A message from James May brought back poignant memories of a vintage Bentley
This particular recollection was prompted by an e-mail from James May. His is a name I feel qualified to drop because we were chums long before he ever stood in front of a TV camera, I played a fairly instrumental role in the event that got him sacked from Autocar and his appreciation of the important things in life – proper beer and curry to be specific – has been entirely unaffected by his celebrity, so chums we remain.
The e-mail read: ‘Frankel. Yesterday I drove a ’28 4½ Le Mans. You may have been right about never being unhappy behind the wheel of a vintage Bentley. May.’ It took me back to the first time I realised as much.
We’d had such a car since I was small because it had been my father’s sworn ambition to own one before he was 40, which, by working perhaps too hard, he just managed. A standard 4½ with replica Vanden Plas bodywork and not a single matching number, it was a pure bitsa whose sole claim to fame was that it had once been owned by WO’s housekeeper.
He drove it everywhere: across the US, around South Africa and on the recreated Mille Miglia. In 1997, having had his entry turned down, he drove it to Italy anyway, a move that so flabbergasted the organisers they created a place for him. A few weeks later, having completed the event and driven it home again, he took the car to Le Mans where he rather kindly allowed me to drive it in the high-speed parade before the 24-hour race started.
I never saw him again. Three days later, on his way to a Lords Test as it happens, the lights went out.
I drove the Bentley a lot in the days that followed, and not even in the most testing times did I find it possible to be down in the dumps and behind its Bakelite wheel at the same time. It was an unlikely form of therapy and one I was privileged to enjoy, but from that day to this I’ve known none that works better.