Historic scene: March 2018

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Attending a ‘drive in’ at a shrine to vintage Bentleys, and recalling perhaps the briefest ever works rally drive – in a tiger enclosure

A sunny Sunday and a motoring invitation – perfect for exercising one of the old cars. But the Mk2 had failed its MoT the day before (on trivial grounds but my first ever fail) and the 635 still needs fettling, so I had to endure modern luxury as I headed toward the South Downs and the village of Liss, where Bentley specialist Willlam Medcalf was having one of his ‘drive in’ days. Any interesting cars are welcome but I hid the everyday transport nearby instead of joining the array of Bentleys outside the huge glass windows of the Medcalf showroom, with Morgan 3-wheeler, E-type coupé, Elan, MG and a well-executed replica of a Le Mans 289 Cobra adding variety.

Inside, backed by pictures of historic Bentley triumphs and a pit counter stacked with period paraphernalia, gleamed a supercharged 4½, the much-raced Burton 3/4½ and the longest 8-litre two-seater ever, but it was the workshops behind that which kept my notebook busy. There must have been a dozen WO cars in there, from tourers to various levels of race rep, but I liked the 3-litre Doctor’s Coupé with dickey and sloper carbs. Another attractive fixed-head 4½ with two-light four-seater accommodation, still had its Maythorn coachwork from 1931.

Medcalf’s 25-strong outfit has a bit of a record in preparing vintage Bentleys for long-distance rallies like Pekin-Paris, and it stems from William himself. Growing up in a Bentley family and training as an engineer, the automobile path was obvious, but “in a few years I realised I only wanted to work on vintage Bentleys”. And he means vintage – not even a Derby enters here. (The only one here was outside in the cold.)

“I was lucky enough to be riding mechanic on the 2007 Pekin-Paris, and in the Mongolian desert I realised first, how crucial preparation is, and second, that travelling in vintage Bentleys is what I love doing. So I decided I wanted to see my clients winning long-distance rallies, and that’s where we are now”. The service includes flying a man and parts to wherever an owner needs help. “We have no borders, no timezones,” says William proudly.

William reckons he could list 20 things that will eventually fail when you push a vintage Bentley hard enough, and offers customers replacements which won’t.

Many are made here. “We’re a manufacturing company, and the world’s largest supplier of vintage Bentley parts, with 1500 different lines,” William says. On my visit they were all still buzzing over preparing 14 cars for the Benjafield Racing Club 500 on the Ascari circuit, all of which finished, while William himself is a vigorous competitor with two Flying Scotsman victories to boast as well as a slew of long-distance rallies.

Outside the showroom sat a blue and black 3-litre saloon which turned out to be an everyday driver for William and family. “It’s the kiddie car,” he smiled.

Equipped for dealing with all the hardware, including a towering Bentley engine dyno, the firm also handles timber framing and trimming, not to mention the vast spares store. It’s when you see massive, chunky gearboxes and differentials out of the car that you recall that WO Bentley was apprenticed first on steam locomotives. 

I was puzzled by the mix of old and new material on an open body sitting on a wheel-less chassis, until one of Medcalf’s men explained that one client wanted his four-seater shortened, frame and all, into transport for two, but retaining all the patina it had garnered over the years. Hence the fresh timbers for the new tail disappearing under aged body fabric, while some necessarily new interior trim will be carefully aged to match the rest of the time-worn leather inside.

In the corner, the bare alloy nose of a stripped single-seater with an 8-litre motor looked familiar. Turned out to be the Barnato-Hassan, in pieces for some years and now being returned to its 1936 form, when Oliver Bertram achieved a Brooklands lap record at 142.6mph, only just shaded later by John Cobb in the Napier-Railton. Built by Wally Hassan in 1934 with 6½ power for one-time Bentley company owner Woolf Barnato, it was transformed into this narrow centre-steered device after blowing up in the 1934 500-Mile race, but while undoubtedly fast it was repeatedly defeated by the Brooklands handicappers. Eccentric Keith Schellenberg often ran it in VSCC events post-war. It will be great to see it out alongside its little brother, the Pacey-Hassan, which Medcalf drove up the hill at Goodwood last year.

IT WAS THE tiger poo what done it. I was confidently flinging my wailing Vauxhall Nova into a 90 left on my first stage rally when suddenly a huge tree decided to head for my radiator. Thanks to the big cat’s sanitary habits I suddenly had no front grip, skating off the road at undiminished speed. I had enough brain cells to straighten the wheel as my co-driver Nicky Grist, for it was he, yelled “Go round it!” and we scrabbled through mud and animal excrement around the ancient oak and back onto hard ground.

Did I mention this was through Longleat Safari Park? I think the animals were on holiday back home in India, or hibernating. Or maybe crouching on the sidelines spectating. Anyway, I didn’t see any. Just the years of excrement worked into the bitumen by thousands of tourist tyres. Even proper rally drivers said it was “****ing slippy”.

At the time GM DealerSport ran a Vauxhall Nova Challenge rally series which included a celebrity car on each round. As they couldn’t find a celebrity they offered me the seat for Longleat – which I could argue made me, briefly, a works GM driver. Preparing the Group A Nova was Harry Hockly who also contested the Open series with Welshman Nicky Grist in the co-driver’s seat, so it was Grist’s tough luck to sit in with me. I was used to being the navigator on road rallies so this was a first, and I soon heard myself demonstrating the eternal navigator’s complaint: “My driver can’t remember anything for 30 seconds!”. Yep, that was me yelling “Which way did you say?” into the intercom over the wail of straight-cut gears and clatter of rose-joints.

Not that it mattered much: my high spot was cresting a fifth-gear brow into hairpin right – where I locked up and bulldozed straight into the hay bales. Funny how elusive reverse is when 100 spectators and a resigned co-driver are watching. And all, it turned out, right in front of the GM DealerSport marquee and commentary post. But Nicky was patient, calm and gracious as I blundered my way to the finish, soundly beating, oh, several cars with my magnificent 109th placing.

GM didn’t offer me a drive, whereas Nicky Grist went on to rally greatness piloting Juha Kankkunen and Colin McRae to WRC victories. Clearly this was thanks to what he learned from me – mainly, choose talented, confident, ambitious drivers to ride with, not a timid journalist who drops you in the tiger poo.

AT THE RISK of becoming a keyless-ignition bore… Recently my helper took my Jaguar Mk2 in for an MoT and parked it in among all the data-driven black-box-managed modern hatchbacks.

“This is the starter button,” he explained to the young technician, “and this is the ignition key.”

“What’s the key for?” asked the lad.

Long-time staffman Gordon Cruickshank learned his trade under Bill Boddy and competes in historic events in his Jaguar Mk2 and BMW 635