Gentle giant

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The distinctive Gooda Special Bentley proved to be a crowd favourite when it raced at Goodwood last March – and it’s every bit as engaging behind the wheel as it is to behold
Writer: Richard Heseltine, Photographer: Michael Bailie

you don’t know whether to laugh or cry but make a noise somewhere in-between. It just looks so, well, improbable. It arrives as a Bentley and departs as an Italianate GT, the bluff front end being instantly recognisable, the dramatically arced roofline and cropped Kamm tail rather less so. Then there are the go-quicker stripes and roundels that suggest it’s a racing car, except the Gooda Special has only ever ventured trackside twice in competition as far as we are aware. What’s more, its circuit forays were some 47 years apart. Delve more deeply into the car’s history, however, and it transpires that this most rakish of Crewe ships was also a concours queen. It’s nothing if not a contradiction.

But then so much about this remarkable machine is mired in obscurity and conjecture. It rather goes with the territory. As is so often the way with these things, web forums are awash with hypotheses. That the car is a modified R-type Continental (it isn’t). Either that, or it’s some sort of Bentley prototype (ditto). But by concentrating on what it isn’t, you’re in danger of missing out on what it is: a highly distinctive one-off that is a riot to drive.

Anyone who witnessed the Gooda Special’s appearance at the 72nd Members’ Meeting at Goodwood earlier this year will likely never forget it. Fielded by JD Classics, and driven with gusto by veteran Wil Arif, it towered over its rivals in the Tony Gaze Trophy race. What’s more, the car was lapped by many of them as it soared to 27th (and last) place. But – and it’s an important but – the Bentley became an instant crowd favourite, its cult legacy assured.

The car began life as a standard Bentley R-type saloon, the handsome if conservative ‘medium-sized’ model that replaced the closely related MkVI from 1952. According to the ever-helpful WO Bentley Memorial Foundation, chassis B 77 ZX left the factory in 1954 and was originally registered RTU28. Some works documentation says it was used as a trials car by veteran Rolls-Royce/Bentley man Willoughby Lappin. The same paperwork describes it as having engine B 38 Z, a standard 4.8 straight six. Precisely how long Lappin retained the car is unclear and there’s a gap in its history until the mid-1960s, by which time Robert (Bob) Gooda and Brian Dumps jointly owned it.

It’s at this juncture that the car underwent its metamorphosis into the Gooda Special, although the motive behind its reinvention is lost in the mists of time. Rumour has it that the R-type was rolled and, rather than return the car to its original factory configuration, the decision was made to create something more outré. In many ways, the car’s creation foretold the cottage industry that would spring up converting MkVI and R-types into ‘specials’ during the ’70s, names such as Syd Lawrence and Derry Mallalieu being to the fore. The difference in this particular instance is that Gooda and Dumps opted for something more contemporary than the pre-war-style roadsters that came to typify the movement.

The fastback body was fashioned by Peel Coachworks of Kingston-upon-Thames, a coachbuilder steeped in motor sport. The firm took its name from the nearby Sir Robert Peel pub, partners Alec Goldie and Fred Faulkner becoming renowned within the British racing car industry for their ability to shape car bodies out of aluminium in double-quick time. More often than not, the ex-Hawker Aircraft men did so armed with little more than customers’ doodles. Clients during the 1950s and ’60s ranged from McLaren to WSM, the firm subsequently branching out into historic car restoration as racing manufacturers switched over to glassfibre (it is rumoured to have made about 500 repro Bugatti bodies).

The Bentley’s new shell was created in 1966 and, in a roundabout way, it aped the lines of modern-day GT cars, albeit on a much grander scale. That said, the headlight treatment owed more to the then-current Rolls-Royce Phantom V. Remarkably, the bonnet-line was some 4in lower than before, the Gooda Special also emerging somewhat shorter than a regular R-type – 15ft 4in rather than 16ft 7in – although the wheelbase remained unaltered. It was also lighter: 1549kg, down from 1880kg.

Any performance modifications remain unrecorded. The 4887cc straight-six was still mated to the factory three-speed automatic when the car was entered in the August 1967 Bentley Drivers’ Club race meeting at Silverstone. The car was entrusted to Dumps for the five-lap handicap that kicked off the seasonal fixture, although it failed to last the distance. Co-owner Gooda emerged victorious in his S3 Continental, which was described somewhat dismissively by Gregor Grant in his Autosport report as a Rolls-Bentley. There is no mention of the Gooda Special in his two-page summary and the same is true of Motoring News and Autocar. The car was supposedly entered in the 10-lap handicap race that same weekend, but there is no record of it starting.

