The Bentley vs Bentley case

Very different from the case of Lord de Clifford, which I related recently, was that of Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd vs Lagonda Ltd and W Bentley, heard in front of Mr Justice Roxburgh in late 1946. It arose after Lagonda had advertisements in The Illustrated London Nets, The Tader, The Sphere Illustrated, and The Motor in 1944. The advertisement which offended Bentley Motors had the words: “The products of Lagonda and the designs of W O Bentley have always been fine fast cars… a proud possession… It is worth reflection that they have not always been large cars…”. The word ‘Lagonda’ was displayed in large bold letters above that of ‘Bentley’.

Bentley Motors were objecting to Lagonda using W O’s name on the new twin-cam 21/2-litre Lagondas, the old Bentley company having been absorbed by Rolls-Royce in 1931. W O Bentley counter-claimed for an injunction to stop the new Bentley company from interfering with the use of his name by Lagonda Ltd.

A Mr Phillips, who had been the Exhibition Manager of the SMM&T, said he had organised the Olympia Motor Show from 1919 to 1936 and the later Earls Court Exhibition, and handled trademark declarations. He knew the old Bentley company had gone into liquidation and in 1931 ‘Bentley’ meant to him the name of a motor car; he did not know that Mr Bentley was the designer.

The judge said he thought the name ‘Bentley’ had originally been derived from the defendant Bentley and his brother, and was first used on motor cars in or about the year 1921. These cars and those in production up to 1931 had been designed under the superintendence of W O Bentley.

Mr Bentley had an agreement that if he left Rolls-Royce within 10 years of March 31, 1932 (he left on April 30, 1935) he had certain rights about the use of his name. “I admit I cannot follow the legal implications which appear to have overridden these,” the learned judge said. Of the Lagonda advertisements he said that their “language appears sufficiently innocent, although not inserted in good faith, as Mr Bentley did not see the content before they were published.

“The words which catch the eye,” stated Mr Roxburgh, “are `Lagonda’ above and ‘Bentley’ below. It cannot have given Mr Bentley much satisfaction to have associated himself with the defence; the explanation, no doubt, is that he is apparently employed by the defendant company”.

Defence counsel argued the mala fide advertisements were authorised by W O’s ’32 agreement. The judge said he never understood that argument and, as counsel abandoned it at an early stage of the case, he need not pursue it further. He found the general law governing trademarks was intended and he disposed of the defence; so there was not to be a Lagonda-Bentley. The 21/2-litre Lagonda was designed by C W Sewell, with S Ivernee, who were part of W O Bentley’s team.

The plaintiffs’ counsel had an easy ride. W O’s difficulty was that on joining Rolls-Royce in 1931 he signed an agreement that R-R had the right to use his name as a trademark for 10 years. They then contended that after W O had joined Lagonda as their technical director, he accepted a financial settlement allowing R-R the use of his name forever. This angered Alan Good, Lagonda chairman, who brought the case against R-R. It cost some £10,000 in legal fees, which Lagonda could ill-afford.

In such matters, legal luminaries consult past cases and I liked reference to one relating in footwear; in which the name Oomphies’ was in contention. The judge held that it was acceptable, it not being a geographical name, so far as he knew or evidence showed, and, he hoped, not being a surname.