Bentley 8-litre

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Once the personal car of WO Bentley, this Mulliner saloon – a favourite for high-speed trips to France – has returned to its maker. Motor Sport is granted an audience before it is restored

By Gordon Cruickshank. Photography: Marc Wright

Tech spec

Bentley 8-litre, chassis YF 5002

Chassis

Steel side-members with tubular cross-members

Front suspension: forged steel axle, semi-elliptic springs, friction dampers

Rear suspension: live axle, semi-elliptic springs, hydraulic dampers

Brakes: drums all round, Dewandre servo

Steering: worm and sector

Engine 

Configuration: six-cylinder in-line

Valvegear: 24 valves, SOHC, triple eccentric drive

Bore x stroke: 110mm x 140mm

Capacity: 7982cc

Induction: two SU carburettors

Maximum power: 200bhp

Transmission

Gearbox: four-speed manual, right-hand change

Clutch: single-plate

Dimensions

Wheelbase: 3656mm

Front track: 1422mm

Rear track: 1422mm

Weight: 2439kg

Heritage. We’ve been going on about it in Motor Sport for years, and now the rest of the world is catching up. Ferrari used to chop up its old racing cars; now they are carefully slid into the Cliente Corsa programme to please fortunate owners and spectators. 

It’s more difficult if you are buying in. Consider what are arguably the two greatest British marques: Rolls-Royce, purchased by BMW, a firm with a fine history of its own; or Bentley, almost mythical as regards its vintage years, but sadly devalued in later decades and a challenge for Volkswagen. From somewhere these companies, German both, had to extract or contrive an essence of Britishness which spoke to what we think we feel about both badges. 

Rolls-Royce succeeded brilliantly with its new Phantom: immense presence, and proportions which put the onlooker in mind of the great days of coach-building: the Grecian radiator arrives as a fanfare, and you know that the passenger compartment will be along in a moment. But frankly it was easier for Rolls-Royce: it was aiming to build the plutocrat of saloons – rapid, but not a sports car. 

VW, however, had to cross-connect raw, open motoring, racing success and silent, speedy luxury, though it was the last of those which W O Bentley wanted to offer. We know that because the 8-litre saloon profiled here was WO’s own vehicle, his beau idéal of the sporting car, a car which he drove for thousands of miles in Britain and across the Continent and on whose logbook he wrote “Any person using this car other than examiner, tester or urgent purveyor… will be immediately discharged”. It was very special to him.

Today the new Bentley company is rediscovering its identity by gathering its history to itself. After three decades or more in the same hands, WO’s 8-litre now belongs to the firm which makes the magnificent Continental GT, a car which is a long way from the archetypal rough-riding open 4½, but very close in spirit to this one.

I had the chance to inspect it before it went off for restoration, and that is how we have chosen to photograph it: a little tired, slightly down at one corner, traces of rust on the painted green spokes. For this 8-litre is in remarkable, original, condition. These are the very seats on which WO sat, the same doors he pulled shut, the same starter button he thumbed before heading down the A2 for Dover.

For over 30 years the car has belonged to the Majzub family, who maintained it and changed nothing. Julian Majzub remembers it fondly: “My father loved it. A lot of 8-litres went to people who just wanted a car they could wear top hats in, but this is what WO envisaged as his perfect car. A genuine 100mph saloon; you can easily average 80mph.”

That’s confirmed by contemporary reports. The second production chassis, this was the first definitive 8-litre and was the car the firm loaned to magazines for road tests – a car that had a huge impact on the car world. “Motoring in its very highest form,” The Autocar called it. Now that a Cricklewood Bentley is a hobby vehicle and not a means of transport we are used to these huge limousines being turned into Le Mans lookalikes, or seeing the massive engines transplanted into lighter 3- or 4½–litre chassis to go racing. In 1930 you had to choose between travelling quickly and carrying passengers, if comfort mattered. There were open sports cars which would do 90 or 100mph at the cost of an open-air pummelling, and there were comfortable limousines, but even a powerful saloon car could not be expected to whisk four people along at 100mph – until the 8-litre appeared. 

Perhaps the BMW M5 had the same sort of impact in our era, proferring 150mph for a quartet of cosseted inhabitants. Or the latest Bentley Flying Spur,  which effectively doubles the 8-litre’s top speed with unimpaired luxury. For it was the comfort which WO was selling with his vast new machine: a town carriage as much as a grand tourer, it would pull from walking pace in top gear. Just what today’s S-class or 750i does, but through sheer earth-moving torque, not via a seven-speed autobox. And it had the huge-striding quality which consumes the miles without apparent effort. The Autocar suggested one could breakfast in London and lunch in Catterick – which would be pushing it today. It was such an astonishing combination of qualities that Rolls-Royce, whose Phantom was Bentley’s chief target, did not at first take the 100 claim seriously. When it realised the rumours were true, and that Bentley was in cash trouble, it took decisive action.

Surviving Bentley records tell us that Chassis YH5002 went to H J Mulliner in October 1930, where it received a compact Weymann-pattern body with fabric sunroof. WO was a fan of the Weymann system, which used movable joints covered in fabric to give a body which would flex with the chassis, avoiding the creaks and groans of conventional saloons. He commented on the “silence and almost negligible weight.” That mattered, because the whole car weighs almost 2½ tons. 

Although coachbuilders were competing to add ever more lavish fittings to large cars, there is none of that here. No cigar companions, cocktail cabinets, or fold-down tables, not even a door pocket, although the dainty nickel-plated window catches have a lovely twist to them which makes you want to fiddle. Driver and passenger sit in beautifully shaped bucket seats, rear passengers on a bench with a small armrest, and the mottled brown leather, with patches, has been in there a very, very long time. Since 1930? The service records say it started out with cloth upholstery (leather was what the chauffeur got in the ’30s; owners preferred to sit on Bedford cloth), so that is one of the decisions Bentley will have to make about the restoration.

