The good Bentley?

When Alan Good, a 29-year-old lawyer, bought Lagonda for £72,500 in 1935, he shared two things in common with W O Bentley: both were fed up with their jobs and each had a burning desire to produce the ultimate in powerful, sporting carriages.

Together, they night have chosen the honourable profession of wrestling alligators as a means of putting bread and meat on the dining table, but instead they separately embarked upon the slightly more risky business of manufacturing motorcars with the aim of beating Rolls-Royce at its own game.

After Good had gained control of the ailing company, his instructions to the 29strong workforce were simple. “We are going to build the best car in the world, and have just two years to do it in. That is your part of the job — mine is to find the money.”

For his part, W O Bentley ‘head-hunted’ Rolls-Royce engineers Charles Sewell, Stuart Tresilian and Leslie Stark, and warmed to the task of designing an all-new V12 power unit. Working from a leaky, draughty shed at Staines — the Lagonda factory was never a shining example of contemporary architecture — the engineering drawings for the cylinder head and block were completed by the summer of 1936, and a finished car, albeit with a painted wooden crankcase, was shown to the public for the first time at Olympia in October of the same year.

Amazingly complex, the 12 cylinders were cast at an angle of 60 degrees, with just four main bearings being used to support the fully counterweighted crankshaft. With a bore and stroke of 75×84.5mm, the overall capacity worked out at a hefty 4480cc. Big-end bearings were dispensed with in favour of light-alloy con-rods running direct on the nitro-hardened crankshaft, and the two overhead camshafts (one for each bank of cylinders), broke from traditional Bentley design in that they were chain-driven.

A twin-choke Stromberg carburettor used in initial testing proved inadequate, and twin SUs were employed on the production cars. Even so, the 200bhp that W O had promised from his new masterpiece fell short by some 40bhp until no fewer than four carburettors were fitted to the racing versions entered for Le Mans in 1939.

The short development phase of the V12 Lagonda was naturally fraught with difficulties, but these were gradually ironed out, and despite a deadline for production to begin in June 1937, the first car, which was made immediately available to the press, wasn’t actually built until the end of the year. Described by The Times as “resembling a cheetah in its combination of strength,

swiftness, silence and docility”, some 90 cars found eager customers in 1938, and a further 40 before Adolf Hitler and his cronies messed everything up in 1939. Bentley and Good had achieved their goal in a remarkably short period, the company’s finest hour coming in June 1939 when two special-bodied VI 2s came in third and fourth at Le Mans driven by Dobson/Brackenbury and Selsdon/Waleran.

After the war Lagonda resumed production with the 2.6-litre LBO model, and although Alan Good and W O were both keen to continue with a V12, the machine tools, dies and jigs bad been ‘binned’ and the economic climate put an end to their worthy plans.

Driving Impressions

Still owned by the Good family, the dark green 1939 V12 drophead featured here is not just a remarkably well preserved and maintained example, but also provides a revealing insight into 1930s sportscar design. Despite its positively gargantuan magnitude, it remains one of the most well proportioned and beautifully penned thoroughbreds ever to emerge from the British motor industry.

And in that respect; it can’t honestly be compared with a modern Bentley, but more to the utterly gorgeous 850CSi BMW, another lusty V12 CT which, like the Lagonda, has impeccable credentials, a worthy pedigree and classic styling that is guaranteed to last for ever. If this Lagonda never turned a wheel again, gawping at it — for hours on end if necessary — would be sufficient justification for its existence and a place, surely, in the top 10 all-time greats.

Because it was built by the best British craftsmen rather than professorial computer kids, there are two facets to the car which give this Lagonda a distinct flavour; on the one hand everything is properly screwed together and, of course, there is a delicious blend of wood veneer and green hide to typify the spacious interior, and on the other it is, at least from a driver’s point of view, an ergonomic disaster area on a Vesuvian scale.

Beautiful to behold the large four-spoke steering wheel certainly is, but turn it too far and your fingers become trapped behind the windscreen or the wood door capping, depending upon which way you turn it. Reaching for the self-cancelling indicator switch is an art in itself — hand through wheel spokes, turn switch left or right and remove hand as fast as possible for fear of slicing fingers with steering wheel spokes. And all that is on top of trying to work out where the various gauges and instruments are.

