A 50-year span

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Motor Sport tests two significant British high-performance cars of very different eras.

1924/5 3-litre Bentley

Road-test reports, as out-spoken as we deem necessary, have been a feature of MOTOR SPORT from the first issue and so, as this is our 50th Anniversary number, we decided that something should be written about appropriate cars, spanning the half-century. The first copy of, the newly-named MOTOR SPORT of 1925 contained a test report on a Brescia Bugatti but as the correct British car for the 1975 coverage seemed without question to be the Jaguar XJ12 coupe, we wanted to match this with a leading motor-car made in this country when this paper was born. It was originally known as The Brooklands Gazette and our very first road-test was of a 3-litre Bentley. So that was the vintage car decided upon and a very fine specimen was found without any difficulty, thanks to the co-operation of the Bentley Drivers Club.

A Bentley is an appropriate choice, not only for the reason outlined above, but because the late T. G. Moore, who owned MOTOR SPORT from 1929 to 1936, was a great Bentley enthusiast. He bought a new 3-litre at the 1926 Olympia Show and subsequently ran a 4½-litre here and in New Zealand, covering 18,000 miles in the latter car before a decoke was required. Indeed, the Five-Year Guarantee then operated by Bentley Motors seems to have served Mr. Moore very well, notably when his 3-litre went off-song and broke valve springs because the tappets slackened off, due to having the experirnental duralumin rockers, which were soon changed for standard steel ones.

Another link between MOTOR SPORT and the Bentley is that when the Bentley DC began to co-relate technical data about these cars we were able to publish the first such researches, relating to the 3-litre models, in our issue of February 1947, thanks largely to the co-operation and industry of Stanley Sedgwick, the Club’s indefatigable President. Thereafter, every February, MOTOR SPORT was privileged to cover another model, culminating by 1950 with the 8-litre. Since those days, the Bentley Drivers’ Club has amassed a remarkable amount of historical and technical information, so that I sometimes think it knows more about Bentleys of all ages than the engineers who conceived them! But we are delighted that we were able to pioneer this admirable documentation. Another link is the present writer’s memorable outings with the late Forrest Lycett in his special and very potent 8-litre.

Reverting to the road-test of a 3-litre which we published in July 1924, it was written by someone calling himself “Full Throttle”. Re-reading his report, it is clear that he did not drive the car very far. The only picture accompanying the article, apart from a Harry Whincap drawing of a two-seater which heads it, is a photograph of the car in chassis form, obviously taken from a catalogue. But, whoever the tester was, he was impressed with the Speed Model Bentley’s ability to run in very docile fashion at low speeds in its 3.53 to 1 top gear. He was even more impressed by its ability to do 70 m.p.h. in second gear — and so am I! He mentions changing down out of top at 45 m.p.h. and accelerating to 70 in 2nd., when the car would “hang on indefinitely to around that speed” without its driver changing up. Top speed (in top!) was quoted as “in the neighbourhood of the eighty mark without much forcing” and this £1,125 four-seater had “remarkably powerful, very easy and smooth” four-wheel brakes. Incidentally, this close-ratio Bentley gearbox was a notable feature of Bentley motoring. I remember C. G. Grey, the imperious Editor of The Aeroplane, when he was writing about cars for another journal, being highly impressed by the manner in which the demonstrator moved nonchalantly from one cog to another, and what happened when he at the same time depressed the accelerator.

So, you see, it was right and proper that on a beautifully sunny June day we should go out in a 3-litre Speed Model. The car we were generously allowed to sample belongs to Mr. John A. Stevens and is in breathtakingly immaculate order. As I drove into Esher to keep the appointment with it I remembered that in the late-1930s I used to be taken out from there by the Robinson brothers in their 3-litre fabric saloon, for satisfying night runs, or expeditions to sprint venues towing their Brescia Bugatti — I can still hear the burble of the exhaust and see the radiator cap with its cross-bar, as on the open car I was about to encounter, silhouetted against the beams from the big headlamps. . .

The Bentley I was about to drive is a 1924/5 Vanden Plas Red Label four-seater, spotlessly turned out, body and mudguards in a nice shade of blue, which was a catalogue colour. The present owner found it in Tiptree in the summer of 1963, when such cars were difficult to locate. Its history previous to this has been untraceable. It was in very poor condition, the body ruined, biscuit-tins forming the front wings, and the drive home sans brakes and with a non-functioning cone clutch was, to say the least, unpalatable. Since then this Bentley has been painstakingly rebuilt, mainly by the owner, who stripped it right down on finding the chassis cracked. A new body frame was made and panelled, and eventually the car was almost as new, being finished to perfection with Parson’s paint.

