The spirit of Bill Boddy was surely travelling with our two-man Bentley crew as they sprinted to John O’Groats and back
At midnight on June 27, 1938, a 4¼-litre Derby Bentley eased away from Parliament Square and turned to the north. At its wheel was a 25-year-old lad who was already the editor of Motor Sport and would go on to become the longest-serving contributor to this or, so far as we have been able to ascertain, any other magazine there has been. His name was William Boddy, more usually called Bill but best known simply as WB to the hundreds of thousands who would come to feast on his words over the next 73 years.
His mission was simple. With two colleagues from the magazine, he would drive north, non-stop, until the road ran out at John O’Groats. The broad reason for going was that “distance lends enchantment” but more specifically that “we all possessed a desire to see a little of the North of Scotland”.
So we thought that to mark the centenary of his birth, we would on the precise 75th anniversary of the event take a brand-new Bentley and also drive it non-stop to the northernmost tip of Great Britain. Then, aware that what we contemplated was hardly a challenge compared with what WB faced in 1938, we thought that instead of staying there for a few days to do some sightseeing as did our predecessors, we’d turn around with barely a pause and drive all the way back again.
There were other differences, too. While WB had two chums with whom to share the driving (although, impressively, he alone took the helm on the way up), I could only persuade one person that spending what was looking like 24 consecutive hours inside a two-plus-not-much Bentley was a good idea. And then I suspect only because he is my brother, already the owner of a pre-war 4¼ Derby Bentley and as such more than usually sympathetic to such a cause. This explains why such photographs as we took are very much of the happy snap variety and not the professional portraits you are used to seeing between these covers. Then again, as WB and his team saw fit to publish a grand total of two shots of their trip, one of which was merely the Bentley at the side of the road, our approach felt in keeping with the tradition of the run.
The other principal variation on WB’s theme was that I did not leave at midnight but just before 7pm. Less romantic it may have been, but faced with a return journey, the idea of delaying departure for several hours after theworking day had ended seemed neither safe nor very sensible.
Where two plans laid three-quarters of a century apart did coincide was that we wanted to follow WB’s route up as far as practically possible, at least passing the places he mentioned in his story. This meant eschewing the normal M1/M6 route to the border and instead taking the A1 to Scotch Corner before crossing the country on the A66 to Penrith, before heading north again and threading our way through Scotland. As our timings meant the bulk of the outbound journey would take place at night, some of the pictures were taken at the same places, but on the return, daylight leg.
It is fascinating to read about life on the road in 1938. For instance the fuel station network was sufficiently advanced for them to feel no need to carry spare petrol, even though they knew they’d need to fill at least once at a highly inhospitable hour. But the need to keep an eye on and replenish its other fluids was clearly critical. As we shall see, even a brand-new Bentley could be expected to use quite a lot of oil and half a gallon of water.
Boddy’s first complaint will resonate as much today as it did 75 years ago, namely “an unbelievable number of hostile traffic lamps” as he made his way up the Finchley Road towards the A1. They passed Doncaster at 3.14am and Boroughbridge at 4.30am but were in daylight at Catterick Bridge before they stopped at a small filling station.
Protocol then was to wake the owner of said station and persuade him to “condescendingly descend and minister to the Bentley’s needs”, which included not only 16 gallons of Power Benzole but also and already a quart of oil. WB managed to burn his arm on the exhaust while pouring said oil into the engine, hopefully without dwelling for too long on the fate of Sir Henry Birkin, whose Maserati had inflicted a similar injury five years earlier with eventually fatal consequences.
Farther north they hit heavy rain but cruised the Bentley at an impressive 80mph, despite the inadequacies of the wipers at such speeds. And while they had no motorway network to follow, they did not appear to need one, at least at that time of day. WB remarked that it was not until 90 minutes after the sun had risen “that an approaching car was encountered”.
By early morning breakfast was clearly uppermost in their minds, it still being many years before the provision of on-the-hoof cardboard service station sandwiches.
Promising-looking hotels at Crawford and Abington turned out to be shut until the Amulree Hotel hove into view on the A822 north of Crieff at 8.45am. Some 52 minutes later they were mobile again but not before buying another 14 gallons of fuel, a further quart of oil and WB gaining the unwelcomeattention of the locals for his “fad of using talcum powder on his hands before resuming his driving gloves”.
To WB’s evident pleasure, the Bentley outdragged an LMS ‘Pacific’ loco hauling a train up to Drumochter Summit to the north of Blair Atholl and then did it again to another hapless locomotive on the descent to Kingussie.
