Bentley marks centenary of first ever customer car

Two years after the company was founded Bentley delivered it’s first customer car. A 3-Litre delivered to racing enthusiast Noel van Raalte in 1921, Sold for £1,150.

Nov 19, 2021

Bentley’s Chassis No. 1 featured lightweight aluminium coachwork and brass brightwork and was praised by the UK’s Autocar magazine.

For those who know the Bentley story, it is a brand steeped in racing heritage. And 100 years ago, the first Bentley customer vehicle was sold. Since then, over 200,000 ground-breaking Bentley cars built in a 102-year history and an astonishing 84 per cent of all Bentleys ever made for the UK market are still on the road today.

That first customer car was a 3-Litre model registered in 1921 as KS 1661 was purchased by wealthy Londoner Noel van Raalte, who enjoyed a passion for racing exceptional motor cars and whose family owned Brownsea Island, near Poole Harbour.


Originally bought for £1,150, the first production Bentley ordered was manufactured in Cricklewood, North London, and featured lightweight aluminium coachwork and brass brightwork. Introduced by company founder, W.O. Bentley, the 3-Litre became an immensely popular motor car, exhibiting the build quality and engineering prowess that has been a hallmark of the company ever since. In fact, in Bentley’s 102-year history, over 200,000 cars have been handcrafted, 97 per cent of which have rolled off the Crewe production line since the company moved in 1946.    


While van Raalte was the first customer to order a Bentley, somewhat strangely he wasn’t the first to take delivery. That honour belongs to Ivor Llewellyn, who in August 1921 took delivery of the first of three 3-Litres that he bought. This was the third production chassis, and still exists today as the oldest surviving production (non-Experimental) Bentley in the world.


This history of exceptional Bentley craftsmanship helped ensure a 3-Litre went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1924 and 1927. It was the start of an epic run of five Bentley victories in eight years at the event, with the legendary Bentley Boys dominating the circuit. Somewhat fitting of the 3-Litre’s dominance in the country’s iconic race, van Raalte’s Chassis No. 1 was last heard of racing in France in 1931.

In a review of the 3-Litre in the January 1920 issue of The Autocar, kindly supplied by the recently-launched Motoring Archive, the writer perfectly summed up the new Bentley: “For the man who wants a true sorting type of light-bodied car for use on a Continental tour the three-litre Bentley is undoubtedly the car par excellence.”


The magazine review goes on to poetically add: “Cars undoubtedly have a personality to the real enthusiast, to whom they are not mere collections of steel and aluminium, but, animal like, show their spirit just so soon as the clutch bites home and feeling comes to the driver through the narrow steering wheel rim.”   


Subsequently, having recently collected the 3-Litre, van Raalte gave a glowing review to the Editor of The Autocar, saying: “The reason I bought a Bentley was because of its exceptional performance in all respects of the road. Such features as steering, suspension, holding the road, brakes, change speed, and engine efficiency, leave nothing to be desired, and are, in my opinion, to be found to a higher degree in this make of car than any other of the many makes I have owned or used.”   


The 3-Litre model quickly helped establish the Bentley brand and was followed by the 6 ½, 4 ½, 8 and then the 4-Litre – some of the most distinctive vintage cars of the pre-War period.


And now in 2021 the company moves towards an exciting future, Bentley’s signature craftsmanship and engineering capabilities continue to be core to the brand. A hundred years since van Raalte took delivery of the first production 3-Litre, Bentley remains at the cutting edge of luxury car building.