To the North By Bentley Eight

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In 1938 Bill Boddy road tested a Bentley by driving it from the Palace of Westminster to John O’Groats. It was one of those ideas which catch the imagination and when we recently reprinted his account of the journey, the response was such that we decided to recreate the trip.

The Route

The 1938 party of Bill Boddy, Tom Lush and Jim Brymer took what was then the quickest route: the Al to Scotch Corner, across Bowes Moor on the A66, then through Carlisle and across to Inverness and finally up the A9 to John O’Groats. We decided to follow that route north and then return by what is currently the quickest way, which from Carlisle southwards means the M6 and M1.

Following the original route sounds easy but before you can follow the old A1 you’ve first to find it! Here John Baynes of Ordnance Survey came to our assistance with photostats of 1930s maps. At Barnet, the Great North Road is now the A1000 and in Hatfield it peters out into a cul-de-sac. The old road goes right through the middle of Grantham, Stamford, Baldock, Newark, and other towns which have long been bypassed and near the Yorkshire border it is now the A638 which cuts through Retford and Doncaster. It is extraordinary how roads have changed, mainly in the last 20 years or so.

Bill had begun his journey from the Palace of Westminster one midnight, so we had to do the same. It’s a sad reflection on the times that one no longer just arrives outside Parliament and takes pictures. Nowadays, common sense and courtesy mean you contact the police well in advance to make your motives clear.

Time and Speed

We had no idea what time the journey north would take. Bill Boddy and a Bentley 41/4-litre Vanden Plan Drophead had taken 15 hours and 14 minutes and we were quite prepared for it to take us longer. Our car and modern roads might both be quicker but we had to contend with speed limits, winter driving conditions and a fifteenfold increase in the number of vehicles on the road.

Still, we could rely on every petrol pump being electrically powered whereas the ’38 crew dealt mainly with hand-operated pumps. On the other hand, we did not feel that it would be wise to wake up the owner of a filling station at 4 am as Bill did when his fuel gauge dipped. He reported that he got his man to “condescendingly descend and minister to the Bentley’s needs”. I wonder what the response would be if one did that today? We didn’t want to find out and so erred on the side of caution and made tour fuel stops when three would have done.

It’s as well to stress that we were not aiming to beat any records. Had we been going for a time, we’d have used a different car (something a little more discreet), chosen a different time of year and would certainly not have stopped for photographs. Our intention was a brisk drive, not a white knuckle job. There are three distinct speed limits: the legal limit; a higher speed which will not lead to problems with the law provided one is sensible; and there is the speed of punters in red Cavaliers with jackets hanging from hooks. I went for the middle ground and, two hours into the journey, I had the opportunity to discuss my theory with a policewoman who prettily requested a little of my time.

One difference between Bill’s drive and mine was that he drove the entire distance while I insisted on a relief driver. I could have managed it easily had I chosen my own departure time but midnight it had to be and no matter how much rest I’ve had, I fall asleep between two and three in the morning. On balance, it is wiser to do this in the passenger seat than behind the wheel.

The Car

I’m not sure that the Bentley Eight is the spiritual descendant of the car used in 1938. To find that I think one has to look at the Jaguar XJS, which is ironic when you think that Jags used to be known, among other things, as “Wardour Street Bentleys”. We wanted to use a Bentley, though, and while the Eight is not a performance model, it is a significant car for the company.

Not so long ago. Bentley’s share of Rolls-Royce/Bentley sales had fallen to just 5% and serious consideration was given to dropping the name altogether. Instead, it was decided to reaffirm a separate image for the marque and this was done with the introduction of the Mulsanne Turbo, the Mulsanne Turbo R and the Eight. The Eight is aimed at the younger owner driver, a sort of R-R starter kit.

Priced carefully at just under £50,000 (£49,497 to be exact) and available only in Europe, this car has a slightly less expensive trim specification. The walnut is straight grain rather than burr, and there is less of it in the trim. The magazine pockets behind the seats are mesh and not leather. There are fewer colour and accessory options, and the carpets are not lambswool. The mesh grille is doubtless cheaper to produce but I feel it works splendidly as a styling alternative. In fact, its hard to think of any other car in which so profound a change in image has been wrought by so simple a modification.

