Forrest Lycett’s 8-litre Bentley was probably the ultimate road-racing car of its era. Bill Boddy recalls its achievements and those of its remarkable owner
The 8-litre Bentley campaigned by the late Forrest Lycett was a very impressive sportscar a long time befpre highly-tuned 8-litre Bentleys and later Bentley Specials appeared on the vintage scene. Certainly, in its day this car had not only high performance capabilities but was also a road-going car of special allure. Mr Lycett, who commissioned it from L C McKenzie, his regular engineer and advisor, was quite a Bentley man. His motoring experiences dated back to the early days, with rides in Benz and Mercedes cars in Germany as far back as 1901 and his education extended in the ways intended back in England on a six-day tour with his father in 1903 on a 4hp De Dion Bouton. That in turn took him on to motorcycles, and to a Mars Carette by 1905, which those who loved them dubbed ‘Mummy’s Little Carrot’ but which gave Lycett much trouble, and prompted A move to proper cars in the form of Sizaire-Naudins and more exciting machinery.
But Bentleys predominated. Altogether, Lycett had nine of them. He bought the first in the summer of 1924, influenced by the victory of Clement and Duff at Le Mans, which turned his mind away from a Vauxhall 30/98, which he thought was “hardly a 100 per cent job”. Up to the outbreak of the war Lycett had covered about 280,000 miles in his Bentleys with a minimum of trouble and just a single breakdown, in 1938. Fie said that of the other cars he owned at the same time, by far and away the best was a 1930 Aston Martin, and quite the worst a 4½-litre lnvicta with which he replaced a 4½-litre Bentley but, after much financial loss due to breakdown, quickly bought back. Of the Bentleys, Lycett owned live 3-litres, two 4½-litres, a Speed Six, and the special 8-litre.
Besides his liking lir vintage Bentleys, Lycett also enjoyed driving. Taking into consideration the fact that the roads may have been less congested but were far more narrow and tortuous than they are now, with fewer by-passes round towns, I think he did pretty well. For instance, with the Aston Martin he often covered 400 miles in 4 day, and on the first Sunday after acquiring his first 3-litre Bentley Lycett drove from London to Nottingham and back with an ease that amazed him, and thereafter 300 miles in one day became an accepted standard.
That he appreciated a Bentley’s ability to easily and effortlessly eat the miles he once demonstrated to a business colleague who would boast of how he had motored all the way to Newcastle in a day. Lycett invited the man to accompany him in his 1926 3-litre to see whether, in his mid-forties, 70.0 he was equal to this feat. At Catterick Bridge Lycett feigned distress and was advised by his passenger to give up; after a drink at their destination he announced that they would go on to Alnwick. There the victim complained about the hotel but was told not to worry, because Lycett was about to drive him back to London! Before they had commenced the run, Lycett’s man had removed the passenger’s suitcase from the Bentley and so it was in London that they ended this little jaunt…
On other occasions a bragging victim was driven non-stop to Land’s End after he had told of a wonderful endurance trip he had made as far as Honiton, and another was driven to Edinburgh and back to Newcastle in a day and home via the Likes on the day following, 1000 miles all-told. The 3-litres had auxiliary petrol tanks, so all this was virtually non-stop. With a 4½-litre Bentley the longest day’s trip was to beyond Berwick-on-Tweed, where fog spoilt going on to Edinburgh, and back to London. On the Continent the trips were rather more leisurely, such as Dieppe to Basle on the second of the 4½-litres, Evreux to Bordeaux and Cadiz to Madrid on the Speed Six, and Heidelberg to Dieppe on the 8-litre. ‘The Ton’ (100mph) was first seen on a public highway with the Speed Six and after that the second 4½-litre, and of course the 8-litre did this as a matter of course. I think it can be agreed that Forrest Lycett liked pre-war driving; as he would say, all the Bentleys proved the truth of that saying “Distance no object”.
I think it also fair to describe the 8-litre Bentley as an exceptional car for its time and purpose – that of a fast road-car, and a competition performer from 1934 with a truly exceptional maximum speed (somewhere in the region of 140mph). It can be called post-vintage, as it used a 1931 chassis.
Not everything ‘Mac’ had done to it at his works at 1 Spring Gardens, London SW1, was ever divulged but it can be said with certainty that it had an 11ft-wheelbase thanks to its 4-litre chassis. On this was mounted a smart two-seater body to Lycett’s design, made by Corsica. The engine had three SLI carburettors fitted with McKenzie’s special throttle -slides to obviate binding, instead of the twin H08 SUs of the standard power-unit, while the compression ratio was raised from the normal 5.5:1 to 7:1. Ignition was by two Bosch GF6A magnetos, replacing the dual ignition normally supplied from a coil-set and a single Bosch magneto.
The radiator was considerably lowered and cut away, the dynamo which protruded from its base being moved to a chassis location and driven from the prop-shaft, the opening for it below the radiator covered by a polished plate. Weight was saved wherever possible, without resorting to lightening holes, the scuttle being lowered to line-up with the lightweight bonnet, and abbreviated mudguards and small Lucas long-range lamps being used in place of the large head lamps of standard Bentleys.