They got lost in Inverness, had to wait for a swing bridge over the canal, and near Alness filled with fuel again at “an electric pump, the writer staying in the seat”. To WB this was clearly very impressive. After a final heady blast to speeds of “90 and a bit”, they parked outside the John O’Groats House hotel at 3.14pm, 15hr 14min and 702 miles after departing Westminster. They seemed in good spirits despite WB’s self-professed susceptibility to aches and pains, though he did admit to his driving having once made his passengers “ill” on the way, without elaborating further on just how dramatic the illness had been. They then retired to the Pentland Hotel in Thurso for a couple of days to recover, see the countrysideand prepare for the return. It seems to have been chosen because it was where S C H Davis had once started the Monte Carlo Rally.
I too had cause to curse the traffic lights on the Finchley Road, but not so much as the traffic they were trying (and failing) to control. Sitting in a scarlet Bentley Continental GT, impotently blipping its 500bhp V8 motor, I was feeling tired before the day had begun. Trying to leave London in the early evening was, on reflection, a stupid mistake.
But as soon as city streets turned to the A1, the traffic cleared and by 8.30pm I was peeling off the main road north of Huntingdon to collect Richard, the aforementioned brother, from his home nearby. Helpfully he’d got his Derby out of the garage, presumably in the forlorn hope I might be persuaded to take that instead. Had a bunch of Derby-mounted enthusiasts not themselves re-enacted WB’s run over several days a few weeks earlier, I might have been tempted. In the event I didn’t want to be seen to be copying their idea, but I did want to see how much the mighty theoretical advantage held by a modern Bentley on a (comparatively) modern road network might be mitigated by traffic, road works and fear of the law.
We rejoined the A1(M) before 9.00pm looking forward to a simple run north. Fat chance. North of Mansfield the road was shut and, said the traffic report, backed up for miles.
So we cut cross-country to the M1, and were forced to stay on it longer than planned when we discovered the M18 was also shut. It was nearly 11pm before we finally regained the A1, just in time to leave it for good at Scotch Corner where we refuelled before heading west to Penrith, as did WB all those years ago. The A66 is a good, fast road, perfect for a car like the Bentley whose pulverising torque allowed us to pass almost everything as soon as we encountered it.
Thereafter, save our third motorway closure (the M9), the night passed uneventfully in the company of Messrs Hancock, Parsons, Lyttelton and assorted other stalwarts of the past 60 years of BBC radio light entertainment. As a means of staying awake in the small hours, laughing ’til you cry is a far better stimulant than any amount of caffeine-impregnated soft drink. It also made me appreciate all the more WB’s single-handed efforts at the wheel in a car with such limited performance, cornering and braking ability, not to mention what we’d today consider appalling wipers and lights. I hope his companions were raconteurs of the highest calibre.
Daylight met us in Inverness, where we cheated by crossing the Moray Firth via the Kessock Bridge (which opened in 1982), but only to recover some of the miles lost on our many diversions. WB would have had to cut back inland and cross at Beauly. But like Boddy we thereafter pressed on as fast as was safely possible, reaching John O’Groats just after 6am. Excluding stops we had done it in 10hr 30min, carving a vast 3hr 22min off the time achieved in 1938.
With motorways and 500bhp at our disposal there was no sense of triumph in the achievement, but it was interesting. I knew we’d beat WB’s time but I’d have guessed by fewer than two hours. And, for the avoidance of doubt, this wasn’t achieved by cruising at 170mph: a few cobweb-cleaning squirts aside, we drove throughout at speeds that posed no threat to licence, let alone liberty.
We wanted to recreate the picture outside the John O’Groats House hotel, but it’s being rebuilt and barriers were placed around it, so we just took a few shots to prove we’d been there and headed to Thurso. No one at the Pentland Hotel had heard of its Monte Carlo history so we snapped some more, made our excuses and left. This time we retraced WB’s steps just far enough to photograph the car in daylight outside the now sadly derelict Amulree Hotel, where he and his chums had broken their fast all those years ago. It was strange to think of our Founder Editor, a man known to us all as an elder statesman, as he would have been on this very spot: a young man aged just 25 in the middle of a grand adventure with more than 70 years of life still ahead of him.
We had little time for poignant pauses, nor any need to stick to WB’s return route. I just drove south, dropping Richard en route and notionally ending our trip at the M25 before turning west and heading for home in South Wales. WB had felt no need to return to Westminster and neither did I.
For what it’s worth, from Westminster to the M25 via John O’Groats took 22 hours 58 minutes, a distance of 1430 miles which means that we averaged almost exactly 62mph throughout. Inexplicably better fuel consumption on the road south bumped the total trip average up to 24.3mpg.
As for the Bentley, it stunned us with its capabilities, to the extent that we struggled to think of another that might do that job better. For a test of a GT requiring total comfort and refinement combined with outrageous performance, infinite poise and a stirring soundtrack, it passed with a starred First. This is actually the cheapest Bentley you can buy, but also the best. It might look like the same Continental GT launched a decade ago, but it has been nothing less than transformed. It is somewhat less elegant, but clearly it’s positioned to do the same job today as was the 4¼-litre in 1938. Almost 23 hours in its company showed me was that it also does it at least as well, and that I would not have predicted.