There are some very minor divergences from standard, the most notable, but virtually unnoticeable, being the conversion to hydraulic brakes. The pipelines at the front are concealed within the Perrot shafts and as the original levers and cables are in situ it is only when this conversion is pointed out, or when sharp eyes spot a small fluid-reservoir under the bonnet, that the change is apparent. It makes for more dependable braking but, in fact, whereas the same owner’s Speed Six, with its original braking system, recorded 100% efficiency when tested recently, the 3-litre shows about 70%.

So, here is a splendid specimen of the famous Speed Model, with the 9′ 9″-wheelbase chassis, an A-type gearbox, the correct 21″ Dunlop-shod wheels, the Le Mans 3.53 to 1 axle-ratio, and an engine Autovac-fed to its twin sloper-SUs and fired by two CG4 ML magnetos. The nickel-plated radiator had to be rebuilt by Serck, because it began to leak as the chromium was being stripped off. So dazzlingly glistening is this overhead-camshaft power unit that it is difficult to photograph; you can form your own opinion of our ability in this direction.

We drove to Brooklands for more photography by permission of the BAC, and then I was permitted to take the wheel. It is, a very big wheel 3 turns, lock-to-lock) calling for some muscular effort to change direction. The chap who wrote our 1924 test claimed that changing gear was “so easy” but it was not altogether so for me, although I was improving by the time we had got back to Esher. (Incidentally, Tom Moore broke a selector on his gearbox through initial brutal usage.) I was perhaps not sitting close enough to fully depress the clutch, which is necessary if proper use is to be made of the clutch-stop to slow things up for the swop between 1st and 2nd. From 2nd into 3rd is easy, if the long movement of the rh lever across the open gate is taken quickly. Top then snicks in nicely, given patience and double-declutching.

There is plenty of performance, accompanied by the characteristic exhaust rumble, and the car becomes alive from about 1,800 r.p.m. There is a period at 2,000 r.p.m., when the cross-shaft rattles, after which you can accelerate to 3,500 r.p.m., although prudence calls a halt when 3,200 r.p.m. have been attained. (Since bronze gears were fitted, no cross-shaft trouble has intruded.) Top speed is some 90 m.p.h. but 85 is a more natural gait. The old Bentley is beautifully taut, the springing not unduly harsh, although badly served by friction shock-absorbers that are too stiff to react to mild shocks but which are unable to cope with severe ones. The brakes are perfectly acceptable, but reasonably small feet are advisable, if the right one isn’t to sit trapped beneath the brake pedal after depressing the central accelerator. Having come to rest, the car can be held conveniently on the long, outside hand brake.

You sit in a tight-fitting leather-upholstered bucket seat, protected by a single-pane windscreen with side glasses; it can be folded flat and properly retained by toothed wing-nuts. On a polished wood fascia there are the remembered instruments — the matching AT 100 m.p.h. speedometer and the tachometer reading to “40”, their white needles moving across the dials in harmony, a Smiths clock, the lamps-bezel for the Smiths lighting system, and the switch-panel with the two magneto-switches and central choke-knob. On the right, for the driver to glance at, are the small temperature and oil-pressure dials, reading to 80 deg. C and 60 lb./sq. in., respectively. Normally the former reads 70 to 75 deg.; oil-pressure varies with engine speed, from a few pounds at idle to 20 at 2,000 r.p.m., 30 at 3,000 r.p.m. The thermostat no longer functions and temptation to use “R” in the big-capacity sump is firmly resisted in favour of Castrol GTX. Petrol consumption works out at about 20 m.p.g.

It was most enjoyable to be out in a real motor-car again and to be able to say I had been driving a Bentley at Brooklands! This brief backwards glimpse provided a firm reminder of the unassailable position occupied by the 3-litre Bentley some fifty years ago. Our 1942 account was published just after John Duff’s victory at Le Mans, and apart from a later Editor of MOTOR SPORT deciding that in 1926 there was no comparable sporting car, another well-known motoring writer, whose mother bought a new 3-litre, has pointed out that people are apt to forget, now that the 3-litre is a vintage car, what a stupendous reputation it had in its heyday. “Something about the Bentley,” he continues, “stirred the imagination. It was very fast, of course, but there had been fast cars before. Perhaps it was the novelty of attaining almost racing speeds on second and third gears, for close-ratio gearboxes had been few and far between.” Which is where we came in . . . The Automatic Jaguar XJ12 is obviously a very different thing. But we couldn’t help smiling when at the Track it needed jump-leads to restart it and emitted some alarming pops and bangs, whereas there had been an instant response, after one spell of “Bendix-refusal,” and not a sign of the carburetters spitting-back from ‘cold, when Mr. Stevens pressed the starter-button of his ancient Bentley that morning. — W.B.

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