Road test: 8-litre Bentley special

A gentle giant

No, a car like this never ran at Brooklands. It is not the final realisation of some pre-war visionary’s plan; it is not inspired by a long-lost original, nor has it any racing history of its own — yet.

This 8-litre Bentley is that most contentious of beasts, the newly-built vintage special — an amalgam of components carefully chosen by specialists in the marque from the whole spectrum of W Bentley parts as being the best of each, and assembled more than hall a century later into something which would have had who-knows-what effect on WO himself.

Arguments against the fairness of allowing such specials to contest VSCC races lose a lot of weight in the face of the evidence of how much is regularly replaced on cars which claim to be “original”. Defenders of the idea point out that specials were built in great numbers pre-and post-war, and as long as the parts are of appropriate age, why should they not be re-combined with the benefit of lessons learned over 50 years of racing?

Of course, there are many venerable specials racing within the VSCC today which were famous and successful in their own right before the war— think of the Avon-Bentley or the Bentley-Royce. But there is always a suspicion that a “new” home-brewed machine has less right to call itself vintage; that it perhaps uses a larger proportion of new components, or is not somehow in the spirit of the thing.

A continuous history and record of originality will always give the truly original car extra attraction for collectors, though, as old cars become a fashionable purchase, buyers seem to become more willing to believe what they want to believe of a certain car’s history and proof seems to become less important. Hence another argument against modern specials: that in future years a history will be imputed to the car which it does not deserve.

Present these views to Stanley Mann and he will simply shrug. He did not build this special, but having put much skill and effort into sorting it out he is certainly going to race it. As one of the better-known dealers in the vintage Bentley, he is used to collating the life-stories of the many cars which pass through his hands in a year. When I visited his premises to inspect the 8-litre special, there were something like 24 cars packed into the building — almost all Bentleys, some ready for their new owners, some being restored, and there were one or two rather special vehicles being built up for clients.

A very early 3-litre all-weather tourer, nearer to a folding-head saloon really, was having its eight-day clock repaired, while stacks of shelves bore lamps and radiator shells; if it were not for the large hydraulic,17-hoist, this could be a pre-war workship. Outsiders included the V12 Lagonda Le Mans replica, and the very rare sight of a Squire, with the more unusual four-seater tourer body.

Stanley Mann has been selling, maintaining and racing Bentleys for long enough to appreciate something really special amongst specials, and the long low blue two-seater which sat in wait near the entrance doors of the workship promises to give VSCC spectators this year something spectacular to focus their lenses on.

This is one of three cars in this crowded building which are not for sale: Stanley Mann also has a Speed Six and a Le Mans-spec 41/2-litre, not a team car but one converted to identical spec by the factory and unaltered since then, and in which WB once enjoyed a lap of Brooklands. It gleams with well-kept wear and tear; a pleasure to see instead of the better-than-factory condition of many a restored car, and according to its owner has been described as “the best 41/2 in the Club”.

But amongst the sheen of old brass and oil which pervaded the room, even an 8-litre saloon with block removed, revealing the massive pistons and triple eccentric cam-gear poking up, could not distract the eye from the car I had come to drive. I had fallen for it the moment I saw its photograph a week or two before, and in the harsh fluorescent light of the shop it was even sleeker and more aggressive.

With its bonnet barely clearing the cambox and slender flanks tapering to a point behind the cockpit, this bare two-seater ought to have been a Grand Prix car; the tail displays the fineness of a Tipo B Alfa Romeo, but there is just room for driver and mechanic, with the latter’s arm resting on the dark blue paneling behind the pilot. Cutaway sides swoop up and round to make a subtly asymmetrical swelling behind the wide, thin steering wheel, and the cycle-guards are as slim as they could possibly be.
Drawing all these elements together is a tall 3-litre radiator, its arched top the perfect curve to flow back to the dash. The GP comparison is not exact; this bonnet is much higher than any Bugatti or Alfa Romeo, but the scalloped cockpit makes a successful junction between nose and tail; one of those shapes which are so lovely that you know that the car has to be a fine machine to drive.

That, at least, was my optimistic thought as Stanley Mann described the abilities of his mount. “She’ll spin her wheels in top on a day like this.” Nervously I glanced out at the grey sky. It was one of those dirty December days, not quite raining, when the roads are covered in slime, and traction is a summer memory. The 2.8 Capri I had driven up to Hertfordshire had rarely been pointing straight, and the idea of a tuned 8-litre engine and narrow tyres was beginning to alarm me. “If,” he said, fixing me firmly with his eye, “If you bend it, you’ve bought it”. Then he grinned, adding “No, I don’t really mean that”; but I wondered . . .

Racing is the prime purpose of this special, but it is road equipped and registered, and Mann intends to drive it to meetings and carry essential spares aboard. “Service car? No, no, we’re going to do this properly. We won’t even take the mudguards off.” And why bother when the motor is putting out something like 350bhp, along with torque which would melt most dynamometers.

Assembled rather slowly over the last 20 years by John Koenig and completed this last winter by Mann’s team, the car draws on many models. To begin with, the huge six-cylinder 8-litre block with its integral four valves per cylinder head sits on a modified Speed 6 crankcase which contains a Laystall crank, one of three made at the same time (Gordon Russell and Tim Llewlelyn have the others). Tubular rods mount high-compression 8-litre pistons and the flywheel is substantially lightened; the water-pump is no longer mounted on the front of the camshaft, but several inches lower, where the radiator fan would normally be, and is driven by a chain from the original position.

