Mother's day out

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From La Sarthe to Stanmore – this unique Bentley has raced a few miles since it won Le Mans

A fine day in England is difficult to beat; spent behind the wheel of a vintage Bentley it’s impossible to top. But when that Bentley is ‘Mother Gun’ – one of the most historically significant Bentleys in existence – it simply doesn’t get any better.

Normally I would test a racing car on a track, but since Mother Gun’s owner Stanley Mann keeps it road-registered and the car certainly was driven to and from the track in period, I felt it appropriate to opt for the public road.

But before I describe how it feels to drive such an important car, let’s rewind to the 1920s.

Bentley Motors, Cricklewood, North London. The mechanics have a test route along the old A5, the Edgware Road: they run north for about nine miles to Brockley Hill at Stanmore, accelerating the Bentleys as hard as they can to the crest of the hill. Then, noting the speed at the summit, they continue through Elstree to The Three Horseshoes pub at Letchmore Heath village green for lunch.

Eighty-three years later, here we are slowing down at the entry to that same village. I heave at the steering wheel and pull up onto the hard-standing outside the Horseshoes, parking the big racing Bentley in pretty much the same place it would have stood all those years ago.

Minutes later Stanley Mann arrives in a modern Bentley GT and over lunch he chats about the history of this mighty car.

“Mother Gun was probably responsible for the famous 1927 Whitehouse crash at Le Mans. It was seriously damaged and required a new frame as well as a steering box and other bits. Then in 1928, when it won Le Mans, it broke that frame as well. It was leaking water everywhere, and how they got it to the finish I really don’t know. Later it had a two-seater body put on it to race at Brooklands, then around 1935/36 they fitted the chassis it wears currently as it was no longer competitive in its previous guise. But the whole way through it was always known as Mother Gun.

“I met WO [Bentley] two or three times. Woolf Barnato [who won Le Mans in 1928 with Bernard Rubin and gave Mother Gun its nickname] died in 1948, but I met most of the other Bentley Boys. ‘Tim’ Birkin’s mechanic Billy Rockell is a friend of mine, and he says they weren’t as funny as most people imagine. You have to remember, in the vintage period those guys were in their twenties, they were at their peak and pretty serious about what they did. They all knew that driving something like this, if they had an accident at about 100mph they could get hurt – badly hurt.”

In a busy career Mother Gun has done about 180 races. Second at Le Mans in 1929, it was consistently modified through the 1930s, notably by Richard Marker and Robin Jackson, and ran in the last race at Brooklands when George Harvey-Noble obtained the final 130mph badge. Vaughan Davis began its restoration in the 1960s, which was completed at Mann’s workshop. The car has an undertray, which probably helps stability at high speeds. Harvey-Noble told Mann that the car was managing 148mph on the Railway Straight and in a straight line it would “easily do 160”.

So, has Stanley tried it? “Yes, and I’m not going to tell you where!”

Mann runs the car at the Goodwood Revival in the pre-war race, and has increased the capacity to eight litres to be more competitive against cars like the Barnato-Hassan and Pacey-Hassan. He feels that all the matching-number stuff is simply not realistic for a racing car. “The most valuable vintage Bentleys are team cars and not one team car has its original body, frame and engine together,” he explains. “It is the continuous history that matters. Cars aren’t paintings – to keep competitive they had to be continually changed. This one was constantly developed over the 14 years that it raced regularly. The top half of the engine is out of Old No1 and the bottom half is out of [Prince George] Imeritinski’s Speed Six. The traction bars at the back are in fact track rods from a 30/98. The only thing that wasn’t replaced was the gearbox, so since you haven’t broken that today I am very happy.”

Mother Gun holds the Class B 1000-mile speed record, but the record that Mann especially holds dear is the 500-mile one he took in 1990 because the Brooklands 500 Miles was the fastest race anywhere in the world.

Stanley: “We did that with four drivers because of fuel stops and because we wanted to do it the way they did at Brooklands. In order to get the 113mph we required, she was sitting at 125 for nearly four and a half hours. The day after we popped the wings on and drove Mother Gun on the road to our celebratory dinner.”

Earlier in the day, while Mother Gun was being warmed up, I asked Stanley how she handles. “Don’t be frightened of it, it’s just a wonderful car,” he says. “You can throw it around and the back will come out, but the front doesn’t go anywhere. And anyway, if it did the bonnet is so long that you’re still 10ft away from the accident!

“I use it once or twice a week in the summer, but you can’t take a lot of shopping in it and it uses quite a bit of petrol. At 120mph it does about 13mpg, but all things considered that’s not that bad. It is simply fabulous to drive, so just get in, press the button and go.”

I climb aboard for the first time and lower myself into Mother Gun’s comfortable single seat, carefully sliding my feet into the distant depths below the scuttle. I put its amazing history out of my mind and concentrate on the job in hand, but it’s a tough call, for this car has been through so much: its Le Mans win, its many other major track successes, its world record runs and, of course, its earlier racing metamorphoses.

OK. Switches on, ignition, pump, finger on the button and press while at the same time jabbing the throttle to catch the ignition, and then revel in the sound of the 8-litre straight-six rumbling into life. I place my right foot firmly on the footbrake, drop my right arm out over the side, release the handbrake, grasp the gear lever and carefully select first. The gear engages easily with a mechanical ‘th-klunk’, I bring up the clutch and pull away.

With 1500rpm on the tach, I pull the lever back in two careful movements while bringing the clutch pedal up and depressing it again as the lever passes through the gate, hand consciously hesitating for a moment through the neutral point. Grasping the Bentley’s big cruciform wheel I gaze at the horizon beyond the end of a bonnet that feels the length of a cricket pitch. I’m now in third and beginning to feel at home. Goggles protect my eyes, but the wind blowing over the aero screen through what remains of my hair heightens the feeling of exhilaration. This engine currently produces about 360bhp and along these lanes there is no way I’ll achieve the sort of speeds that would necessitate the use of top gear. But just for the hell of it, at what feels like 50mph I change up again. In fourth and with all that enormous torque the Bentley still pulls well low down, but with no speedometer and now travelling a tad faster than feels comfortable, I am approaching a crossroads. My heart is in my mouth as I prod the brakes hard, then harder. Relief. Mother Gun begins to slow. I drop through third, then into second – no doubt disturbing the countryside for miles around as I blip the throttle, double de-clutching down the ’box – then stop. I storm through the lanes past Elstree Aerodrome and pass Aldenham School, where the 30mph signs before Letchmore Heath slow me down and lunch beckons.

Afterwards, as I climb aboard Mother Gun for the drive back to the Fruit Farm, and with tales of the ’20s still spinning around my head, I can’t help but wish that we could be transported back to 1927. Then I could drive back to Cricklewood in time for tea with WO…

Thanks to Stanley Mann and The Three Horseshoes pub