duesenberg, and you shall have no problem keeping up with modern traffic.
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