Stanley Mann

A Bentley fanatic since the age of four, this dealer made the marque his life on and off the track

If you read the original Motoring Sportsmen stories in the 1930s Motor Sports, you will see that of those subjects in 'the trade', many say they fell into the business as a means of going racing; and so it is with Stanley Mann. He is 'Mr Bentley' to everyone in the business, not because he has narrowed his range down to this make, but because Bentleys have been his passion since the age of four.

At that time the Manns lived in Hendon, close to where WO Bentleys were built. The little Mann was metaphorically bowled over by a 4½, and has, he says, never recovered. In later years he got to know that car well, and when its owner Basil Mountford gave it up, Stanley took it over. He has it still.

Stanley studied business at college, but his first job was as assistant to a fashion photographer – “not because I was keen on fashion, but the women were gorgeous". He moved into the family meat business when his father became ill in 1968, and began to rebuild his first Bentley. It was meant to be for himself, but the bank manager disagreed and he had to sell it. But soon another was on the way, and friends began to ask if he'd do one for them. 'That's how the process started. I was up at 4am at the meat market, played with my Bentleys in the afternoons, and in the evenings went out with the women from the fashion agency. I didn't get much sleep, but it was a great life!"

It was a time when WO cars were still being used, but before they became icons. "A lot of the Bentley People were still around – I met Hassan, Rockell, WO himself. The Bentley thing became like a religion."

By the early '80s there was no way out. His sister took over the family business, and Stanley went full-time on Bentleys, first in Edgeware and then at the current premises, The Fruit Farm, near Radlett. Anyone looking for a WO Bentley is bound to arrive here at some point, and will find a healthy stock both of cars and Bentley lore. It was one of the first one-marque outfits: "before that there were general dealers who handled vintage cars, of whom my hero was Dan Margulies. If you were passionate, he would spare you the time.

"By then I had got keen on racing, and realised that the best view was from the track. My first event was a 40-minute high-speed trial at Silverstone, and I coasted across the line having left my propshaft at Woodcote! The announcer said 'will Mr Mann please collect his propshaft from the marshal'. That's when I realised I needed to know more about the mechanics."

This was in the lull after the Bentley club racing heyday of the '50s and '60s, when vintage cars were beginning to be locked away. "Often mine was the only vintage Bentley there, but it got better. Perhaps I encouraged a new generation of Bentley racers."

He had neither experience nor tuiton: "I've never raced anything else. I'm not interested in cigars on wheels. I just learned by watching people lapping me. By the mid-'80s I was getting happy with the results, but realised the only way I'd see the sharp end was with a bigger engine." He bought the handsome 3/8-litre first built by John Konig, John Guppy rebuilt it, and they made it the fastest Bentley on the track.

Soon the business was "cooking on gas" and then came the recession. "I remember the day the phone stopped ringing I called BT to see if the line was OK. But the hype in Bentleys was much less than, say, Ferraris, so I was able to liquidate my excess stock, and then had more time to go racing."

In order to get more vintage Bentleys on the track, Mann and like-minded enthusiasts several years ago started Benjafields Racing Club, an invitation-only group most of whom own Cricklewood cars, several of them thumping great specials like his. The club's main event, Combury Park sprint, is, says Mann, "unique it's like a meeting of 40 years ago." Which also characterises the social side of this gregarious bunch.

Stanley gained considerable publicity for his record-breaking exploits involving Prince Michael, and centring around 'Mother Gun', the Marker Bentley rescued by Vaughan Davis, Mann's long-time ally. Vaughan, affectionately described by Stanley as "the Peter Pan of Bentleys", sadly died in February, but the achievement of a modem record in a vintage car stands to his memory.

It also reflects Mann's preparation standards. "If you can make it last on the track, it'll be bullet-proof on the road." That's important for Mann. All his cars must be useable on the road; a track-only racer, he says, is anathema. Even Mother Gun, a 1½-seater, has wings and lights. But he has had one blow-up in his time: "I was racing the 3/8 in a Bentley-Mercedes race at the 'Ring three years ago. Along the Dottinger-Höhe straight the rev-counter was reading 'Made in England' – must have been over 150mph. The brakes barely affected it, but around the next bend a piston flew out. Luckily it was near the bar, so I could sup a beer while I watched the car smoking by the track."

In between racing, there are Bentleys to sell, prepare and restore. "We're accused unfairly of chopping cars about, but we only do what customers ask. Having said that, we turned down five offers for a 3-litre saloon because they all wanted to make a Le Mans rep. We finally sold it with a contract saying the buyer wouldn't remove the body. I can do that because I'm friends with my customers. And I've been able to meet people I never would have otherwise, like Jay Leno and Tom Selleck."

He's also helping Michael Hay to prepare a new edition of his comprehensive book on the WO cars. "Well, how do you invoke the passion if the right book isn't available?"

If there were no Bentleys, what might Stanley Mann be handling? "Lagondas," he responds instantly, before the real passion spills over again. "But there's nothing else like a Bentley they're so well built, almost visual perfection, great to drive." What about the famous gearchange? "Oh, well, you need adventure!" GC