Number plates AXN 373
After Rolls-Royce Ltd. took over the old Bentley company in 1931 there was a slight pause before anyone knew quite what was going to happen. Then in 1933 the Derby firrn announced its new Bentley 3 1/2-litre, "The Silent Sports Car" in complete contrast to Bentleys from the old Cricklewood firm. The new Bentley was in effect a sports car designed around Rolls-Royce components with a cleverly conceived radiator shell that embodied the pugnacious see of the old Bentleys, yet had the elegance of a Rolls-Royce radiator. The Derby Bentley had various sporting features, such as wire wheels with centre-lock hub caps, open bodywork, low build, right-hand gearchange lever and so on, but overall was very refined and engineered to Rolls-Royce standards.
Among the first batch of 200 to be built was chassis number B35AE and this was sold to Yorkshireman E. R. Hall, well known in racing circles for his successes with MG cars. Eddie Hall took this 31/2-litre 6-cylinder Bentley to naly in 1934, to use as a practice car for the Mille Miglia, in which he was driving an MG Magnette. It was not so much practice, as reconnaissance of the 1,000-mile route, and by the time he returned to England the Bentley had covered 4,000 miles at continual high speed and Hall was very impressed with his new acquisition. He approached Rolls-Royce with a view to them entering a similar car in the RAC Tourist Trophy race in Northern Ireland on the Ards circuit, but racing was against the firm's policy so they refused. However, they did agree to "look at" Hall's own car and were prepared soles him enter it as a private entry. As the car was Hall's everyday ttampon it had been registered AXN 373.
The Derby experimental department took she car in hand and acted upon suggestions made by Hall unto what would be needed to tackle the TT in September 1934. The compression ratio of the pushrod overhead-valve six-cylinder engine was raised to 7.75 to 1 and the carburation set to run on a 50 / 50 mixture of petrol and benzol, a fairly normal sporting fuel of the day. On the Rolls-Royce test-bed the engine developed 130 b.h.p. at 4,250 r.p.m. which the engineers calculated would give a maximum speed of 110 m.p.h. on a suitably raised rear axle ratio. They settled on a 3.75 to 1 rear axle in place of the standard 4.25 to 1, and with suitable section rear tyres this gave 100 m.p.h. at 4,000 r.p.m. which Hall reckoned to be about the maximum needed on the 13 3/4-mile Ards circuit. A 26-gallon fuel tank was fitted and new gear ratios made for the gearbox, giving 50 m.p.h. in 1st gear. The coach builders Offords built a regulation four-seater body, the spare wheel was mounted on the nearside of the chassis and simple flat blade mudguards were made. The regulations permitted cars to run without lamps or windscreens, but the basic car had to be a regular production model, which, of course, the 3 1/2 Bentley was.
The race was over a distance of 35 laps, which was 478 miles, and was run on handicap according to engine capacity, the Bentley being in the scratch class, along with Lagondas. Hall drove the whole way himself, made two pits stops to refuel and change tyres, was the first to finish on the road, but was narrowly beaten by C. J. P. Dodson in an MG Magnette on the handicap. The can had run perfectly throughout, and surprisingly quietly, and in finishing second Hall averaged 78.4 m.p.h., with a fastest lap of 81.15 m.p.h., which was much faster than the best speed ever recorded by one of the supercharged 41/2-litre Bentley cars from the old Bentley company, so that Rolls-Royce quietly preened themselves on the fact that their idea of a Bentley sports car was far superior to that of W. O. Bentley, the originator of the marque. After the TT Hall drove the car at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb and recorded 48 seconds in the pouring rain, to win the 3-5-litre class. Needless to say, the Bentley was driven to and from the Liverpool docks for its Ulster trip, and to and from Shelsley.
So delighted was Hall with the performance of the car that he entered it for the 1935 race on the Ards circuit, again over 478 miles for the RAC Tourist Trophy, once again on handicap. Rolls-Royce looked at the engine once more, raising the cornpression ratio to 8.35 to I and using the same fuel they obtained 155 b.h.p. at 4,200 r.p.m., doing all the usual tuning things like larger inlet valves, polishing and balancing and so on. The same four-seater body was retained, the regulations still insisting on four seats for the big-engined cars, but Hall replaced the simple flat strip wings by shapely helmet mudguards with fairings behind the front wheels and in front of the rear wheels. The fuel tank was replaced by onc of 32 gallons, with a view to running through with only one stop, and Eddie Hall elected to drive the whole way himself once again. This time he was narrowly beaten on handicap by a 11/2-litre Riley driven by the redoubtable F. W. Dixon, even though the Bentley upped its average speed to 80.36 m.p.h. for the total distance. Once more its run into second place was faultless, but not quite fast enough to beat the handicap. As in the previous year Hall competed at Shelsley Walsh after the TT and this time recorded 46.4 seconds and again won the class.
Determined to win the TT the car went back to Rolls-Royce for further attention. Long distance sports car racing on the open roads was Eddie Hall's idea of motor racing and he entered the Bentley for the 24-hour race at Lc Mans as a prelude to his third attempt on the Tourist Trophy with the Bentley. He had driven in the TT every year since its inception in 1928, driving Arrol-Aster, (Cricklewood) Bentley, Lagonda and MG cars. By this time Rolls-Royce had introduced a new engine for their Silent Sports Car, still a pushrod overhead-valve six-cylinder, but of 41/2-litres, and they installed one of these in AXN 373 in place of the 31/2-litre unit. This new engine, "suitably prepared", developed 167 b.h.p. at 3,800 r.p.m. on a 9 to I compression ratio, still on petrol/ benzol fuel.