In essence, the Eight is a re-badged Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit with slightly harder spring rates. 1986 specification cars have further damper revisions and the pas has been re-rated to impart more feel to the driver, so the model is making gradual progress away from the parent car. It is still a long way from being a sporting car but it has made a contribution to Bentley’s revitalisation. Far from being considered for extinction, 22% of R-R production now bears the Bentley name and the marque is establishing a new personality.

Its interesting that, at £1,579, Bill’s car represented the cost of 15 basic Fords. The Bentley Eight also represents 15 basic Fords. Fuel in 1938 was around 8p a gallon but then a basic Ford cost roughly 1,300 gallons, today fuel is relatively cheaper at around 1,600 gallons for a Ford. At 4p a pint, oil was fairly close to what it is today in real terms, but Bill used ten pints and we used none. In 1938 Bill had to have two tyres replaced on the return journey while we found it hard to detect any wear at all.

The Way North

To everyone’s disappointment, Bill Boddy was laid low with flu so just three of us made the rendezvous: John Deverell from our advertisement department, Ruth Williams one of our photographers, and myself, Mike Lawrence, Deputy Editor. We left Parliament Square while Big Ben was still chiming midnight.

For anyone who regularly spends time in London traffic jams, there is a peculiar delight in driving along almost deserted streets. Its utter luxury to be able to maintain a steady 30 mph and ease unimpeded out of town.

We made a navigation error in Hatfield but were soon heading north on deserted roads. Our one deliberate deviation from the old A1 was to by-pass Stevenage for it is a post-war town.

I’d had a few days to become used to the Bentley but John and Ruth were new to it and they marvelled at its space, ride (the suspension is self-levelling), comfort and quiet. At 60 mph the loudest noise is a passenger commenting on the silence.

Two hours into our journey we were striding along when I noticed a change in the pattern of the lights in my rear-view mirror. At that point I put the cruise control into operation at 70 mph and, purer than the driven snow, waited until the interloping car caught us up. Sure enough, it turned out to be a police Rover which flagged us down.

I walked back to be met by a very attractive WPC who politely began by emphasising I was not being booked but who felt that I might have been doing as much as 80 mph. Actually I’d been travelling much faster, as she and her driver both knew, but conceded that she had an interesting opinion.

I then opined that since I had been able to detect a police car two miles behind in pitch darkness, I was driving well within my limits. She laughed and said “We knew you’d clocked us, but it’s all a game, isn’t it?”

Now that’s a traffic cop you can call a traffic cop. She asked for my Particulars, which I gladly gave while suppressing an urge to ask her for hers (personality as well as looks, you see) and we talked a while of this and that and then she gave me a solemn warning about falling asleep at the wheel. “I have two reserve drivers,” I said. She looked at the Bentley and replied, “I’m not surprised, it looks like the sort of car which comes with everything” The little darling!

We lost five minutes but gained three paragraphs.

Stamford came up shortly afterwards and I drove through it very slowly, for it is one of the most under-rated towns in England and I wanted to savour it. The gritters were out which gave a warning of what was to come.

Though the night air was close to freezing point, the split level air conditioning kept the interior of the car comfortable, with warm air blowing onto our feet (there is a vent for the rear passengers) and cool air at face level. The remarkable thing about this system is the complete absence of noise. Bentley is so confident of its system that it does not fit a heated rear window but we found that the inside of the windows misted up when cold air was suddenly introduced to the interior. The windscreen was quickly cleared by over-riding the automatic air contioning, but the rear window had to be manually wiped.

So we went on, savouring the smell of hops in the brewing town of Newark, stopping to consult our maps in Retford and coming out of Doncaster I handed over the wheel to John Deverell. Our time to Doncaster, which included a five minute fuel stop and my encounter with the slim arm of the law, was almost exactly the same which Bill had done in 1938.

Coming in at the last minute, John had not had a previous chance to drive the car and, as I had done, found the steering a little strange. The Bentley has a large, skinny, wheel and the power assistance at first makes the car seem frighteningly light. Obviously one adapts to the car but neither John nor l ever did take to the steering wheel and if we were ever lucky enough to own a Bentley, the first thing we’d do would be to replace the standard wheel with one with a thicker rim. The fact that 1986-spec cars have had the pas re-rated to transmit more feel to the driver says everything I felt about the steering.

