Appearing at the Rolls Royce EC’s Pearl Jubilee Concours and Rally in an ordinary car would have seemed very inappropriate, so I was delighted to accept the offer to take a very well-known Derby Bentley up to Courteenhall, the Northamptonshire house providing a venue for this thirtieth annual gathering.
Richard Shaw’s 1937 41/4-litre Van den Plas tourer, one of only a handful built, is in very original form and beautiful condition, with pale blue carpets matching its dark blue tonneau, and was a concours winner last year. A prime example of the British tourer at its best, the 41/4 was hailed in its day for its silence, reliability, and quiet, whether carrying a closed or open body.
The rear-hinged doors are quite small, but stepping up into the car is easy, slightly more so for the passenger. A lasting Bentley and Rolls-Royce feature was the right-hand gearchange, which moved from outdoors to indoors but remained on the off-side until the column-mounted auto selector became standard in the S series. Contemporary tests imply that this does not impede access, but in fact the feet have to be threaded pretty carefully past the lever. A similar vertical fly-off handbrake lever is tucked out of the way behind the gearstick, though easy enough to reach.
To a driver brought up in a seat-belt, the cut-away doors, low seat backs and flat on the floor driving position seem strange and insecure, but the best location comes from a good grip on the broad steering wheel. In the centre of this are four levers: hand throttle, starting or choke control, ignition advance/retard, and the ride adjuster which varies the rear suspension stiffness.
Set in the polished dashboard behind the wheel are rev-counter and speedometer, and in the middle are minor gauges and the switches — no key is needed to start. Semaphore-type indicators are controlled by a large knob under the dash (which actually works back to front), and the only feature strange in today’s view is the one-shot chassis lubrication pedal (press once every 100 miles).
Starting the engine is straightforward: turn the ignition switch on, retard the ignition to avoid any chance of a kick-back, move the starting lever to the ‘start’ position, and press the black button. With a gruff whirr, the car comes to life and immediately settles to a quiet purr. The lever snicks into first, the handbrake flicks off, and the great car rolls smoothly away.
There is no doubt that these cars deserved their “silent sportscar” slogan; despite four and a quarter litres thumping away under the bonnet, mechanical noise is almost absent at idle, rising to a distant roar at high revs, most of which comes from the hearty exhaust pipe. I had been told by the owner that 3000rpm was a happy cruising pace, and as this offers 65 mph, I expected to be able to keep up with most of the traffic.
What I did not expect was to find myself overtaking so much of it. Not only was this a fast car in its day, it is still astonishingly quick amongst today’s traffic. Once accustomed to the gearchange, as delicate and close as that of a motorcycle, it was easy to thunder away from traffic lights leaving wide-eyed tintop motorists trailing.
Although the rated power of the 41/4-litre sounds somewhat low today at 125 bhp for a vehicle of this weight, the vital figures is the torque: a massive 205 lb ft explains why this thing is so fast, and why it will rumble up almost any hill in top gear, proceeding. with the inexorability of a steam-roller. Yet it can be driven in a properly sporting manner, clicking down a ratio or two and powering through open bends with squealing tyres, then pulling the lever back with finger tip pressure into top and watching the verge fly by at a loafing 3000 revs. Third and top are synchronised, and need a little more time to engage, but the other two will slip in instantly, aided by the easy clutch action.
A firm grip is needed on the wheel when cornering; there is a moment’s lag before the narrow tyres bite, and then the effort builds steadily as the car tries to run a little wide, but it balances out nicely if you are confident. And as the car’s owner demonstrated with glee, lifting his throttle foot suddenly, it will slide beautifully around roundabouts — a magnificent sight. I was so impressed by the performance of the car that Richard Shaw, enthusiastically determined to drive his car as its makers meant, suggested we took some figures: 10-30mph: 4.18 sec 20-40mph: 4.47 sec 30-50 mph: 5.40 sec 40-60 mph: 5.81 sec 50-70 mph: 5.72 sec And standing starts were equally surprising: 0-50mph: 8.5 sec 0-60mph: 11.3sec 0-70mph: 16.64 sec 0-80 mph:27.8sec
During these runs, Richard let the needle spin to 4,400 rpm, higher than he has pushed before, but it felt as smooth as silk. Note how the acceleration slows above 70 mph, when wind resistance comes into play; nevertheless, this four-seater tourer will even now top 100 mph. And these figures were taken the day before the car’s 50th birthday!
Undoubtedly, Van den Plas’ drop-head tourer must be one of the most attractive to be fitted to the 41/4-litre chassis. The sloping door-line gives it a compact look, but rear passengers have plenty of room, and there are side-screens to go with the tall but elegant hood concealed under the tonneau.
On the day at Courteenhall, the Oxford and Cambridge blue colours made it stand out even alongside its distinguished peers. As a first prize concours winner previously, the car was entered for the Masters class, but in the end this was not judged; heavy rain caused the cars to be diverted to another part of the grounds without the normal separation by class, and the committee felt that these divisions selected by card vote of members themselves would be at a disadvantage.
All other trophies were awarded, however, and winners included Roger Salter taking the Douglas Wood for best personal restoration on his Corsica-bodied 31/2-litre Bentley, Harry Albrecht, Secretary of the Swiss section whose 1939 Sedanca Wraith carried off the HR Owen prize for best Gurney Nutting body, and Moore’s Alpine Eagle replica was chosen Most Elegant in show. RREC Secretary Eric Barrass received the Edward Harris trophy for outstanding service, while the Observer award went to Ian Rimmer for his book on Experimental Rolls Royce and Bentley cars.
There were entries from five of the overseas Sections, including 25 from Sweden, but amongst imposing sedancas and limousines, my own favourite was a 1947 drophead coupe by Graber on a Bentley Mk VI, whose sweeping lines brought it a Most Elegant in Class rosette.
Returning to London via the A5, the Bentley again surprised ordinary cars by passing them with ease, or surging away from roundabouts ahead of them. Unlike later sportscars, wind buffeting is minimal inside, and of course the view is wonderful. Both the ride and the seats are comfortable, and the car really is so easy to drive that one can understand why its owner sometimes takes it to the office in preference to his Mercedes.
It is an ideal combination: a pre-war sportscar which is fast but reliable, elegant and spacious — summed up I think by the young lady marshall who guided us out of the Courteenhall gate. Having seen a hundred Rolls Royces and Bentleys depart already, she called after us “I really covet your car”! GC