The International Sports Car regulations had now been changed and all sizes of cars were allowed to carry two-seater bodywork, so Hall had the old four-seater body removed and in its place Ridlington's of West London built an altogether smoother two-seater, with a long tail covering the fuel tank and the spare wheel, while the mudguards were greatly improved in shape, now being similar back and front. For the Le Mans race the car was geared to do 120 m.p.h. and as Rolls-Royce had done a 24-hour test bed run on the engine without a falter, Hall was looking forward to the event. France was undergoing labour problems in 1936 and Eddie was actually in France with the car, on his way to Le Mans, when the organisers deemed it prudent to cancel the event at the last minute. The workers were causing trouble, there were strikes and demonstrations and the whole country was in an unsettled state, unsuited to the running of a 24-hour motor race. Reluctantly Hall returned to England and started preparing for the TT, this time to be run over 410 miles (30 laps) on the same challenging Ards circuit to the east of Belfast.
Rolls-Royce guaranteed Eddie Hall at least 10 m.p.g. at racing speeds and the Avon.! India Rubber Company reckoned their 6.50 x 19" tyres would go right through the race, so plans were made accordingly. As always, Hall reckoned to drive the whole race himself and by fitting a 48 gallon fuel tank in the long tail of the new bodywork be planned to go through non-stop, though nobody knew at the time, apart from his wife who ran his pit and time-keeping and various members of his equipe. This time, apart from being up against the known handicap, according to engine size, he was also up against some fast and light Delahayes, and 3.3-litre Bugattis from France. This year, the two men who had beaten the Bentley in previous years, Charlie Dodson and Freddie Dixon, were now sharing a 1,-litre Riley, so Hall's task was no easy one. To add to his opposition the weather turned foul and rained inost of the time, which hampered the faster cars more than the slovver ones. In spite of all this Eddie Hall drove the big Bentley right through without a stop, at an average speed of 80.81 m.p.h., with a fastest lap at 83.20 m.p.h., but it was not good enough, it only netted him second place, for the third year in succession. The winners on handicap were Dixon and Dodson. Hall's average speed in the rain was the fastest ever recorded for the Tourist Trophy race, but it was a Delahaye that took the fastest lap, with a speed of 85.52 m.p.h., their light weight and independent front suspension showing the trend of sports car design. The fuel consumption of the Bentley for the 410 miles was 11.4 mpg., the car had once more upheld the Rolls-Royce tradition of reliabilty and silence, and to round off the activity Hall competed at Shelsley Walsh after the event and again won his class.
That 1936 Tourist Trophy on the magnificent Ards road circuit unfortunately witnessed a bad accident in which spectators were killed and the event was removed from Ulster for 1937 and run at Donington Park. Athough Donington Park was an admirable closed mad type circuit, it was nothing compared to the Ards circuit, and a TT on a 3 1/2-mile circuit through parkland was not Eddie Hall's idea of motor racing, so he retired from the sport and the Bentley was put out to grass.
During the war years it was stored in Derby by Rolls-Royce along with many other special cars belonging to customers, and the apprentices were given the task of periodical attention to the cars. One young apprentice was Tony Rudd, now the Director of Engineering of the Louts Group, and it was his job to look after the famous TT Bentley.
After the war Eddie Hall went to live in South Africa and he took the Bentley with him, competing with it in various national races out there, which were run on handicap like British events. In 1948 he netted 3rd place in the Fairfield Handicap in Durban and 5th place in the Coronation Handicap in Pietermaritzburg. In 1950 Hall returned to England with the car and Rolls-Royce looked at it again for him in preparation for an entry in the 24 Hour race at Le Mans. During a total overhaul and rebuild they improved the braking system and, naturally, improved the 4,-litre engine still further. In the interests of streamlining Hall had a detachable hardtop fitted over the cockpit, which may have been effective but looked hideous. He drove the whole 24 hours himself because, as he said recently, "couldn't stand co-drivers, they always cause trouble" and he finished in 8th place at 82.95 m.p.h., covering 1,990 miles.
After that he began to think about sports car events with a new Ferrari so he sold the Bentley to Briggs Cunningham, whom he had met at Le Mans. Cunningham took the car back to America, threw away the hardtop and kept it in its full racing trim in British Racing Green. Eventually Cunningham opened his Motor Museum and the famous old Bentley formed part of it. Today the Cunningham Museum is situated in California, south of Los Angeles, and the Bentley with all to history is well cared for. It has had American licence plates fitted in place of AXN 373, but apart from that is unchanged and is always kept ready to run.
Two years ago, while visiting Briggs Cunningham and his splendid museum the Bentley was started up and we had a little drive round in it. Today Eddie Hall, at 82 years of age, lives in Monte Carlo overlooking the promenade on which the pits are situated at Grand Prix time. His wife Joan, who did all the .time-keeping and pit organisation during his racing, is as active as ever in the amateur dramatic world of Monaco and at Grand Prix time it is always pleasant to spend time with these two people who raced for fun and left an indelible mark on the history of the RAC Tourist Trophy race in Northern Ireland. In his living room Eddie Hall has a scale model three feet long of AXN 373, in its final form. It resides in a glass case, a tribute to a famous car that itself is alive and well in the good hands of the Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum. — D.S.J