However, carping about such trivial concerns is to miss the point. No-one who drove a V12 Lagonda on the uncongested, speed limit-free roads of the late 1930s gave a damn about ergonomics — the word hadn’t entered the vocabulary of most designers at that time anyway. So who cares?

This car is all about sheer unexpurgated driving pleasure in its purest form. Push the starter button, prod the throttle pedal a couple of times for good measure and… nothing! The engine’s running alright, but the only clue that it’s ready for action is given away by the rev counter needle, which is happily bobbing between 300 and 800rpm. When Humfrey Symons of the Sketch wrote in 1937 of the Lagonda’s ‘ghostly silence’, he really wasn’t exaggerating.

Select bottom gear, although such is the massive torque of the engine that fourth would do the job lust as well, and the old girl grumbles off with all the drama of stirring milk into a cup of Indian tea. The gear change, though of the familiar ‘H’ pattern, takes a little practice, but, once mastered, the long lever can be placed positively and at a smartish rate. But it pays not to linger on the fierce clutch too long.

With such large diameter cross-plies front and rear, I was prepared for heavy steering, but having spent the happiest days of my youth manoeuvring a Grey ‘Fergie’ tractor around various silage clamps, the Lag’s steering gear feels reassuringly firm by comparison. But as we left the A22 south of East Grinstead en route to Beachy Head, the burbling exhaust note occasionally echoing off the flintstone walls that characterise this part of the East Sussex countryside, it was the brakes that proved to be the car’s least endearing feature.

It’s not that they don’t work, or anything exciting like that; more that they require what seems like a couple of weeks’ notice before bringing the car to a mighty swift standstill, the narrow tyres biting at the tarmc as ferociously as a shark gnashing through… well, anything really, as sharks are apt to do!

Sitting on its ‘short’ Ilft wheelbase, the roadholding is almost, but not quite, unbelievably excellent. Naturally, throwing such a heavyweight into a corner and expecting to buff up the door handles by contact with the road surface was always likely to be asking for a spot of bother on the exit, but the time-honoured technique of ‘slow in, fast out’ works well, those crossplies squealing with delight at anything above 30mph. There’s certainly a tendency towards understeer, but it’s best dealt with by applying more steering lock, whereupon the chassis, like an obedient child, immediately responds and straightens everything out rather nicely.

But if the venerable Lagonda dismisses the twisty bits with abandon, it is the open road that it so obviously likes best. On my word as a confirmed addict of post-vintage thoroughbreds, this old sweat is virtually without rival in a straight line. Floor the throttle pedal in top gear, and completely without fuss, the V12 signals, with nothing more than a dignified burble from the exhaust system, that it is going to increase its speed in no uncertain terms, hurtling forwards with the controlled force of a hungry killer whale. “The driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously,” as the Old Testament puts it.

The man in the Citroen BX who was following looked shaken. However, with a roundabout clearly visible a quarter of a mile ahead, my fun was short-lived: it was time to throw out the anchor once again. Despite such inevitable shortcomings in modern traffic, this is a Grand Tourer on a grand scale.

The seats are supremely comfortable: they have nothing so vulgar as lateral support cushions, but with the hood down on a summer’s day, there is little to compare with W O Bentley’s masterpiece.

My all-too-brief acquaintance with the Lagonda over, I couldn’t help reflecting on the double-bladed reaction it received out on the roads of East Sussex. There were those who obviously took delight in seeing an important part of British motoring history being used in its natural habitat for its intended purpose, but then there were the four youths in a Vauxhall Astra who could do no better than shout confused but loquacious abuse.

Clearly this icon of a glorious and past age means different things to different people. But for me, it provided an opportunity to discover what Alan Good and W O Bentley were driving at when they set out to produce ‘The Best Car in the World’. They surely succeeded. My thanks to the Good family and to Jill Watson, whose Lewes-based company is responsible for fettling the car.