Laurence Meredith assesses a viable Bentley alternative
If we accept the general maxim that the basis for discussion is an exchange of knowledge, it so often follows that an argument, especially the heated variety, can be identified but not always by a profound exchange of ignorance and that, most folks when pressed hard, would prefer to rely on supposition than sound judgment.
Since the year ‘nineteen hundred and frozen to death’, the tweed-and-leather-patch variety of our species have argued that the sight, sound and technical excellence of the 3-litre Bentley is without rival anywhere in the vintage world. They may be right. And they are most certainly entitled to hold such opinion. But their creed is based upon foundations that appear to fall short of the truth.
During the 1920s, there were a few cars though not many from other manufacturers which were equal in stature to the esteemed Bentley, but which failed to capture the attention of the didactics who collared a monopoly on the distribution of legends some true, some not about the star of Cricklewood.
One such was the Lagonda 3-litre Special, a much underrated sporting motor car. Between 1928 and 1934 some 570 were built in various guises, the standard chassis retailing at £650 and a comparatively hefty £835 being asked for the low-chassis Special. A complete Special Tourer commanded around £1000 in 1930, its existence having been officially announced in March 1929.
In prototype form the Special had the ‘high’ chassis, and although the six-cylinder engine had larger ports and a higher compression ratio than the standard car, it was fitted with a single updraught Zenith carburettor. Production cars had twin 1 1/2in SUs: the Staines-based company didn’t quote figures, but power output was around 80 bhp. And, despite weighing over a hundred-weight more than the unsupercharged 2-litre model, performance from the 3-litre was about the same.
The prototype also featured a radiator stoneguard with the diamond shaped chrome struts, a 20-gallon petrol tank, dipping Lucas P100 headlamps and, interestingly, a clockwork device which automatically illuminated the sidelights after dark.
One of the many differences and it’s an intellectually important one between the Lagonda and many of its contemporaries, and indeed later Lagondas, was that the magnificent engine was made ‘in-house’. It was a Lagonda engine as opposed to the Crossley and Meadows-engined cars and is, therefore, hailed (rightly or wrongly) by aficionados as the last ‘proper’ Lagonda.
Aesthetically, the power unit is a masterly study in simple draughtsmanship; architecturally it is as robust and strong as a cathedral and quintessentially ‘vintage’. With a bore and stroke of 72x120mm it is wonderfully long legged and, as contemporary journalists discovered to their delight, it is also satisfyingly torquey. An overhead-valve unit with the camshaft mounted in the side of the cast-iron block, the inherent smoothness of this big six was augmented by a seven-bearing crankshaft. The contemporary Meadows engine had a five-bearing unit 15-love to Lagonda.
Over the flying quarter-mile, the 3-litre Special was good for nigh on 83 mph. Fair speed for such a relatively heavy car, but not quite as quick as the lighter, supercharged 2-litre Lagonda, which was several mph faster at the top-end. Cycle wings were offered as an extra-cost option on both the Special and Speed models. At the front these were fitted to the backplates of the brake drums and therefore, turned with the steering which, according to Lagonda lore, made the car much easier to place accurately during cornering.
Another advantage of cycle wings was that access to the engine was made much easier but, initially, they presented something of an aesthetic problem; ‘full-length running boards looked incongruous, which is why the production versions were either fitted with small, oval shaped footplates, or boards which tapered in towards the chassis some distance away from the front wheels. The introduction of cycle wings also saw the beginnings of another Lagonda hallmark in the form of distinctively large and aerodynamically shaped sidelights, which protruded on long stalks from each side of the scuttle.
Competition success of the 3-litre was impressive but comparatively ‘thin’, and this is where the Bentley boys really get on top of the argument. The highlight of the 3-litre’s racing career was arguably the class win by the Fox and Nicholl ‘lightweight’ Speed model in the 1929 Brooklands Six Hours.
An event in which there was an entry of half-a-dozen 2-litres, Lagonda also walked away with the team prize. Lagonda’s racing history is well charted, and anyone who recalls the ever amusing VSCC commentary duo of John Willis and Bunny Tubbs will be familiar with it in the minutest detail. Sadly, lack of column space precludes a transcript here. Ted Widgery’s 1930 Lagonda Special has been a familiar sight on the roads of Herefordshire, and at VSCC events, for the best part of 30 years. Like all right-thinking members of the vintage motoring community, Widgery uses it all year round and has done so continuously since the day he bought it as a young undergraduate.
Back in 1962, this car was used by John Steed in cult TV series The Avengers. But, after only four episodes, it was replaced by a Bentley. What else?