‘Mac’ also fitted a one-shot plunger-pump chassis lubrication system, the auxiliary fuel tank, and a separate accelerator so that low speed could be maintained without snatch. He also cord-bound the road springs and fitted both Hartford friction-type shock absorbers and Luvax hydraulic dampers. To save further weight the vacuum brake servo was removed. The result was this lean, handsome car, with a top speed of an easy 110mph in road-trim, which was rather impressive 67 years ago.
Remember that this great Bentley was no simple cut-and-shut special, was used primarily as an everyday car for pleasure and business journeys, and that when entered for competition events it was never conveyed to the venues in a truck or van…
For such purposes Lycett had a selection of six back-aide ratios. For road-going occasions he was apt to employ gearbox ratios of 7.814, 5.376, 4.035 and 3.0 to 1, in conjunction with Dunlop Fort-90 tyres of 7.00×21 on the back wheels, 6.00×21 at the front. This gave maxima in the gears of 51, 72 and 96mph, without exceeding 4000rpm — and Lycett insisted on an absolutely accurate speedometer. Yet the big engine was quite docile at a mere 450rpm (15mph) in top gear.
In this form, with driver and passenger (me), the 8-litre weighed just over 2 tons 2 cwt with about 112Ib of fuel in the tank, compared to 2 tons 3 cwt of the average open 8-litre Bentley and 2 tons 10 cwt of a saloon, which would be capable of just over 101mph in good condition. As for reliability, Lycett drove his 8-litre 70,000 miles up to 1940 with the only major trouble being a gear wheel that picked up on its shaft during a Lewes speed trial, resulting in a long coast to the finish but still a second place in the unlimited sportscar class.
Dear old ‘Mac’ who achieved this result and whose McKenzie’s Garages specialised in Rolls-Royce and Bentley work was himself a pioneer motorist. As a good Scot he began with steam but the first car ‘Mac’ drove was one of the earliest of Daimlers. He later drove both No1 Rolls-Royce and No1 Bentley, and followed his career at Napier’s, Wolseley’s, Daimler’s and then at the R-R Derby works, in the days of the pre-WWI competition 40/50hp Royces. He raced vintage Bentleys like his 4½-litre two-seater ‘Bluebell’, the special engine of which was transferred to his green 4-seater. He won two races in a day at the Crystal Palace and Lycett and he took part in the 1936 Bentley Handicap at Brooklands with 4½s, respectively lapping at 97.46 and 91.05mph. In 1957, the Bentley Drivers Club commemorated ‘Mac’ with the scrutineering bay which until recently stood in the paddock at Silverstone.
Space precludes a full list of all Lycett’s competition appearances but he started well, winning the unlimited sportscar class at the Lewes speed-trials in 1934, in 23.4sec, beating an Hispano-Suiza by 2.2sec and a Railton Terraplane by 3.0sec. At the next Lewes meeting he was second in a handicap class, from scratch, and at the Brighton speed-trials won his class, devouring the standing start half-mile in 278sec (64.75mph). In VSCC events, to which Lycett was elected a Vice President in 1937, and then its President for two terms of office before the war, he demonstrated the now-famous Bentley at the Crystal Palace circuit.
Forrest had asked ‘Mac’ to find him a car for the Edwardian section of the VSCC and an Alfonso Hispano-Suiza was duly discovered. But when it shed a wheel at Littlestone speed-trials, the car’s new owner was so disgusted when lots of rusty razor blades fell from the hub, obviously to cope with worn splines (not ‘Mac’s’ doing, I am sure) that he gave the car to me and, a further aspect of his generosity, wanted to reimburse me for collecting it. As some compensation, he had won his class with his 4½-litre Bentley. He had already presented the VSCC with the Lycett Trophy for best aggregate performance during a season, which remained one of its most prestigious awards, ironically being first won in 1935 by Donald Monm’s 4½-litre Invicta.
Other good performances included further class wins at Shelsley Walsh where the 8-litre beat E R Hall’s TT Derby Bentley in the rain in 1936 and got its time clown to 46.42sec by 1937. It was quicker up the famous hill than Fane’s 328 FN-BMW by 1.66sec in 1938 and beat it again on time in 1939. At Brighton it beat a Railton Terraplane in the 1934 half-mile speed-trials by three seconds and won its class there in ’35, accelerating faster than Gardner’s supercharged Mercedes-Benz, and sic Bugatti, Frazer Nash and MGs. In 1936 Lycett took his 4i.c to Brighton, and was first and third in the appropriate classes and he repeated this in 1937, with two class-firsts, and a third with the1913 Hispano. The 8-litre Bentley held the sportscar record for the Brighton course, and in 1936 it had been only 0.4sec slower than Fane’s supercharged Frazer Nash at Southsea and had won its class at Poole. Finally, before Hitler stopped play, the 4½ Bentley took another Brighton class win, and the Hispano was second in its class.
