Austin Sevens, Ford Eights and Tens were popular chassis for mounting special bodies upon until the advent of the Mini and other small, cheap cars took away the need for such makeshift substitutes for motorcycles. Today the popular chassis seems to have become the Bentley Mk. VI or R-type, one hopes because of unpreventable corrosion in particularly neglected standard steel bodies rather than sheer, malicious sacrilege. While the old Ford and Austin Seven Specials provided cheap fun for the impecunious, Bentley Specials are fun for the rich; the bill for converting and rebodying a two-seater, glassfibre R-type we borrowed recently from that 76-year-old vintage Bentley expert, Sid Lawrence, of Southgate Motors, Southgate, London N14, would be well over £5,000 over and above the initial cost of the deteriorating saloon.
Lawrence strips the saloon body from the bare chassis, which he renovates completely. The wheelbase is shortened by 6 in., the engine moved back by 1 ft. 4 in., the radiator moved back into the axle line and the chassis lowered by 8 in. Suspension is rebuilt where necessary, the Silentbloc bushes are replaced by phosphor bronze ones, the front wheel camber is altered, the rear leaf springs are flattened, the front coil springs left standard, along with their shock-absorbers, and the rear shock-absorbers, though retaining their remote adjustment from the steering wheel boss, are best kept on the soft setting because of the lightness of the body. Other chassis modifications are to remove the rear cruciform section which normally helps support the heavy, steel body and to fit a single piece, straight-line propshaft. The rear brakes are converted from mechanical to hydraulic, the mechanical servo is removed from the gearbox and a vacuum servo is added to assist the consequently four-wheel hydraulic system. One shot lubrication is replaced by individual grease nipples and the final touch to the chassis is to add Wolfrace alloy wheels and fat, cross-ply tyres.
All other mechanical parts are rebuilt too, including the straight-six engine, which is fitted with a battery of four 1 3/4 in. SU carburetters, has its flywheel lightened and its crankshaft assembly balanced. On the prototype sampled a six-branch exhaust manifold and ungainly exhaust system ran outside the bodywork, but Lawrence intends to run the system within the chassis on future cars.
Climbing into the two bucket seats over the cut-away “doors”, one is faced with a comprehensive assembly of new instruments mounted in a wooden facia, a wood-rim steering wheel surmounted by the Bentley boss complete with its ride and mixture controls and a beautifully constructed, one-piece, folddown windscreen. There is an inspiringly vintage view ahead over the aluminium louvred bonnet, complete with its hefty leather bonnet strap, to the flying “B” on the cut-down radiator shell ahead and the cycle wings to port and starboard. To those who are not used to, but aspire to the lofty view from a vintage Bentley cockpit, this could provide them with a cheap and cheerful substitute to add fodder to their nightly dreams.
Lawrence designed the neat, two-seater body with its well-made glass-fibre body containing a boot which is almost entirely filled by the massive spare wheel and hood sticks (though there is some stowage space behind the seats). The actual panels are moulded for him by an outside firm. The performance of this machine belies the age of its renovated chassis. After all, this tuned engine, which in this form felt a little over-carburated, has a mere 22 cwt. 2 qrs. 14 lb. to drag along compared with the standard Bentley’s luxurious 37.6 cwt. Indeed, the weight reduction is such that on the standard gearing the use of first gear causes embarrassment, so that second should be used for standing starts. This is a pity because it reduces the need to use that delightful right-hand, knife-through-butter, Bentley gear change. I would hesitate to quote performance figures; it is certainly very rapid and Lawrence suggests a 0-50 time of less than 5 sec., while Jack Bond, of Vintage Autos, who is to be the exclusive retailer of the car, suggests that this may be the fastest road-going Bentley yet. The body shakes a little in sympathy with the front wheel movement and the front end gives the impression, at least in the damp of our test day, that it will run very wide if the right foot is not used with decorum, but otherwise the handling is the fun that it should be. If the chassis is not really “as fast as” the engine, it at least gets the adrenalin pumping at the sort of speeds one is likely to enjoy most its vintage feel and wind in the hair.
It has at least got genuine vintage Bentley pedigree in its blood: Lawrence worked in W. O. Bentley’s repair shop at Alperton from 1926 to 1930, followed by a spell with Bowler-Hoffman from 1930 to 1932 before starting his own specialised Bentley business in Hampstead in 1932. This man, who served his apprenticeship with General Motors on Buick and Cadillac during the First World War and later did much experimental racing engine work with the British Anzani Engine Co., won the very first vintage race at Snetterton in his 4 1/2-litre Bentley. Today, most of his firm’s time is spent on servicing modern Mercedes and BMWs, but his knowledge and skills continue to be called upon for the occasional pre-war Bentley.—C.R.