Frankly, it’s not surprising that Chris Williams, the new owner of the Bentley-Napier, was less than keen to let one of us step behind its huge steering wheel. He had himself yet to drive it in anything other than a straight line and was understandably concerned about letting this 24-litre leviathan with its 600bhp and over 1000lb ft of torque out of his sight on a decidedly damp Silverstone National circuit.
The Napier-Bentley is the grand-daddy of the modem breed of aero-engined specials, a car without which no examination of the breed could be complete. Despite appearances that make it look born for the Member’s Banking, it never raced at Brooklands and was not even conceived in its current form for a generation after the West Byfleet track closed its doors for the last time.
The brain-child of Peter Morley, it evolved from Tigress, the sister car to the Sunbeam Tiger that, in 1926, drove Henry Seagrave to a new Land Speed Record of 152.3mph. Morley bought the chassis of Tigress in the mid-60s and installed the W12 Napier-Lion aero-engine found in the car today. It survived in such form in to the ’70s but was reborn as it is now in 1972 with the Tigress chassis replaced with that from an 8-litre vintage Bentley, albeit shortened in two places. A ‘C’ Bentley gearbox was used in place of the original pre-selector item.
Since then it has been campaigned by Morley up to the end of last season. Even the most casual of historic racing fans seeing it smoking sideways out of Woodcote over the years would be unlikely ever to forget the sight or the noise.
Ah, the noise. Being a W12 (a more familiar configuration in aircraft design thanks to its compactness and more relaxed cooling requirements at 10,000ft), one of the three banks of exhausts exits horizontally from the nearside of the bonnet. And woe betide anyone unlucky enough to be standing idly by when it comes past in the paddock. At idling speed the gust of exhaust gases aimed at your face is enough to make you step back. At full throttle, I wouldn’t be surprised if it knocked you off your feet As it circulates the drying track, slowly at first and then with increasing confidence, the noise as the driver lifts of the throttle for Copse is like a cluster of mortar bombs detonating fractions of a second apart.
Williams returns relieved to hear other drivers discussing how slippery the track is. “I was going from one full lock to the other in an instant out there I was beginning to wonder whether it was always going to be like that.”
It is a beast. Williams reckons the step up in power between 1800-2000rpm is nearly 250bhp from early 200s to late 400s, backed up by the aforementioned four figure torque output, “and of course, it all happens in a quarter of an inch of throttle travel.” You can appreciate that it is all too easy to start the back sliding and the wheels spinning and as they spin so the power increases exacerbating a problem which probably already requires more attention than most people have…
Morley himself, the car’s creator, did not emerge unscathed from his years of ownership, notably spending much time in hospital after flipping the Bentley-Napier at Oulton Park in 1975. Even so, the new owner plans to complete a full season’s racing with the car. “I couldn’t bear to see it stood still for the rest of its days” says Williams, “you just have to bear in mind it is a complete animal.” And just in case the Bentley had not yet sufficiently made this point, it set itself briefly but spectacularly on fire, just as Williams was setting off for his last laps. Perhaps not driving wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Many thanks to the owners of these cars and all the stall-and members of the VSCC who helped make this feature possible. The VSCC race season starts at Silverstone on April 24th with the GP Itala race meeting. Those interested in attending should call the VSCC on 01608 644777. Our thanks go also to the British Racing Drivers Club for providing the circuit time.