Book Reviews, March 1958, March 1958
“W.O.—An Autobiography,” by W. O. Bentley. 223 pp., 8½ in. by 5½ in. (Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., 178-202, Gt. Portland Street, London. W.1. 21s.)
Motoring books have issued from the presses in confusing quantity and mixed quality for a long time but recently, amongst this welter, have come two extraordinary good ones, Alf Francis has given us the intimate “inside” story of the life of a present-day racing mechanic and now W. O. Bentley himself has at last set down, and very candidly, the true story behind the birth and production of the old Bentley cars and of his racing policy.
“W.O.’s ” autobiography, which he has compiled in conjunction with Richard Hough, is a book which all true believers in vintage motor cars will find absolutely irresistible, because it portrays the racing of the nineteen-twenties as succulently as Francis’ autobiography does the motor racing of today. More than that, W. O. Bentley’s recollections, so delightfully set down, with plenty of detail, which is always enthralling, and never mincing matters, reveal much that is new and clear up several obscure points about one of the world’s greatest motor cars.
After reading this valuable and fascinating account you are left with the impression that “W.O.” has been absolutely fair in his observations and even lenient to those who, as people do in a life as busy and creative as his, crossed his path. It would have been so easy for this to have been a glamorous “best-seller” breathing again the glory of Bentley successes at Le Mans and glamourising the designer of those great green cars of a past era. But Walter Bentley is not the kind of man to write such a book or to be persuaded into letting a “ghost” put his name to one, Indeed, “W.O.” clearly expresses his contempt for the blower Bentleys, his own 4-litre Bentley (and the post-Armistice A.B.C. Dragonfly aero-engine) so that there is unlikely to be any sale for these Bentley models after his book has been read.
Consequently, in “W.O.—An Autobiography,” the true facts appear about Bentley’s early experiences in the railway shops at Doncaster and of his (at first reluctant) acceptance of the i.c. engine, leading to his acquisition of potent motor-cycles and early cars, which he raced with abandon. Here are the facts about bow and why “W.O.” and his brother H. M. took on the D.F.P. agency and of their unswerving belief that racing and competition successes sell motor cars. The discovery that aluminium-alloy pistons would improve appreciably the performance of that lively car, the 12/40 D.F.P., is dealt with and the reader learns the remarkable fact that apparently no other car or aero-engine manufacturers made the same discovery.
When war broke out in 1914 “W.O.” felt obliged to reveal his secret and he tells the intriguing story of how this led him to the Admiralty and of his sincere attempts to render the Clerget rotary aero-engine more reliable, culminating in his own design of B.R.1 and B.R.2 rotaries. As this part of W. O. Bentley’s autobiography unfolds the usual unsavoury jealousies that characterised both World Wars behind the scenes are revealed, together with the niggling attitude of the Royal Commission on Awards towards the creator of an aero-engine which helped materially towards winning the war.
With the Armistice behind him “W.O.” set about bringing into being the 3-litre Bentley. This part of his book, and subsequent chapters about developing and selling this car, of introducing and testing new models, of Bentley Motors’ financial arrangements; and of “W.O.’s” racing policy and the great successes at Le Mans and elsewhere, will be as nectar to enthusiasts. This isn’t just reiteration of known facts. “W.O.” gives you the true reasons for retirements at Le Mans, failures during Bentley record bids at Montlhéry, and he paints exquisite word-pictures of those great, nostalgic days, including a most revealing account of the character of that remarkable millionaire, the late Babe Barnato. The author does not forget the ride he took with the late Sir Henry Birkin, Bt., in a “blower 4½” in an Ulster T.T. race, and chapter 9, describing the Bentley Boys, is as good as the rest. Of these now legendary driver’s of the “gay ‘twenties” “W.O.” observes: “The public liked to imagine them living in expensive Mayfair flats with several mistresses and, of course, several very fast Bentleys. drinking champagne in night clubs, playing the horses and the Stock Exchange, and beating furiously around racing tracks at the week-end.” He then adds: “Of at least several of them this was not such an inaccurate picture!”
There are exceedingly pleasing little character-studies of these Bentley Boys—Benjafield, Birkin, Kidston, Jack and Clive Dunfee, Davis, Duller, Watney, Clement and the great Barnato, by the man who knew them intimately. Moreover, “W.O.” adds spice in the form of reminiscences of their pranks and parties. He sets Barnato’s spending capacity at some £900 per week prewar, incidentally, yet tells us that Babe was so cautious that he seldom lent money cheerfully and never parted with so much as a single cigarette…
It is remarkable that “W.O.’s” is not a bitter book, for he had set-backs of every kind. The Wall Street slump of 1931 killed Bentley Motors Ltd. D. Napier and Son were all set to acquire the company and “W.O.” reveals the car he intended should be the Napier-Bentley—it wouldn’t be fair to give the details here, although no doubt other reviewers will do so, but this is of great interest to the writer, who for a long time has tried to obtain the story for Motor Sport, only to find the drawings of this still-born high-performance car unusually elusive! Bentley becomes bitter, really and truly bitter, only when he tells how Rolls-Royce Ltd. bought his former company by outbidding Napier at the last moment and in mysterious circumstances, and of how he was treated subsequently. It would seem he had every justification for bitterness. It is significant that he states that he was never consulted about the design of the 3½- and 4½-litre Rolls-Royce-built Bentley cars, merely commenting on the original design and carrying out some test work on these Hives’-conceived models. It is obvious that Rolls-Royce Ltd. were afraid of Bentley competition and later they tried to buy up the old Lagonda Company. If subsequently they were plagued by another make from Coventry this was surely only poetic justice?
