The personnel: Robertson Rodger, Scafe & Clutton
The Personnel dismounted from a grossly crowded train at Guildford and entered an omnibus, compared with which to have found oneself a participant in the Calcutta (“Black Hole”) event would have been a positively lonely experience. From this, it eventually deployed at the village of Cranleigh.
“I trust,” said Rodger, “that they have attended to the fuel feed system – it needs it.” ” As,” rejoined Scafe, “does mine,” he had made a breakfastless, 6.45 a.m. start from his air base to join the expedition.
It then transpired that places of public refreshment in Cranleigh are divided between those which have food but no beer, and vice versa. Thus, a good deal of darting to and fro was necessary in order to achieve that so desirable equilibrium of diet.
After Bentley’s ran the Speed Six so successfully at Le Mans and elsewhere, a few replicas were made, and the purpose of the gathering now undergoing description was to collect one of these replicas and drive it to London. During lunch, Robertson Rodger accordingly regaled the others with a learned resume of the racing history of the Speed Six.
Its first racing appearance was at the Double Twelve in 1929. Driven by Barnato and Benjafield, it put up the fastest speed for some hours, but was forced to retire owing to the breakage of the speedometer drive, which the rules required to be operative.
But the big car had its revenge at Le Mans, where Barnato and Birkin drove it to win at 73.63 m.p.h., followed home by three 4 1/2-litres immediately after it. Glen Kidston then took second place at Phoenix Park, while Barnato and Jack Dunfee won the Essex Six Hour Race at Brooklands. In the T.T., Kidston crashed in the rain, but the Bentley was repaired in time for the “500,” where it ran with a very unstreamlined 2-seater body and finished second at 109.4 m.p.h. Thus ended one of the most remarkable season’s racing ever undertaken by a single car.
In 1930 two Speed Sixes ran in the “Double Twelve,” finishing first and second at 86.68 m.p.h. and 85.68 m.p.h. respectively, the winner being the previous year’s car. At Le Mans the valiant old car then went on to win at the record speed of 75.87 m.p.h., driven by Barnato and Kidston, while the other Speed Six, driven by Clement and Watney, was second at 73.33 m.p.h. The third car was crashed by Clive Dunfee early in the race.
Bentley’s then retired from official racing, but the original 1929 machine returned to the fray in 1931 to win the “500,” when Cyril Paul and Jack Dunfee averaged 118.39 m.p.h., then the fastest speed ever put up in a long-distance race.
Rodger thought that the car made yet one more appearance in the ill-starred British Empire Trophy Race of 1932, when Jack Dunfee finished third in it.
Speed Sixes continued up to the cessation of peace to form the basis of many famous Brooklands cars in either 6 1/2 or 8-litre form, outstanding examples being the Barnato-Hassan and the Bentley-Jackson. One of the actual Le Mans cars is still carefully preserved by Ivan Carr, of Carlisle, and Robertson Rodger rode in this magnificent car about three years ago, when he found its smoothness and lordly manner of going to be everything that the most fastidious could desire. The springing also gives an amazingly level and comfortable ride, even for the back-seat passengers.
Lunch and lecture over, the Personnel bore down upon the Bentley. Its last owner was Kenneth Burness, but after his sudden departure to the Middle East, early in the war, it had suffered neglect, including a period out of doors. Fortunately, however, it had been well greased and the demon rust had been kept respectably at bay. Battery, of course, there was none, so that only one set of ignition was available, and cornponents were all here and there; but that inspired radiator, long sleek bonnet, green 4-seater fabric body, racing tank, and those comic Bentley, so-called mudguards, all on the high, 11ft. wheelbase chassis, conspired to give that appearance of combined dignity and dash from which nothing could detract. Robertson Rodger had bought the car to save it from total disintegration.
Yes, the garage had thoroughly attended to the petrol system – they had had the car running for half an hour. Judging by the amount of petrol which ought to have been in the tank and what was actually visible in it, they might well have run it half round Kent. Subsequent experience left no doubt that they had never run it at all.
Three interested brats were now engaged to assist in a push start, and the outfit was quickly burbling on its way, but not for long. Starvation rapidly set in and the engine withdrew its support from the motion.