With its long (10ft 9in) wheelbase and Buckingham-built fabric body, this is one handsome motor car. Muscular and well trimmed in the best tradition, the softly curving lines of the four-seater coachwork breed a miasma of wonder for a style that was pitifully laid to rest in the 1930s. Still maintained in admirably original condition, and bearing nicely a few of the inevitable scars of old age, this is clearly not a pampered product.
The dark green paintwork shines but doesn’t gleam; its purpose is not to reflect what is visible, but is merely to make the car itself visible. Which is exactly how it should be. The three doors are not much more that courtesy tokens and, as the driver doesn’t get one, installing yourself behind the typically large four-spoke steering wheel either requires a short walk around the car to enter by the front passenger door, or a gentle scissors kick and a body-bumping exercise on the driver’s side.
I took the latter course, because its much easier. Once you’re in, the tiny hip-grasping bucket seat, which is upholstered in its original and enchantingly tatty green enamelled hide, proved to be as comfortable as anything else from this period and even tends to relax the old muscles and bones a touch.
There’s plenty of room for legs, arms and feet, and the general layout of the instruments and controls suggests that the interior was designed by a chap who included ‘ergonomics’ in his vocabulary. This is a stark contrast to so many vintage machines which are characterised from the cockpit by all sorts of appendages that stick into your knees (left or right), prod your ribs (back or front) and generally get up your nose (either nostril).
Fire the big six into life, dab the centrally-positioned throttle and the Lagonda instantly settles down nicely to idle.
The man-size clutch has fairly long travel and, when it engages, the ‘bite’ is firm and sound. Gearchanging proved a little tricky at first; the lever is a short, floor-mounted affair on the right-hand side with third and fourth closest to you. This did not prove to be a problem, but changing up or down requires a bit of concentrated practice a flick of the hand as fast as possible and plenty of engine revs if crunching the ‘box to an audibly premature death is to be avoided. Having gone through the mechanical trauma of reaching top gear, though, the elephantine spread of torque is such that you can virtually forget changing gear altogether. On we burbled at a gentlemanly pace through the sun scorched Herefordshire countryside taking in the sleepy old villages of Pembridge, Shobdon (where Peter Walker and Innes Ireland once lived) and Eardisland, where the stone bridge across the River Arrow provided a golden opportunity for listening to the echo from the fabulous exhaust.
With such a long wheelbase ride quality is truly remarkable, the large wheels ‘flattening’ frost damaged road surfaces most confidently. There is a natural tendency for the crossplies to follow ‘tramlines’ but, when this happens, it is important not to correct the steering too vigorously because it can become a habit, and before you know it your hands are working overtime.
After an experience with a V12 Lagonda a little while ago, I hadn’t expected much in the way of stopping power. A mechanical system operated by rods at the front, cables at the rear and with separate shoes at the rear for the handbrake, anchor power was encouragingly good, albeit not quite on a par with the 2-litre ‘Lag’ on account of the extra weight.
There really isn’t much to compare with cresting a blind brow and encountering a flock of escaped sheep for pulling a car to an abrupt halt, no matter how good the brakes may be. For a 66-year-old, the Lagonda’s roadholding capability is quite astonishing; there’s a touch of body lean, as with most cars of pensionable persuasion, and a hint of understeer but, set up properly on a committed line through a corner, everything hangs together addictively well. Such is the flexibility of the engine that changing down before a bend is nigh on pointless though it’s great fun, just for the pleasure of it.
Most impressive of all is not the car’s ability to pull from 10 mph in top, although it easily will, but its talent for averaging a mile per minute crosscountry. Keeping up with modern traffic is not a problem most of it gets in the way and despite the wearying nature of open tourers on hot, sunny days, we arrived home in time for afternoon tea thoroughly refreshed, the driver in a state of mellow euphoria.
On reflection, the Special is not entirely faultless. What car is? It is, however, well beyond serious criticism. The top frame of the windscreen is a little low and necessitates a forward shuffle of the bottom in the seat to allow for unencumbered straight-ahead vision. In this respect, however, it is nowhere near as daft as the Porsche 356 Speedster. In any case, the windscreen can be swapped for a couple of aeroscreens, which makes sense except on the hottest days, when you daren’t open your mouth for fear of providing the entomological world with a time-share opportunity.
Unfortunately, the car’s true mileage isn’t known, but it is thought to have travelled roughly the distance between Ledbury and the dark side of the moon. And, during Ted’s custodianship, it has never once broken down.
So, is it really as good as a 3-litre Bentley? I would not have thought so prior to driving this magnificent machine but, having done so, it certainly proved to be a worthy equal. The two are very different animals, the Lagonda possessing extraordinary grand touring talent, the Bentley gaining the upper hand on the sporting front.
As usual, you pays your money…