Up to Scotch Corner we had to pass through our second (of four) single lane carriageway with the inevitable slow moving truck in front. Then we had to tail a police Escort for a few miles. We stopped to top up with fuel as a precaution and finally we over-shot the A66 turn off (my fault as navigator, had I guided Columbus he’d have discovered Cardiff), turned around and struck off across Bowes Moor.

Bill Boddy reported that his friends were pleasantly surprised when “his” Bentley was able to climb at 80 mph. Naturally, such a feat was simple for our car for they at Rolls-Royce speak sooth when they describe the power from its 6.75-lire V8 engine as “adequate”. The Bentley is a big and heavy car, so initial getaway is not outstanding (0-60 mph in 10 sec) but once under way there is an impressive amount of flexibility.

With substantial weight (4,950 lb), a large frontal area, and only three speeds (automatic transmission is standard) the Bentley has a few things stacked against it as a performance car. Its top speed of 120 mph is hardly remarkable, but what is exceptional is the way it conducts itself at speed. You have to be very close indeed to its maximum before the car feels quick. I was able to take a very nervous passenger much faster than she’d been before in her life, and she did not notice. The wheels always seem four-square with the road even in stiff side winds or on slippery roads.

John was able to keep up a brisk pace on the road to Penrith, there being very little traffic about. We ran into a little sleet and some patches of fog. Cars parked off the road were covered in thick ice and we kept our eyes on the “external temperature” gauge. In fact, as soon as that gauge registers one degree Celsius a red light comes on. I took over again at Carlisle and, from time to time, the “ice warning” light came on and the road surface certainly felt that it was not a misplaced warning. We slowed considerably and proceeded with caution. Another single lane stretch of road behind a crawling van slowed us even more and our insistance on driving through Cumbernauld, where we got lost, slowed us even more. Still we were quite happy to make a stop so Ruth could photograph the dawn.

We went through the centre of Stirling. Dunblane and Crieff and hoped to recreate the 1938 journey in one other way. Bill and his friends had stopped for breakfast in the hotel at Amulree but we arrived too soon which meant that we were half an hour up on the 1983 time.

Feeling tired, I handed over once again to John for an hour. The fuel warning light, which was about 80 miles on the pessimistic side, led us to Dalwhinnie and a garage which took every form of credit card except my own, Access. Can you believe it but I had to part with cash?

It was not only the fuel fight which was pessimistic, the washer fluid warning light came on when the bottle was still half full. The external temperature gauge in which we had been putting so much faith soon was showing some strange fluctuations. When it was reading 25 degrees Celsius in the middle of a blizzard we began to doubt it. What problems we had with the car were all electrical, the most annoying being the frequent cutting out of either the electric windows or the central locking. It was quite simple to rectify, you dropped the fuse box and re-set the thermal cut-outs, but I was surprised it happened on a Bentley.

After the stop at Dalwhinnie, I took the wheel again. Soon afterwards we had to leave the wide sweeping curves of the new A9 to follow the old road. Now the Bentley is so softly sprung that when driving on a winding road one faces the handling equivalent of turbo lag. To drive the car quickly one has to anticipate the body roll and when one does so, the car becomes crisp and neutral and very rewarding. It also seems to shrink. When I first drove it, it seemed huge from the inside but disappointingly small from without. Once you’ve got the hang of it it seems to shrink to Escort size and when you get out you think “Blimey, that’s a big motor”. Its a feeling which is magnified when you try to park the car for it is long, long (17 ft 5 in) and the turning circle is tight at just about 40 ft.

Although we’d plenty of snacks aboard, we all fancied a cooked breakfast and had not spotted any likely place. A sign at Aviemore which promises a “Cafe, Open All Day” a mile off the road turned out to be a snare and delusion. The “all day” cafe opened 15 minutes after we arrived. We pressed on but never did spot a likely eating place.

At Inverness I missed the old swing bridge, went down a cul-de-sac, reversed and found the old road again. That was appropriate, the crew of ’38 had problems in Inverness as well. Shortly afterwards I took a back seat and fell asleep for an hour or so. It was the first time in over 20 years that I’ve managed to sleep in a road vehicle which says something for the car’s ride.

When I awoke again it was snowing and John was edging along carefully. I called for him to stop, for mine was the responsibility. When you are loaned a £50,000 car you take the pleasure and with it the implications. A BMW 320 passed us during the swap and, shortly afterwards, in the Berriedale Braes we stopped to offer assistance when the driver fell off the road. A Metro beat us to it.