That would appear to be it for the Gooda Special’s track forays in period, although photos exist of it kicking up a storm – and dust – off piste. The car might have competed in a round of the Player’s No6 Autocross series in the late ’60s, but records are patchy so this is conjecture. The same is true of what happened to the car subsequently. The Gooda Special is believed to have spent time in Belgium during the ’70s, when Gooda had moved on to a Derby Bentley-based special. The coupé, however, was unquestionably in the US of A by the end of the decade and had undergone a change of hue from silver to white. In 1979, the car made a fleeting appearance in the TV show Vega$, which starred Robert Ulrich as private eye Dan Tanna. From there we find another gap although, according to Ray Roberts’ book Bentley Specials & Special Bentleys, the Gooda Special was back in Britain by April 1990, when it was offered for sale by Straight Eight Ltd of Goldhawk Road, London. The car subsequently headed Stateside once again where, more recently, Terry O’Reilly owned it. He showed the car at The Quail: A Motorsport Gathering concours in 2008 and drove it on the Copperstate 1000 Rally two years later.

Which brings us to today, when this globe-trotting behemoth is once again terrorising British circuits. The funny thing is, while it may look vast in photos, up close the Bentley appears positively dainty when compared to something like, say, a modern GT car. Up front, the stately body-colour grille has thankfully been denuded of the badge bar it once wore. So far, so normal. It’s only when viewed in profile that it appears unlike any other Bentley from the period. The dropaway reverse-angle door window treatment seems perhaps a mite odd, but the roofline and air vents offer sufficient racer reference points, as do the louvres punched into the vast acreage of bonnet. The wheels, meanwhile, were made specifically for the car back in the ’60s.

Unconventionally attractive to some, and conventionally unattractive to others, there’s no ignoring the Gooda Special. From certain angles it appears cohesive, from others more a Frankensteinian mishmash of discordant elements that have been overlaid and then hammered into shape. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to fall for this strangest of Bentleys. It’s eminently likable, and even more so once you’ve clambered aboard, which isn’t the easiest of tasks given that it has about a foot of ground clearance. That, and it now has a gearlever sprouting out of the floor to the driver’s right. The date of its change from an autobox to a four-speed manual is another mystery. What is clear is that its positioning would likely make lightning driver changes damn near impossible in endurance events. It really isn’t the easiest of cars to enter in a hurry.

But it’s worth the effort. You cannot help but giggle like a loon even when stationary, because the view ahead is so surreal. How many other racing cars can you think of that have a pull-out desk in the dashboard? The vast steering wheel and burr walnut fascia are pure Bentley, the large aftermarket tacho rather less so. The bucket seats are on the small side, but they are surprisingly supportive. Behind you sits the spare wheel/tyre in an oceanic expanse of space: it more than lives up to the GT ideal as there’s loads of room for luggage, spares and heaven knows what else.

And then the good bit: turn the ignition key, thumb the starter and the Bentley fires in an instant, and at trouser-flapping volume. There aren’t even token concessions to decorum here, more surround-sound fanfare played out at the rate of artillery fire. It’s hard not to just sit there flexing the throttle pedal; it’s childish but life-affirming. Act the grown-up and it settles to a meaty burble at idle. You don’t need to be told that it’s on open exhausts.

Depress the light(ish) clutch, ease it into gear, release the parking brake beneath the dash and there’s a degree of hesitancy as you amble off the line. Initial acceleration isn’t exactly electrifying but, once up and rolling, it comes into its own. Speed builds with freight train-like momentum, gearchanges being surprisingly close-coupled. The actual shift action requires a long throw – you feel as though you’re operating machinery, rather than having the hard work done for you as with many modern-day performance cars – but there is little movement across the gate. It seems to have a fierce spring-bias, but it’s hard to grandma a gearshift. It’s debatable whether you really need to double declutch, but it’s fun to hear the engine note rear up as you blip for each shift so it’s no great hardship. Given that the standard R-type was capable of 106mph in period, it’s fair to assume that the much-lighter Gooda Special is good for 120mph, perhaps more.

The worm and roller steering is light but has plenty of feel aside from a slight dead spot on the straight ahead, but that could be down to the car’s age and a lack of familiarity on the driver’s part. You’re certainly aware of the less than racy architecture – a beam rear axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs for starters – but it isn’t discombobulated by rutted asphalt, nor are there any creaks or groans through the structure. It rolls – more than a bit – and you suspect that once it starts flailing, the rear end could likely take out a small cottage, but it’s not remotely scary. Nothing of the sort. What this car needs is room, and plenty of it, but it’s nowhere near as intimidating as you might imagine when driven with enthusiasm. Someway south of the limit it’s pretty faithful. Even the drum brakes work well, although there’s about an inch of travel in the middle pedal before they bite. On the debit side, there’s precious little ventilation and the cockpit soon becomes very toasty, but this is to be expected.

The Gooda Special is a much better car than preconceptions will have you believe. Even the briefest of sorties tells you that. Quite aside from its out-there appearance, it’s great fun to drive. This most barking of Bentleys is an intriguing curio, a very special special that was built to a particular brief; one that arguably works better as a road-going GT car than a competition tool. It offers greatness and derangement in equal measure, and that is why it’s compelling still. The Gooda Special might not be to all tastes, but once savoured you crave second helpings.

Thanks to: JD Classics, www.jdclassics.co.uk

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