Paint choice is easier: although it looks good in its unusual green and black, it started in black and will revert to black. Julian Majzub explains: “Fred Hoffman [a Bentley engineer] told my father that it had been green once, so he repainted it.”

WO mentions “a great feeling of spaciousness.” Maybe so if you are talking about headroom and the large windows, but a tall man riding in the rear might find his knees up in the air, despite the little heel recess in the floor; it might take a pair of high heels but not a pair of brogues. This in a car 17ft long. It’s inevitable in a car built on a proper chassis, and even though WO used a hypoid rear axle and dropped the frame for greater stability, the 8-litre towers over ordinary cars. It’s equally surprising that the luggage space is so small: open up the lid and drop-down panel and there’s barely room for one suitcase. 

Under the tiny peak over the windscreen is an unusual fitting, an American proprietary vacuum-powered wiper WO rather liked. It’s unusual in that the arms don’t pivot but slide sideways; as WO put it, “one blade catching the other and carrying it in a companionable sort of manner to the other side of the screen when parked.” That alone will be a challenge for James Pearce, the Sussex firm which is carrying out the restoration.

The wiper is virtually the only special feature of this machine, which was the company demonstrator as well as personal transport. Built on the short wheelbase (12 instead of 13ft), it wasn’t lightened or tuned: the engine breathes through the same pair of SUs as all the other 8-litres, and the running gear was production-standard, though WO specified two distributors instead of one plus one magneto.

There was no technical advance to the new car: the straight-six engine was much as the 6½-litre – the same non-detachable head with single overhead camshaft operating four valves per cylinder, with a similar cam drive. Living in a vertical funnel behind the block, this ingenious system borrowed from WO’s locomotive origins, using triple eccentrics and three coupling rods to rotate the camshaft. It was an expensive solution, but extremely quiet. There was a new quieter gearbox, still decoupled from the engine, but nothing else novel.

One of the problems with the huge new engine was cooling. Adequate radiators were hard to make at the time, so on ‘The Box’ (a 6½ with the new 8-litre engine fitted and a rather ugly saloon body) Bentley experimented with evaporative cooling, where the water is kept boiling and the radiator is used to condense steam rather than to cool water. In the end, improved radiator technology side-stepped this difficulty before production began, and Bentley returned to conventional cooling, with thermostatic radiator shutters. However, three of the nine dials on GK706’s busy dash are temperature gauges connected to different points, presumably to monitor the new radiator’s performance on the long thrash to the Riviera. Interestingly, the clock is larger than the speedometer; perhaps time mattered more than mph on WO’s longer journeys. After all, he called it: “A fast and delightful car which did a prodigious mileage, including once solo from Dieppe to Cannes in one day without my having to put the lights on.” WO enjoyed these trips, and recorded them on film; the black and white shots with this article come from his personal album.

Bentley historian Clare Hay adds a tale about this car, told to her by Margaret Bentley, WO’s third wife. She was actually introduced to WO by wife number two, and told Hay that WO drove her home that night, and was so excited that he muffed his gear-changes.

But he was not to enjoy GK706 much longer. In his autobiography he records sadly how he parted with it after Rolls-Royce secretly bought his company in 1931. “The nadir was reached when I was instructed in a letter to sell my 8-litre. I left it with Jack Barclay and walked home, without a car for the first time in goodness knows how long, wondering if I should ever have another.”

Perhaps because of the slump following the Wall St Crash, the car sat at Barclays until 1932 when Kensington Moir, Bentley dealer and racer, bought it for £1200 – £250 less than the chassis price a year before. It was exactly the wrong time to bring out an outrageously fast and expensive car, and only 100 were built; yet WO claimed it was the most profitable Bentley they ever made.

From Kensington Moir GK706 went through a series of owners, but all stayed in touch with the Bentley service department (which remained open until 1939). The records show that as early as 1932 GK706 needed one new piston and eight main bearings, new rings only a year on, then new road springs and a series of crankshaft dampers, so it was not having an easy life.

Julian Majzub can’t recall when his father bought the car, but he’s known it much of his life. Fuad Majzub certainly had it in 1968, because that year he was able to reunite WO with his favourite Bentley when he took the founder to lunch in it on his 80th birthday. “I’m sorry to see it go,” Julian says, “but it’s for a good cause: my brother is giving the proceeds to a Middle East education charity. And it will be well looked after: Franz-Josef Paefgen [CEO of Bentley Motors] is very keen to maintain its originality.”

In a few months GK706 will look rather smarter than today, ready to parade the Bentley message; but I’m quietly glad I saw it first, a little weathered and worn.

When I went to inspect it the one view I couldn’t get was the driver’s, peering along the bonnet over the wide, hard-rimmed wheel. Too much of a jump from my wheelchair. But that didn’t matter; it’s the one view I know already. Above the desk in my study at home there is a large Roy Nockolds print of the dash of this car, with WO’s hand on the wheel and the bonnet spearing down a dusty French road between Napoleon’s avenues of trees. With mountains on the left and open fields on the right, the arrow-straight road disappears to a distant, invisible goal, and there is not a vehicle in sight. I gaze at it when I’m stuck for the next line. When I’ve inched my way home in London’s traffic, it’s relaxing to look up at this elysian vision of motoring as it once was, and to imagine that I’m sitting beside WO, in the finest car he ever made.

Thanks to: Clare Hay, Tim Houlding, BDC, Bentley Motors.