The 8-litre Bentley continued to chalk up many successes in sprints and in 1937 at Brooklands had broken the International and British Class-B records for the s s kilometre at 81.5mph , bettering by 3.58mph that of the racing single-seater 8-litre Panhard-Levassor. Yet it remained a perfectly practical road car, as I was to discover on a number of occasions.
Lycett would meticulously observe every speed-limit, even to braking hard before ’30’ signs, in spite of there then being no hidden cameras or radar traps. As a de-restriction sign came up he would transfer his foot from auxiliary accelerator to the loud one and the Bentley would go rapidly up to 90, 100, even to 110 mph, accelerating so fast that sometimes Forrest would be braking as he overtook groups of little saloons, aiming for a traffic gap ahead.
These runs were magic to a young enthusiast (me) but there were comic interludes. As when we got drenched (there was no hood) and Lycett swung into the yard of The Bell at Henley-on-Thames, demanding hot baths, at 3.30 in the afternoon. When refused, he was distinctly surprised and I sensed a strong letter to the management… You might be invited to breakfast, then be driven, very swiftly but safely, perhaps to see Lycett’s solicitor in Salisbury, then even faster to Weybridge, for a spell on the Track.
During the war the 8-litre was kept as a tight fit in a wooden shed near the cottage to which its owner had moved, from bomb-ridden Kensington. I was invited for another run in it, while the last few gallons of Discol lasted. Lycett’s man was set to crank-up, his master helping by using the starter at intervals, which served to lift the luckless servant off his feet every time the button was released. Then the carburettors caught fire. The man ran out of the shed and I tried to do likewise. But my belt had caught on a nail, so I quickly began to remove my leather coat, likewise to escape. At that moment the flames were sucked into the engine, Lycett having remained in his seat. He immediately castigated his man-servant for cowardice, “while Boddy was about to use his coat to douse the fire…”
From then on, I was always “the courageous fellow”… I have not compared the 8-litre’s performance with that of more recent Derby and Crewe Specials or today’s vintage hybrids. But in 1938 I timed it to do 0-50mph in 5.2sec, 70 in 10sec, 90 in 16sec and 100mph in 23sec. The s s ¼-mile took 16.4sec, the s s ½-mile, 26.2sec against the wind, two up, and that after a fast road run, cruising frequently at ‘the ton’. With sprint ratios these figures might have been lowered, but as it was, 10-30mph was timed to take 1.8sec, 3.0sec and 4.8sec in the indirect gears, 30-80mph 10.4sec and 50-70mph in top gear took 9.0sec.
A few days before war broke out Lycett drove the 8-litre to Brooklands, where ‘Mac’ awaited him with his own 4½-litre and his lads in the hack Big Six tourer. The Bentley was now sans front brakes, had a cover over the passenger’s seat and its road-clobber was quickly removed. Handing his bowler to someone, Lycett went out and raised the Class-B s s mile record by 4.43mph, to 92.9mph, on a 2.6 to 1 axle ratio. The stiff front springs made coming off the Byfleet banking rather tricky, at some 135mph. After this Lycett retrieved the bowler and drove off to a board-meeting in the City. ‘A record record’, as it were — it took an Auto-Union to beat it…
I had by then timed the 8-litre to do a s s ¼-mile in just 15sec and 0-100mph (3500rpm) in well under 20sec on the 3.3 axle-ratio and 700×19 racing back tyres. Its Lewes time had come clown to 20.2sec. Calling at ‘Mac’s’ workshop during the war, I found him lowering and lightening the famous Bentley, supposedly using light-alloy cross members, a lighter prop-shaft, and a new body. The gearbox was to be moved rearwards to improve weight distribution and the gear change, the lever now external like the brake lever, was now spring-loaded, after it had proved unsatisfactory when Lycett was demonstrating the car at Syston, beating Hunter’s s/c 2.9 Alfa Romeo by 0.38sec. On PMS2 fuel its power output was about 250bhp (from 220bhp) yet in road motoring it had given 13mpg. The unladen weight was now quoted as 1 ton 4 cwt. Incidentally, the dynamometer ‘Mac’ used had previously belonged to Count Zborowski, and then, in turn, to Bentley Motors.
When peace broke out Forrest Lycett resumed competition driving, at first racing his 4½ Bentley, which lapped Silverstone’s then Club circuit at 71.3mph. In 1948 the 8-litre came out again, when Leslie Johnson drove it in a VSCC kilometre sprint and was third in a race against a supercharged racing Alta and a T3513 Bugatti. Perhaps Lycett’s finest post-war performance was in 1959, being timed for a kilo at 141.131 mph in Belgium, at a BDC meet, at the age of 74. Sadly, the following year he was knocked down and killed by a London taxi, when crossing the road on his way to a football match, as a director, I think, of one of the clubs.
Delahaye, Darracq, Lago-Talbot, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti folk may not have seen the point of his 8-litre Bentley but I feel sure that in vintage circles there were those who approved of the slogan “Still The World’s Finest Sporting Car” which it carried unobtrusively on a dashboard plaque.
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