Simon Taylor’s notebook
The Goodwood Revival is the best historic race meeting in the world. Minutely organised, superbly staged, it has transformed everyone’s perception of old car racing. Other events here and abroad may try to follow Lord March’s recipe, but they are unlikely to assemble enough of the key ingredients. But let’s not forget that there are also long-established, honourable club meetings which in their way are just as vital a part of the old-car scene. Many of them, because of huge increases in circuit fees, are now in grave danger of extinction.
The first Bentley Drivers’ Club Silverstone happened 55 years ago, when the original airfield circuit was less than a year old. And it has continued uninterruptedly ever since. But today the club can only organise it with financial help from Bentley’s new owners, Volkswagen. Bentley Motors Ltd brings scores of corporate guests, and modern Bentley dealers set up a tented pavilion down in the paddock to show off their wares. If that’s what it takes to keep the BDC Silverstone going, it’s a small price to pay.
In 1949, vintage Bentleys were just cheap old cars which were fun to race. A nice 3-litre could be bought for £150, a scruffy one for less than half that, and even a Blower Four-and-a-Half could be found for £300. Illustrious racing history made no difference to the price: in fact, it probably reduced it, as evidence of a hard life. Not any more. A couple of months ago the Speed Six which finished second at Le Mans in 1930 sold at auction for £2.8 million.
Despite this hike, vintage Bentley owners do not keep their motor cars in cotton wool. Many get raced and raced hard, even if that results in mechanical failures, non-standard mods and maybe crash damage. The friendly, breezy atmosphere of that 1949 meeting lives on unsullied — although the circuit looks very different, of course, because the selfish requirements of F1 teams for one weekend a year, with their transporters, motorhomes and hospitality units, have transformed the Silverstone infield into a vast, ugly wasteland of Tarmac. Fortunately, it looks a lot better with a wonderful turnout of Bentleys of every size (large, larger and huge) and every hue (but mostly BRG).
Any spectator who turns up in a Bentley can join a parade around the circuit in the lunchbreak. Almost 200 of them, whether Cricklewood, Derby or Crewe, rumbled or wafted round the track, right up to the latest Continental GT. Later I enjoyed a few fast laps in the back seat of Philip Sandwith’s magnificent Speed Six, which has been in his family for more than 40 years. Philip’s father was at school with J D Benjafield’s son, and at half-term Dr Benjafield visited in a works car. It sowed a seed in young Sandwith, who went on to own every type of vintage Bentley, including the so-called Barnato Blue Train coupé. His son Philip and grandson Neil now carry the flame, and even his daughters married into vintage Bentley-owning families.
This remarkable brand loyalty is part of what Volkswagen valued when it decided to pay out all those deutschmarks for the company. Dr Ulrich Eichhorn, who heads the Continental GT design team at Crewe, has come from Ford and then VW. But he’s already a dyed-in-the-wool Bentley enthusiast. He drove his newly acquired 1960 S2 on the parade (“Just the model I wanted — single headlamp, but the V8”), and he then travelled with us in the Sandwith Speed Six. He believes passionately in the lineage from WO’s cars all the way to his W12 GT, and reckons WO would have approved of its philosophy and engineering. I’m sure that he’s right.
As for the racing, it was hugely entertaining, 10 races crammed into an afternoon which mixed Bentleys of every age with an eclectic array of guests, from Allards and Lago-Talbots to Lagondas — even a Kurtis Indy roadster. There was a memorable three-abreast battle between a Bentley Mk VI Special, a vintage Morgan three-wheeler and a 1990 Bentley Turbo R. This formule libre trio proved to be quick in completely different places around the track, so the order changed several times every lap, with the Morgan scuttling inside the massive Turbo R in the corners, and the talented Susan Shoosmith — another from a three-generation Bentley family— remarkably quick in her hot-rodded MkVI, which is still a cheap way to go racing in a Bentley. Low-key stuff, maybe, beside the grandeur and immaculate presentation of Goodwood: but a very satisfying day’s racing, for spectators (too few of them) and for competitors. Genuine club meetings like this are part of the very fabric of British motorsport. Somehow, despite the relentless rise in circuit costs, they must find a way to continue.