It now developed that the tool kit consisted of a knock-on hub cap and a very small jack handle; but, fortunately, it is one of the Clutton rules of life never to move far without an adjustable spanner and a slide rule. As on this occasion, the spanner frequently staves off a crisis, while if a technical argument is going badly a few deft passes with the slide rule can generally be relied upon to cow the opposition.
Several experiments were now conducted with the labyrinthine array of petrol pipes and some semblance of a flow was established. The three brats had once more become spectators and again assisted the departure, but hardly a quarter of a mile had elapsed before the cortege was once more at rest.
The inexorable approach of the brats was by now producing a certain inclination to nervous hysteria, at the same time provoking the tiresome reflection that it would even be “quicker by Southern.” But the next time the Bentley staggered over the brow of a hill before fading out, and gravity took its welcome toll. The brats would now be out of range for quite a respectable time and some serious thought could be put in.
It was decided that a small tin was the thing most needed, and as Scafe was adjudged to have the most winning smile he was sent away to scrounge – he was back, victorious, in less than a minute. As a result of combined cogitation it was arranged that its owner should direct the powerful machinery; that Clutton should drape himself over the back of the body, scooping petrol from the tank in the small tin; this should then be passed to Scale, who was to be poised up forrard, on the spare wheel, where he would be in a position to pour the vital fluid into the float chambers, from which lids and floats had been removed.
First, however, the engine had to be wound up, and as the carriage had come to rest on a level place, the starting handle began to be passed from hand to hand, with many polite bows and smiles. But in the end Scafe and Rodger were perfectly unselfish, because they insisted that swinging the Bentley would remind Clutton of the Itala and, after all, it was barely half the size.
So after that was fixed, the tripartite teamwork was engaged upon, and no fewer than 10 miles were covered non-stop. On down grades the engine was disconnected and discontinued, and this process came to he known as “doing a Gadarene.” It was on these occasions that Rodger’s driving came in for some adverse criticism, because he would keep on fingering the hand brake. He did this, he said, on the grounds that the brakes were not working, but as the petrol feed system pointed out, if they weren’t working, what was the earthly point of putting them on and, if they were working, there was an even stronger reason for leaving them strictly alone.
“This,” said Rodger, “is the thanks I get for trying to save your worthless necks.”
When the Gadarene showed signs of fading out, the gear lever was stoutly pressed home and the engine thus restarted. Rodger complained a good bit about doing this, but the petrol feed system said it preferred it that way, as an alternative to pushing or winding.
In due course the equipage arrived at Maestro Shortt’s country seat and he did this and that in his exasperatingly effortless manner, while the Personnel went off to do homage to the ex-Birkin single-seater, Brooklands lap record, blower 4 1/2-litre, which Robertson Rodger also owns and which Shortt has in storage with several other famous cars. When they returned, the Bentley had an operative autovac, and soon it was wafting towards London at an effortless 70 m.p.h.
Clutton adroitly annexed control of the vehicle for the first shift into Leatherhead, as having the most corners, and burbled about the grand sensation of seeing once more that long expanse of bonnet, double row of top louvres and racing filler cap, firmly nosing its way round fast bends.
This particular car has smallish wheels and a relatively low (3.53 to 1) axle ratio, but, even so, its performance seemed very leisurely and effortless, coupled with superb flexibility and top gear acceleration. The Speed Six Bentley (like the 5-litre Bugatti) did, in fact, do everything an American could, in addition to decent road-holding. It had, however, a tendency to floppiness at the front end, and while the racing cars were superior in this respect, they still called for a fairly stern measure of damping. On this particular car and day the telecontrols were inoperative, so that the front end was free to frolic undeterred and dicing for advanced students was considered to be inadvisable.
Next, Scafe took control, but had wretched luck with Sunday afternoon traffic, and finally proud owner Rodger swept through the Kingston Bypass into London, arriving with a petrol tank into which one could have dropped a lighted match without fear of conflagration.
And so, with motoring at the extreme end of its tether, three contented people could notch up just one more Real Ride. To quote the Editorial turn of phrase, by the time this gets into print the sands will finally have run out; but, anyway, the Bentley is now safe from further neglect, only waiting for the day when…