Crewe Express

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Elegantly solid, charmingly stately and beneficially underrated, the Bentley Mk VI was introduced in 1946 and evolved into the revised R-Type in 1952, a gentleman’s chariot which, like a decent ‘hacking’ jacket, improves with age provided it’s dried out properly after a heavy shower of rain.

There are relatively few differences between the two models: the R-Type is more modern looking, more refined, and has a bigger boot, and the automatic gearbox option was standardised on late R-Types. Available in standard 4-door saloon and drophead coupe forms, but with the usual plethora of custom bodies, there were some 5,200 Mk Vls and 2,320 R-Types manufactured up until the end of production in 1955, a fair number by Rolls-Royce standards. But their propensity for rusting has taken a heavy toll and relatively few survive in tip-top condition. Possessing an almost indestructible chassis frame, many have been used in recent times as ‘donor’ cars for ‘cut-and-shut’ specials, further depleting numbers.

The 4257cc straight-six engine was followed in 1951 by the larger 4566cc unit an increase in capacity prompted by competition from Jaguar both superb engines, even by Rolls-Royce’s incomparable antecedents. Smooth and powerful with a good spread of usable torque, there are ‘unquoted’ quantities of horsepower for a steady, almost imperceptible climb to well above 100mph. Cruising at between 70-90mph is child’s play, although illegal, of course. Keeping up with modern traffic is no problem.

The penalty, as ever, for such impressive power is heavy fuel consumption, but keep your foot steady at 50-60mph and the high teens between 16-19mpg are always attainable.

Independent front suspension is by coils with traditional leaf springs at the rear. Ride quality is excellent, as might be expected, but the roadholding, although perfectly acceptable for such a large car, has a distinctive pre-war feel part of the Bentley’s character and charm. Radial tyres improve handling and roadholding to an almost unimaginable degree.

The cabin represents British taste and craftsmanship at its post-war best: large, comfortable, leather-clad seats, polished wood facia and door cappings and the traditionally large steering wheel all inspire affection for an era that was beginning to recover from the effects of hostilities between 1939 and 1945. Everything is beautifully made and even the switchgear feels as though it will last for ever. Being so well made has its drawbacks, if anything does go wrong, there are always a lot of nuts and bolts to remove before you can actually reach the component that has failed. And replacement parts virtually all of them are as costly as anything else stamped with a Crewe serial number.

The key to buying a good drivable car is expert knowledge and endless patience. Any heaviness in the steering, for example, indicates a lack of lubrication; 1st, 2nd and 3rd gears on manual cars whine, but any additional noises on bottom may alert you to the possibility that the gearbox has been abused. It also essential that the central lubrication system has been maintained properly.

A good guide to a well-maintained car is the ride control function, which is operated by a knob in the quadrant on the steering wheel. This mechanism controls an oil pump on the side of the gearbox, which provides pressure to the rear shock absorbers: anything which is detectably wrong here requires expert remedial work and it won’t be cheap. If it’s in good working order, it is often the case that the rest of the car will be fairly sound mechanically at least.

The brakes have a mechanical servo and once set up it is generally reliable, problems with this system (which are not unknown) can be rectified fairly easily, but the instructions in the handbook must be followed religiously. Engine reliability is legendary, mileages in excess of 250,000 are on the cards provided maintenance and servicing are regularly carried out and, once again, strictly according to the book. Any noise, other than the normal one from the cooling fan, may spell trouble — it should be almost silent. Needless to say, blue smoke from the exhaust (twin pipes on the 4 1/2-litre cars), indicates worn valve-gear or bores/piston rings, and overhauls are time consuming.

Sadly, the Bentley’s principal enemy is body rust, and the passage of nearly half a century since these fine cars first emerged, has shown that no panel is immune to the ravages of “tinworm.” Particularly vulnerable are the front wings, and any ‘bubbling’ corrosion around the side-lamp mountings is generally indicative that major surgery is soon at hand. And although the mechanical spares situation is fairly good, body panels are rather more scarce.

Today. both the Mk VI and R-Type are more highly regarded than was once the case. Fifteen years ago, both were seen by some as the first rung on the Bentley-owning ladder — stepping stones to the more exotic models — but no longer. As a product of the 1950s, they combine the best facets of pre and post-war thinking: on the one hand, there’s all the character of a vintage thoroughbred but, on the other, there are sufficient creature comforts and safety features to make for a sensible everyday motor car in the 1990s. And there’s no road tax to pay!

Unlike the Silver Shadow — glorious car that it undoubtedly is -the 1950s machines featured here have not suffered the ignominy of being reduced to the role of conveying brides-to-be to the church porch, and this is reflected in the relatively high prices commanded by pristine specimens. Although the engineering quality is beyond question, it’s not especially advanced, and this is a definite bonus for DIY enthusiasts. Reliable and robust, a good Mk VI or an R-Type will give a lifetime of healthy service, but neither model can be run on a shoestring, and prolonged neglect will quickly produce the kind of repair bills that will make event the most ardent enthusiast wonder why they bothered.

What to look out for

Body: Rust particularly eats into the wings, sills, rear wheel spats and rear spring hangers, but close attention should be paid to every part of the bodywork because replacement panels are expensive.

Chassis: Virtually unbreakable and will generally outlive the rest of the car, but not wholly immune to corrosion.

Engine: One of the sweetest ‘sixes ever made. If its quiet, there’s no blue haze from the exhaust system and oil pressure is around 20psi-plus, it is probably in sound running order.

General:

Electrics: No particular problems except the inevitable wear occurs with age.

Tyres: Standard crossplies give a comfortable ride in a straight line but radials improve roadholding and handling dramatically.

Bodywork: custom bodied cars in good condition generally command higher prices than standard steel-bodied versions. Expect to pay handsomely for a well restored drophead.

Suspension: If the central lubrication system is not kept in good order, the front suspension will suffer, and rebuilds are complex and expensive. Always consult an expert who can spot tell-tale signs of neglect.

Steering: should feel light and fluid — if not, lubrication system is suspect

Brakes: All-round drums are a marvel considering the bulk they are called upon to arrest: poor braking may just be due to a badly adjusted servo.

Transmission: Manual and automatic gearboxes are extremely strong and durable, but banging a manual into bottom while on the move, is asking for trouble.

Interior: Do not under-estimate the cost of restoring all that wood and leather. A professional job carried out to the same quality as original could easily swallow half the cost of buying a decent car.

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