|A Brief Description of the Historical Background to the 1930's
The conclusion of the First World War and 4 years of grinding slaughter left a subdued Germany and a triumphant, if decimated, France and Britain. 10 million young men had died and a further 20 million had been wounded. During the 1920's there followed a period of rebuilding and also of extravagant good living in certain sections of society, known as the Roaring Twenties. Others were less fortunate and found themselves involved in the General Strike. There were many changes afoot in the UK: women getting the vote, problems in Ireland, technological advances. Slowly the established social order was adjusting to new norms but remained generally in tact, with privilege still reserved for the few and for the men. By 1925 in Italy Mussolini had become Prime Minister and then Dictator. In Germany national pride had been battered by defeat. It still remained, albeit constrained by the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany's Weimar Republic was led by von Hindenberg from 1925 to 1933, when at the age of 85 he appointed Hitler his successor as Chancellor.
One of the defining events of the late 1920s was, of course, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 after a period of what we know now to refer to as "irrational exuberance". The ensuing loss of wealth, consumer confidence, bank failures and restriction of access to capital precipitated depression in the USA and throughout the rest of the world. By 1932, unemployment in the USA reached 12 million, and was exacerbated by drought. F.D. Roosevelt was elected on the promise of a New Deal in 1933. By 1933 unemployment had reached 6 million in Germany. In 1935, in the UK 200 people marched from Jarrow to London to protest about unemployment. Economic conditions caused extensive hardship among the working classes and provided fertile soil from which nationalist parties gained strength in Europe while Isolationist policies were pursued in America. Outside Europe and North America, there were also beginnings of fundamental change: in India Ghandi was leading peaceful protests against British rule, with The Government of India Act being passed in London in 1935, allowing provincial councils to be established; in China the Long March of 100,000 communists led by Mao Tse Tung took place between October 1934 and October 1935, with Japan invading China as well.
Not all was doom and gloom: Jazz accompanied the Roaring Twenties, and the Big Band Sound the 1930's. The Bloomsbury Set flourished in the London of the Twenties. The Bauhaus School, founded in 1919 in Germany by Walter Gropius, led on to Art Deco from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930's. Le Corbusier flourished in France, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van de Rohe changed the face of many cities in the USA: The Chrysler building was completed in 1930, the Empire State Building in 1931. Transport was developing strongly, so that the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1938. The Hindenberg crashed in 1937. In 1938 the Queen Mary crossed the Atlantic in well under 4 days and the Queen Elizabeth was launched. Long distance flying by commercial aircraft was becoming common: Pan American started the first regular transatlantic flight in 1939. 1937 saw Frank Whittle's first jet engine. In 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together in Top Hat, Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess. JRR Tolkein published the Hobbit in 1937. In 1938 Errol Flynn starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood, while H G Welles' War of the Worlds caused panic when broadcast in the US. Jean Paul Satre wrote Nausea.
However, the whole of the western world was overshadowed first by the rise of communism in Russia in 1917 to 1919 and then in China, and by the rise of Fascism in the 1920's and 1930's. The background of wounded German national pride coupled with the distress of the Depression provided ideal conditions for Hitler's message to gain mass appeal in the first years of the 1930's. Mussolini had already paved the way. In 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor by an aged von Hindenberg. The development of fascist control of Germany was swift:
In 1933 the fire at the Reichstag was blamed on the communists, books by opposition elements and Jews were burnt, the first concentration camps were built. The Third Reich had begun. The Fascist/Falangist party was founded in Spain. Oswald Mosley had already founded the British Union of Fascists.
Bentley Motors launched their Silent Sports Car in October 1933 at the Olympia Motor Show to widespread acclaim.
1934 sees the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler's opponents are murdered by the SS. In 1935 Hitler renounces the Treaty of Versailles and starts to rearm Germany. The Nuremberg Laws make Jews second class citizens and signal the start of their persecution. Italy invades Ethiopia to pursue Mussolini's own territorial ambitions. In 1936 Jesse Owens wins four golds at the Berlin Olympics to the disgust of Hitler and German troops reoccupy the Rhineland. The Versailles Treaty is in tatters. Meanwhile Franco leads a rebellion in Spain at the head of the army against the Republican Government and so begins the Spanish Civil War.
After having sold over 1,100 3.5 litre cars in under three years, Bentley launched the revised 4.25 litre model.
In 1937 volunteers travel to fight against Franco's fascists in Spain and German planes bomb Guernica in support of Franco. Italy lends support, cementing the Rome-Berlin Axis treaty. Pablo Picasso paints his memorable picture as a memorial to the dead. The Nuremberg rally is held as an exhibition of Hitler's power. An attempted Nazi coup having failed in 1934, 1938 sees Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany. In September of that year Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement with Hitler, Mussolini and France, ceding the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia to Germany, as appeasement. There are widespread and orchestrated riots against Jews in Germany, the Kristallnacht.
Bentley launch the Overdrive model of the 4.25 litre car at the October Motor Show.
By March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia is occupied. In Spain Franco takes Barcelona and Madrid surrenders. Europe has by this time taken sides. When Poland is invaded on 1 September 1939, success of further appeasement is no longer credible and war is declared two days later on 3 September.
The last of the 200 Overdrive Bentleys are being prepared for delivery to customers, while a new model, the Mk V is being readied for launch at the October 1939 London Motor Show. Vanvooren is developing the Corniche variant, a lightweight aerodynamic saloon which is presumed to have been destroyed by enemy action at Dieppe on its way back to Britain. There was no London Motor Show in 1939.
In Britain, while Coalition Governments alternated leadership between Ramsay MacDonald (31-35), Stanley Baldwin (35-37) and Neville Chamberlain (37-40), George V died in 1936, to be succeeded by Edward VIII, who then abdicated and a reluctant George VI was crowned in his place. Luxury motor cars were being sold in the UK not only by Bentley but also by other British manufacturers such as Rolls Royce (their Phantom II and III, and their 20/25 and 25/30 and Wraith), by Daimler, Alvis, and Lagonda. From France came cars by Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye and Hispano-Suiza. In Germany cars by Mercedes, Maybach (and perhaps Horch) and in Italy by Alfa Romeo and Isotta Fraschini provided comparison and competition. Despite the Depression which claimed WO's company after it launched the 8 litre in 1930, in all these countries and elsewhere around the world were customers for cars that in today's terms would cost between L200,000 - L400,000. These were bespoke hand-built tours de force for a section of society which wanted and could still afford the best, from wealth of royalty and nobility by inheritance; wealth from success in business, particularly in the context of Britain and its Empire; and wealth from the world of the arts and entertainment.
One can only guess that there remained either optimism about the future in the face of the uncertainties provided by developments in Europe; or ignorance of the nature of those events; or a fatalism or hedonism that demanded the enjoyment of the best while it was available and could be afforded; or a combination of several of such attitudes. There must also have been an ability to pursue the conspicuously opulent lifestyle demonstrated by such vehicles when poverty was prevalent in such measure during and after the Depression. A gulf of privilege between the classes was more accepted in the UK in the 1930s than can be readily countenanced by those conditioned by social mores of the post-1945 period. To 21st Century eyes, 65 years later, the Derby Bentley seen in its historical context can therefore be fascinating by reason of the alien nature of that context.
As Churchill might have said, some context, … some car!
What a legacy for us today!