The Titanic was unhesitatingly sailing towards an iceberg when the first motorcar was driven into one of Sheffield’s first showrooms – just converted from an old shoe repair shop.
The driver was 18-year-old Harry Clement Bentley, a council school boy with little business experience. His father was a paper manufacturer’s representative and prosperous enough to own a pony and trap as well as raising 12 children. The only award Harry had ever won at school was for good attendance and the prize was a book called The Mechanical Operation of a Four Stroke Engine.
From that his future was sealed and the arrival of the motor industry in Sheffield moved a step closer.
Harry persuaded his dad to rent an old shoe shop on the Wicker for £100 a year and created one of Sheffield’s first motor firms there.
They had a firm belief that the motor trade had a good chance of developing – and they weren’t wrong.
Fifty years later, if all the cars and commercial vehicles they sold had been placed bumper to bumper they would have stretched from Sheffield to the south coast.
As Bentleys celebrated five decades in the business they were selling around 2.000 new and used cars a year – but Harry remained most proud of that first year when they sold just six. He had signed a contact for four Buick cars – and the family pony and trap had to be sold to buy those first vehicles.
The Bentley brothers always remained a family firm, had to bounce back after blitz damage and were busy reconditioning Ministry of Supply Vehicles during the war years. Harry worked up to 70 hours a week but one particular result of his tiredness was legendary.
He was working with brother Jimmy, who was backing up the spring of a lorry with a sledgehammer while Harry drove out one of the shackle bushes with another sledgehammer.
Harry missed the target and hit Jimmy on the nose, knocking his grin off centre for the rest of his life.
News that Bentleys, long established as one of the biggest of best-known motor dealers in the city, was in trouble and on the verge of a takeover came as a surprise in the 1980s. Even now many families can still remember buying their first car there.