When “W.O.” finally wriggled free of Rolls-Royce he designed the V12 Lagonda, and World War II killed that. He set about evolving the 2½-litre Lagonda-Bentley after peace broke out but Rolls-Royce Ltd. sued Lagonda for the appearance of Bentley’s name and only the acquisition by David Brown of the Lagonda Company saved that design, the engine, in 3-litre form and since highly developed, powering the successful D.B. Aston-Martin sports/racing cars and the present-day Lagonda, one of which is put to good use by H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh.
In a compact book W. O. Bentley reveals facts and figures of the greatest interest, yet he manages to recall much of his apprenticeship to the Motor Industry, not forgetting his experience with hundreds of London’s two-cylinder Unic taxis—presumably the 102 by 110-mm. 10/12 h.p. model.
There are commendably few inaccuracies to catch the eye of the critical reviewer—”W.O.” and R. Hough have done a splendid job. One wonders whether they really had loud-speakers at the Aston-Clinton Hill Climb of 1912, in view of the fact that these did not come into use at Brooklands until about 1924. Thornycroft is mis-spelt on page 71 and later in the book there is reference to straight-eight Lorraines at Le Mans whereas these were six-cylinder cars. The “Double Twelve” Race is said to have been won by an Alfa-Romeo which finished .0003 on handicap ahead of a Bentley—the correct figure is .003, and “W.O.” expresses surprise that no one was ever killed in the early Ulster T.T. races—in fact, a driver was killed during the 1929 race, as recorded in Richard Hough’s book on the Tourist Trophy races. Barnato’s variety of Brooklands cars is listed but his Hispano-Suiza is omitted and the German fighter ace, Baron L. von Richthofen gets his name rendered as Richtoffen in several places.
Otherwise this isn’t a book which will mislead students of motoring history; it will provide many entirely fresh facts even for avid devourers of Bentley history. It has sufficient illustrations and concludes with historical appendices, including a summary of one of the articles on the vintage Bentley models which I persuaded the B.D.C. to write for Motor Sport and which appeared every February during the war. This one deals with the 6½-litre Bentley.
It is pleasing to find “W.O.” paying the greatest possible tribute to the value of road-test reports in motoring journals, and when he remarks that no one seemed anxious to borrow a D.F.P. for test until he had booked advertising space he gives me an opportunity to remark that in Motor Sport, in praise and criticism I am not governed by such sordid considerations! He states that the first road-test report on the 3-litre Bentley would have sold cars a dozen times over, had they been available.
It is difficult to find suitable superlatives with which to conclude this review of a quite outstanding book. I advise you to secure your copy before members of the Bentley Drivers’ Club exhaust supplies! One wonders, however, if a copy of “W.O.’s” autobiography will ever be filed in the Rolls-Royce library? — W. B.
“Aston Martin—The Story of a Sports Car,” by Dudley Coram. 343 pp., 9½ in. by 6¼ in. (Motor Racing Publications, Ltd., 13, Conway Street, London, W.1. 50s.)
Of all the Motoring books published in recent times this is one of the weightiest. It also contains almost every conceivable piece of information and picture that any Aston Martin fan could ever require, from the side valve Bamford and Martin days to the present David Brown regime. The detailed appendices alone, additional to the 343 pages of text, will keep historians busy for hours of browsing
I am delighted this book has at last appeared, because a considerable time ago I read Inman Hunter’s Aston Martin history in manuscript form and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t published immediately. Since then F. E. Ellis has added to the Bamford and Martin part of the book and Dudley Coram has contributed recent history. If the make-up is jumbled, savouring of “too many cooks,” descriptions of restoring an individual Aston Martin being sandwiched between chapters which sort out racing and development themes, this is nevertheless about the most comprehensive one-make book ever presented to the enthusiast.
Naturally not all the information is original, because many, many years ago I was’fortunate to get much of the Bamford and Martin story from Fred Ellis and an excellent and concise article on the Bertelli Aston Martins from Inman Hunter’s pen. But to have all this and so much more and all these splendid pictures in a single book which turns the scales at 2 lb. 11 oz., is indeed magnificent, or would be if so many mis-spellings, contradictions and errors had not crept in. As with some new cars, it is wise to avoid this first edition, especially as the price is high, awaiting a revised second edition. Dudley Coram has admitted to some errors over the Le Mans cars but in general this is a faultless work, offering weeks of reading and years of reference-browsing. The foreword is by Mr. David Brown. — W. B.
A useful reference book has been issued by Ian Allan Ltd., namely, “American Cars,” by John Dudley, which, at 2s. 6d., is a pocket guide to the confusing range of U.S. cars. It is obtainable from bookshops, or from Craven House, Hampton Court, Surrey. By the same publisher and author and, at the same price, is ” British Cars,” another useful up-to-date copiously illustrated pocket reference work.
The 1958 edition of that useful touring guide “Bed and Breakfast in South and S.E. England” is now available. It costs 3s. 6d. (postage 5d.), covers accommodation, garages, tours, historic buildings, maps, etc., and takes in the Channel Islands. The publishers are Herald Advisory Services, 3, Teevan Road, Croydon, Surrey.
B.P. have issued a large, beautifully produced book, “News in Pictures—1957,” which contains some excellent motor-racing pictures. Application for copies should be made to The British Petroleum Co. Ltd., Britannic House, Finsbury Circus, London, E.C., mentioning Motor Sport.