Three huge SUs sit splendidly side by side high on the off-side of the block, while the nose of the crank now turns an alternator instead of a dynamo, so that the load of running two Kenlowe electric radiator fans is not a problem.

This huge device, whose massive castings look as if borrowed from some maritime application, especially at the rear where the tunnel for the cam-rods rises vertically out of the crankcase, is squeezed into a 3-litre Speed Model 9ft 91/2in-wheelbase chassis with a 41/2-litre steering box, together with a C-type gearbox and a Speed Six rear axle. At 3:1, this axle gives an easy 130mph, which is rather hard on the 100mph speedometer which comes, like the other dials, from a 3-litre. In fact, the needle bends against the stop when the car is about to top out.

To stop this hungry-looking greyhound of a car, the 19in wheels have had their brake drums converted to two-cylinder hydraulic operation, though I was warned that some adjustment was still required to make the car stop square, a gloomy thought on a slippery day like this. Before I took over, Stanley sprinted out with me alongside to fill the fuel tank. The engine, still cold, heaved and popped with a thunderous report, and the rear wheels, as he had predicted, clawed for grip. “By the way”, he shouted as we slithered to a muddy ‘Give Way’, “Don’t use the hand-brake on the move, it only works on one wheel!” I vowed to keep my hands inside he cockpit and ignore the plated lever on the outside.

Still wide-eyed at just how quick the car had been in Stanley’s hands, I listened to his final instructions. “If the temperature goes above 190-deg flick the Kenlowes on “. That was simple, not so the gear-change. “C-type box,” Stanley had grinned, “Master that and you can manage anything. Oh, and don’t slip the clutch, or you’ll burn it out.” I groaned, remembering the turbocharged racing truck I once struggled with for several circuit laps. The change couldn’t be worse than that, could it?

It wasn’t. Actually it slipped from first through the intermediates to fourth rather nicely. With all that torque in such a light frame, the car rolled away from standstill with no effort, and the weighty clutch felt good. A hefty kick to disengage it, small precise movements of the right-hand lever, and the pedal seemed to bounce back on its own as soon as the gear was in. And what throttle response! Could this really be an 8000cc engine blipping so eagerly on the down-changes ?

My trepidation faded as the car’s responsiveness showed through. Even the steering, the thing which alarms me more than the brakes on most vintage cars, had bite and answered instantly. With the exhaust reverberating crisply from the steep banks on either side (punctuated by the occaisional stagger – the advance lever had a tenancy to retard itself steadily) I began to enjoy myself.

So long-legged is the car that third and top are enough to cope with anything except a standing-start, and in either it bounds forward with a twitch of throttle, sweeping past other cars impatiently. 60, 70, 80 mph comes up and the wheel is light and accurate, the tall tyres visibly obeying the driver. Though I am wearing glasses rather than goggles, the high scuttles and aeroscreens seem to keep all the wind off, and the swish of damp roads swirls around the cockpit.

Only the smallest movements are needed to drive this car fast on open roads: the controls are well placed and even the little mirror on the scuttle does not shake too much. As we weave around mundane traffic and surge through roundabouts, I find musing that with its lovely balance and fearsome acceleration this could surely out-run many a sportscar of today – with the single reservation of the brakes, or rather the tyres.

There are indicators but unsure if they work I try to remember the left turn hand-signal as our side turn approaches. At these speeds the brakes feel just right, powerful and even; they would easily lock the wheels in today’s damp, so I add a fixed 50% to my braking distances as we turn into some narrow muddy lanes. Real effort is needed to turn the wheel at low speed; the answer is not to slow down too much but to allow the chassis to do the work. Be confident, turn the wheel on a light throttle and the chassis turns promptly with a trace of stabilising understeer, but none of the dreadful pause and lurch of many a beam-axle car. Only one vintage car I have driven has steering as pleasant, though different in feel — a Type 57 Bugatti.

In all the slow manoeuvring for pictures the car showed no temperament (apart from the self-retarding lever needing repeated tweaks), restarting without fuss on a prod of the self-starter and idling quietly and smoothly. It is the same as the revs rise; though the exhaust thunders and the frame shakes with suppressed urge, the torque pours out silkily in every gear. Changing gear can be snappy if gauged exactly, though it is easy to miss the slot and have to start again.

No doubt the ride is stiff, but perched on a leather cushion on the floorboards I was not aware of that, marvelling instead at how secure the car felt. It feels utterly flat through corners, and if a sudden rise in revs betrays the start of the dreaded side-slip, the merest feathering of the accelerator tames it. I did wind on some opposite lock in the safety of an empty country park; even then the feeling through the narrow rim of the wheel was silky-smooth and predictable.

That really was the over-riding surprise about this machine: expecting a raw and unruly monster, I found instead a responsive and quite predictable sports-racing car, of magnificent performance and refined manners. Its high rev-range, up to 4200rpm (four-five in extremis), and light flywheel do not detract from the unruffled pulling power at the lower end, while the instant response to the right-hand pedal is going to light up a few tyres next season.

My first reaction was right — any car which looks as beautiful as this has to be a pleasure to drive. GC