The mother of all Bentleys
Andrew Frankel witnesses a bold attempt by Mother Gun to reach 130mph once again
Thirty years ago Vaughan Davis bought a slice of history. He discovered, in a Sussex barn, one of the most famous Bentleys in the world.
Or at least he found most of it. The car was in a terrible state, beyond a wreck. Its streamlined, single-seater body had gone and all that remained was the skeleton of the car that did more than any other to establish Britain’s proudest motoring marque.
It seemed hard to believe that the pile of bits Davis had uncovered belonged to the prototype 4 1/2, which made its world debut at the Le Mans 24-Hour race back in June 1927. Back then, it had smashed the lap record before being involved in the multiple pile-up at White House corner involving the entire Bentley team.
The next year, ‘Mother Gun’, as it had been dubbed, returned and won the race for itself. Its successes continued in the face of overwhelmingly faster cars, including a second place at its last Le Mans in 1929, until Bentley’s finances, precarious at the best of times, fell victim to the slump early in 1931.
Mother Gun, on the other hand, received a new lease of life. Converted to a single-seater by Richard Marker, and fitted with a 6 1/2-litre Bentley engine in 1934, it was then rebuilt on a longer chassis by Robin Jackson as a single-seat racing car designed with one purpose in mind: to lap the banked Brooklands track faster than any other. As the Bentley-Jackson Special, it duly achieved this on several occasions, touching 145mph and completing laps at more than 130mph; and this in an era when a car was considered sporting if it would top 60mph in a straight line.
Even back then, a single season was a long time for one car to remain competitive: Mother Gun managed it for 12 and it took a world war finally to call a halt to its race career. Even then it still managed to take the last 130mph badge on the last lap of the last meeting ever to be held at the Byfleet race track. The war over, Bill Short ran it twice at Brighton, before dismantling it; he never got round to re-assembling the parts.
Thirty years ago, Vaughan Davis paid £145 for the wreck. He could scarcely afford to buy it, much less restore it, but as a confirmed Bentley fanatic since the age of eight, nor could he see it and its story turn to dust. He had this dream that one day Mother Gun would once more lap a banked track at 130mph. He didn’t know how and he didn’t know where. All he knew was that the dream would not go away.
It would be another 20 years before Mother Gun turned a wheel. Vaughan, unlike the original Bentley Boys and the majority of those who drive vintage Bentleys today, neither was nor is a rich man. He commissioned a new body to be built from the original drawings but the car’s restoration progressed so agonisingly slowly that Vaughan realised that he could never complete the job on his own. He was rescued by his long-time chum and employer, Bentley authority and dealer Stanley Mann.
The restoration picked up speed until one glorious day, in 1989, the deafening six-cylinder racing engine fired up once more. Brooklands had long since been broken up but, in the 1960s, a banked track had been built at Millbrook in Bedfordshire, not for racing but for durability testing of modern cars. Brooklands it might not have been, but it was tailor-made for Mother Gun. It lost no time returning to its record-breaking ways, smashing long-established class records there in 1990 and returning in 1992 to claim a 1000-mile record held since the war by John Cobb. But Mother Gun still had not reached 130mph.
Recently, I drove Mother Gun, at speed, around the banked track at Millbrook. It was a humbling experience. You sit high up with your legs splayed either side of the massive transmission tunnel. The clutch and brake are about two feet apart. In front of you is a mighty steering wheel and revcounter that’s not much smaller. There’s no speedometer. You look clown an endless bonnet to two skinny and wingless tyres. The car weighs about two tonnes, has the power of a Porsche, the torque of a locomotive and simple semi-elliptic springs at each corner. At Brooklands, cars used to leave the ground at over 130mph on every lap. Millbrook is not quite so bumpy but even at the gentle 100mph cruise at which I felt safe, every lump and pit in the track was telegraphed to my fingers and backside in lucid detail.
The reason Mother Gun was at Millbrook was that, after constant fine tuning, Stanley Mann reckoned it could, for the first time since war broke out, do 130mph. If it were even to come close, it would be the culmination of a 30-year dream for Vaughan Davis. The car belongs to Mann in name but it was never going to be anyone else but Vaughan who was going to do this particular piece of driving.
If you stand at the top of the banking with the wind blowing in the right direction, you can hear Mother Gun coming from about a mile away. It’s voice is low, urgent, oddly musical and very, very loud.
Even on his warm-up lap, Vaughan is right at the top of the Millbrook banking, with his foot down, working the famous Bentley past 110mph, then 120mph. It is now taking Vaughan well under a minute to complete each two-mile lap of the circuit and, as the times come down, his efforts to keep the car threading the thin strip of concrete between safety and oblivion visibly increase.
On the last lap, it is clear that Mother Gun will go no faster. Its revcounter needle has run right off the clock and the tone of the engine’s roar remains static around the lap. Five minutes later, Vaughan Davis is nonchalantly blipping the throttle as he brings Mother Gun back to the paddock. The first sign of a positive result is the sight of the man bringing the news of the speed. He’s running. He approaches the car. Vaughan still in the cockpit, and enquires: “Does 137mph sound all right to you?”
For the first time that day. Vaughan looks momentarily stumped for words. So he instead hops athletically out of Mother Gun before announcing: “Well, that’s a bit of fun, isn’t it?” Understating it more would have been hard. You can tell what it means, though: for just one moment, he looks a little shaky before recovering, as anyone might, upon realising a dream they’d harboured for 30 years.
And there’s another reason you might forgive him for such a brief moment’s crack in his composure. Vaughan Davis, the man who saved Mother Gun, is 76 years old.