A reminder that Peter Robertson-Rodger’s two ex-Birkin 4 1/2-litre Bentleys, the short chassis, blower 4-seater and the single-seater which held the Brooklands lap record at 137.98 m.p.h., are now in the care of W.J. Shortt, made a visit to the Old Barn House at Effingham a matter of keen anticipation.
After the sight of a “14/40” Delage tourer had led us on a false trail, we easily located the house (where Peter Hampton, of Bugatti and Mercédès fame, once lived) by reason of a 4 1/2-litre Bentley and a “30/98” Vauxhall standing in the drive. Very little time was lost in diving into Shortt’s combined garage and workshop. Here the ex-Birkin 4-seater is undergoing complete stripping, preparatory to rebuilding, in the course of which considerable modification will be made with a view to extracting greater performance from what is, already, a 130-m.p.h. car. The beautiful condition of the chassis was evident, the huge Villiers supercharger, with its transverse cooling fins, presenting literally a spotless exterior. The body, with those big Union Jacks permissibly displayed on the scuttle, is remarkably well preserved and the gigantic rear tank, with its huge, quick-action filler, is an awesome object in this rationed age. The rather narrow facia makes a deep instrument panel necessary in order to accommodate all the dials, controls and switches essential to a car of this calibre, and the resultant layout is extremely imposing, particularly the rev.-counter set at an angle to enable the driver to read it at its location on the extreme near side of the cockpit. The pistons of this car have sloping crowns and the compression ratio is likely to be raised still further. Modifications to the cooling and lubrication systems and the fitting of the huge 02-mm. S.U. carburetters specially made for the blower single-seater Bentley are pending. The carburetters are a most imposing sight, with their Merlin-like main jets, which pass a gallon of fuel every 59 secs. at full throttle. The Villiers supercharger from the single-seater is also available; it differs from that now fitted in having its own oil pump, although we believe that both blow at approximately 12 lb./sq. in. against 9 lb./sq. in, of blower fitted to production-model blower Bentleys. Laurence Pomeroy has devised a plot for Robertson-Rodger, whereby one carburetter follows the other into operation.
So complicated is the lubrication system that Shortt confesses it impossible to even contemplate modification until it has been entirely dismantled and the function of each pipe-line correctly understood. A dry sump system will probably be adopted. The crankshaft is truly marine-like and we noticed spare shafts, their bearing surfaces tape-bound, in Shortt’s magnificently equipped workshop, where one is continually coming upon spare Bentley cylinder blocks, etc. Beside the Bentley stood Cecil Clutton’s V12 10 1/2-litre Delage, a car which never fails to intrigue. Its big engine, obviously a special job, as distinct from one originally engaged in propelling an aeroplane or boat, is being reassembled, some of the separate cylinders being still on the bench. The tubular connecting rods are not of particularly brilliant design and it is distinctly unwise to run the engine above 3,200 r.p.m., but something like 145 m.p.h. is on hand, nevertheless. The internals of the engine are having Shortt’s usual painstaking care in the course of reassembly.
Reverting to the 4-seater Bentley, it always surprised us that the long blower, supported between the dumb-irons, should not suffer from chassis flexion, but apparently it does not; there is a massive torque member to relieve its mountings of its counter-rotational ambitions. The grand old car, with which Birkin finished second in that memorable French G.P. at Pau in 1931, has suffered at the hands of a vandal who previously reassembled it, but all that is being put right by Shortt. The engine now installed, of course, is that from the Track single-seater, which gave 240 b.h.p. and has actually been functioned at 5,500 r.p.m. on the test-bed. The red single-seater itself now stands engineless in a dry garage, still commanding intense respect; rumour says that Peter may use it eventually for occasional road outings. Another interesting Bentley was a beautiful 4 1/2-litre, on the engine of which the maker’s seals are still intact; it carries a very unusual saloon body and runs extremely quietly. Then in the garage with the blower car and the Delage stood a production-model blower 4 1/2-litre, with the body which once graced Lycett’s 8-litre before he fitted even lighter and briefer carriagework. Outside we encountered Shortt’s own Bentley in process of overhaul – a short chassis open 3-litre with four-bolt connecting rods and high scuttle. The Bentley outside the house turned out to be the ex-Humphrey Cook black 4-seater 4 1/2-litre, capable of 85 m.p.h. fairly easily and 90 m.p.h. given time, and about to be “made to go quickly”! The long outside gear lever was interesting.
The “30/98” Vauxhall was an O.E. job with the simple and so very pleasing 4-seater bodywork. It had been laid aside on account of worn steering, a matter which will doubtless be put right when time permits. Then, as one would expect, there were two “14/40” Deluge tourers, Shortt being a well-known exponent of the type. He does not scorn small stuff, having a modern Ford saloon and a “Chummy” Austin Seven with very sound magneto-ignition engine which he is doing-up for hack work. There was, too, his 1914 G.P. Opel, Segrave’s Brooklands car, which used to lap at 100 m.p.h. It was found in Clacton and has a run big-end, and as Shortt sees no prospect of pulling it down, he would dispose of it to a good home for around £60. The 16-valve o.h.c. engine is reminiscent of a Bentley unit back-to-front and the valve gear has a certain likeness to that of modern Allison aero-engines. The lengthened chassis to accommodate longer rear springs in an effort to cure an inherent instability is a reminder of the early nineteen-twenties, when a young man called H.O.D. Segrave was racing this car at Brooklands expressly to catch the eye of the august Coatalen. A Zenith carburetter replaces the original Claudel, on what is probably the original manifold, the exhaust system with its square section off-takes feeding into a huge tapered pipe (used before the silencer era) is available, and on present-day (sic) fuels it is believed that something like 115 m.p.h. would be possible. There is an ingenious half-compression device, as on Mavro’s sister car, which moves the o.h. camshaft sideways through a system of linkages. Shortt loves the veterans and told us that he has found Clutton’s 1908 12-litre Itala quite tractable in London traffic, although its present owner once used to hitch on to a tow car on regaining the Metropolis.
Over tea all manner of motor-cars came up for discussion, Mrs. Shortt proving herself every bit as keen as her husband. She once had a Newton-Ceirano, of which an example had been seen recently in the locality, and spoke knowledgeably of G.N.s, old school Bentleys, Lancia “Lambdas,” the Fiat “500” and similar cars. We left reflecting that to visit good cars in the keeping of true and capable enthusiasts is a very pleasant way of warding-off war-time boredom. Robertson-Rodger is certainly going to enjoy some most effective motoring when petrol is again a freely purchaseable commodity.