On we went and took the changing conditions in our stride. Here it was snowing, there the roads were clear. We had to slow, of course, but were still able to travel much faster than other cars and at no point did the car move even an inch out of line

We pulled up in front of the John O’Groats House Hotel at 13.35 hours and found it closed for lunch. We took some photographs and headed down to Wick where we had reserved rooms at the Ladbroke hotel.

We had still not eaten hot food since setting off but had beaten Bill’s overall time by 99 minutes and his running time by 43 minutes. Our total running time was exactly 13 hours which, given the mileage of 720 (Bill’s distance was 702 miles), — gave us an average speed of precisely 55 mph — in 1938 the same figure was 50.5 mph. Including stops for fuel, to try to find breakfast and for me to have my heart flutter while discussing speed limits, it worked out at at shade over 51.5 mph (the 1938 figure was 46.0 mph).

These figures surprised us, particularly in view of the weather conditions. The Bentley was so uniformly smooth and comfortable that it never felt as though it was travelling quickly.

We stayed overnight at the Ladbroke Hotel at Wick, turning in before nine for some sleep. The hotel is one of those anonymous road houses, comfortable and competent, which would be instantly forgettable were it not for the warmth and friendliness of the staff which was remarkable. You felt like one of the family.

Snow fell heavily overnight but we felt it might be useful to drive up to John O’Groats again to take some pictures. Roads which the previous day had been inviting had now to be taken with care but the Bentley put its unspecified power down with confidence through its Avon tyres.

South of Wick the snow fell heavily and we edged along though at no time did the car ever feel in the least bit nervous. We stopped just south of Berriedale Braes to offer help to a Fiesta driver freshly upside down in a ditch. The snow was falling heavily and the roads were treacherous. Berriedale Braes itself is so interesting there is an escape route with sand pit at one point.

Our brakes received some hard treatment in Scotland but stood up to the treatment well. I never did take to the parking brake, though, Which is foot operated.

We lunched in Golspie and set off again tentatively. It was still snowing and we passed another inverted car (occupants evacuated) and headed towards Inverness.

We were taking the direct route this time but our average speed was low. An accident on the way caused us to divert off the A9 north of the town but by mid-afternoon when I handed over to John we were on clear roads again. John had now acquired a taste for the car and we sped southwards rapidly, pausing for supper at the Southwaite service area on the M6 at about 7.30 pm. The food was mediocre, its a place to be avoided.

This stop cost us 48 minutes. The M6 was nearly deserted and we made good time down it. At Lancaster I took over again to complete the run to London.

We were lucky with traffic, possibly because the weather was bad, and that kept people at home. Much of this part of the journey was passed on a surface of light snow but so sure-footed was the car that we were able to drive on at speed without the slightest problem. There are few cars which would have coped with the conditions so competently.

During this journey we frequently had to alter the control of the windscreen wipers. Now these are positioned on the dashboard which means you have to take one hand off the steering wheel at a time when you’d rather not. It’s an awkardly placed switch, too, a column mounted stalk would be preferable and I’d say, possible.

We arrived outside Big Ben’s clock tower at 12.53 am having completed 716 miles (it would have been shorter but for our diversion between Inverness and Perth). Our overall average speed was 51.54 mph, almost exactly what our overall speed north had been, but excluding 125 minutes of stoppages (fuel, photography, food and stopping for people in ditches), this equated to a running average of just over 60 mph which isn’t bad considering the weather. Our average fuel consumption was 14 mpg while Bill’s Bentley returned 17 1/2 mpg. Mark you, we qualified for getting on for a dozen petrol company glasses — but where do you store 12 loose glasses in a car? Why do petrol companies give glass of all things?

If there is a conclusion to be drawn it is that my trip will not be as memorable as Bill’s. I simply got in a car and drove in air conditioned luxury with the radio on. Most 1938 cars would have needed attention with a grease gun at some point in the journey (Bill’s Bentley had one shot lubrication), and a trip of 1.500 miles in 48 hours was an adventure whereas, for us, it was merely interesting.

I wonder how the 1938 and ’85 trips will stand up to comparison in 2020? Just as I’m convinced Bill had more fun than I did, so I’m sure I had a better time than a future writer doing the run 40 or 50 years, from now. Predicting the future in detail is silly but its fairly safe to say that motoring will not become more enjoyable. — M.L.

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