The Pilgrimage In the first of a new series, we drive a sporting 1928 Bentley 3-Litre saloon through West Sussex countryside to visit marque specialist William Medcalf – great drives to meet marque gurus. Visiting a Bentley specialist – in a Bentley 3-Litre saloon. ‘It corners with aplomb, once you’ve summoned up the nerve’ Vintage Bentleys are meant to be exciting – but can this stately 88-year-old show sporting prowess along a challenging route to meet specialist William Medcalf? Words: Nigel Boothman. Photography: Charlie Magee.
This is going to take a mental leap. The car in front of me is as tall as I am, with three large panes of glass on each side, four doors and a flat vertical windscreen. Inside are silk ropes to help the rear-seat passengers heave themselves out of the soft blue leather, and at the back is a trunk with two large suitcases inside. There are no leather straps on the bonnet, no green paint, no number stencilled on the radiator, and yet the owner recently finished halfway up the field in a gruelling rally and drove the car from Scotland to West Sussex in one 70mph romp.
Possibly fewer than ten 3-litres survive with their original sixlight body – this is one of them. The big trunk on the rear enhances this Bentley’s appeal as a practical tourer.
Today we’re taking this 1928 Bentley 3-litre back to that owner, a guru for these Cricklewood-built machines, via the best driving roads we can find. Our pilgrimage takes us through Sussex across the South Downs, heading north-west from the rolling landscapes around Goodwood and Lavant, through the steep hills around South Harting and on to the busier, larger roads near Petersfield. It should be a good work-out for any classic, but on first sight I’m concerned that some sections could be too much for this Bentley.
This is the car’s original HJ Mulliner saloon body. It’s one of perhaps fewer than ten 3-litre models left with original closed coachwork.
The role of the bodywork on a vintage car needs to be understood. Structurally, it was merely a dress that the car wore and was therefore infinitely changeable – Sir could keep his old Bentley but rebody it to an open sports model if he wished.
Today, respect for originality has seen prices of the surviving saloons rise. Further acts of desecration in the name of creating another Le Mans replica are seen as both cringe-inducing and financially suicidal. But I need to understand how this towering motorised parlour can perform like a sports car. Time to get into the driving seat.
‘PN 148’ may be 88 years old, but it can easily keep up with – or pass – plenty of modern cars.
The big wheel, handbrake and gearstick demand an ungainly limbo-dancing entry through the driver’s door, so a better policy is to slide across from the passenger side. The chassis on cars of this age, including the bulkhead and sometimes the dashboard, remained the same (apart from a change in spring rates) regardless of which body was ordered. So the controls, from the steering rake and twin magneto switches to the hefty, vertical gearlever under my right knee, could be straight out of a 3-litre Speed Model, as driven by Benjafield and Moir in the 1925 Le Mans 24 Hours race. Lift the bonnet to turn on the petrol tap and you’ll see two SU ‘sloper’ carburettors specified by the first owner, and also a Speed Model feature.
There’s ample room for Nigel to wear his topper, but he’s left it at home today.
With the magnetos on it’s time to prod the starter button. The engine bustles into life quite promptly as long as you’ve retarded the ignition and opened the hand throttle a tad using the two brass levers on the steering wheel boss. It sits there, trembling slightly and idling with a fruity clucking sound. You can see why late MP and ardent motorist Alan Clark nicknamed his 3-litre ‘the bustard’; it is oddly like a large bird. But can it fly?
Moving away, I discover one of the first lessons taught by any vintage Bentley. Driving is exercise – the clutch is heavy, the gearchange is heavy and the steering is very heavy, at least until we escape the village of Singleton and get rolling at a decent speed.
The crash gearbox is not really a tricky example, but the timing between gears varies both with the gap you’re trying to bridge – first to second, second to third, or whatever – and also the revs you’ve gathered before changing. Heaving it out of gear while on a trailing throttle is a mistake I try to eliminate as fast as possible – because the gearbox is then transmitting the torque of engine braking, which makes the teeth reluctant to separate.
The Bentley has gathered pace as the A286 sweeps down the valley created by the River Lavant. Suddenly the back end of a modern hatchback is approaching. The Bentley’s speedometer says 65mph. We’re breaking the speed limit and the car is sending two contradictory signals.
The body is quivering over every ripple in the tarmac and issuing warnings, and something in the driveline is whining or whirring, the steering wheel is dancing about and in any other Twenties saloon I would hear this message loud and clear. It says ‘slow down’. But the engine disagrees. I have quite a bit of travel left under the accelerator and a bass-heavy thrum from under the bonnet says It wants to go faster.
I wasn’t expecting this. I thought the 3-litre models were the oldest and least lorry-like vintage Bentleys, but also a little ponderous. That was why people wanted Speed Sixes or upgraded 3-litre chassis with 4½-litre engines. I was expecting a 3-litre engine designed in 1919 and trapped in a spacious ‘top-hat’ saloon to be thoroughly overwhelmed.
Not so. A Rolls-Royce ‘Twenty’ has overhead valves and 3.1 litres, but makes only about 50bhp. A low compression ratio of just 4.6:1 was part of an emphasis on smoothness or silence, but it left heavier Twenties with minimal performance. This Bentley displaces around 100cc less and has a similar compression ratio of 5.6:1, yet makes 85bhp and a great deal of torque. Far from feeling oppressed, the engine seems to be trying to throw off the bodywork and escape.
WO Bentley’s engine was bold and ambitious. The 3-litre not only has an overhead camshaft driven by bevel gears, it has four valves per cylinder. These have the inlets and exhausts inclined at 30 degrees from each other in a pent-roof combustion chamber, which makes for an efficiency of gas flow that most pre-war engines cannot approach. There are two spark plugs per cylinder. The only really ancient features are the undersquare dimensions – the stroke is immensely long, which boosts torque but limits engine speed – and the monobloc casting that means there is no removable cylinder head.
In 1928 this 3-litre would have thundered past most sports cars, never mind family saloons. Today you can drive it like a chauffeur and enjoy smiles and waves from pedestrians, or drive it with brio and send modern traffic scuttling out of your way. It even goes round corners like this sharp right-hander on to the B2141 with something like aplomb, once you’ve summoned up the nerve to try.
As we follow this smaller road through the left-and-right field boundaries of Chilgrove and North Marden I find it’s all in the shoulders. If you allow them to relax, release your tight grip and let the wheel caper about in its normal manner, you only need to keep it in check now and then to guide the big saloon on to a new tack. For tighter bends, a little experience helps as you can find yourself using insufficient input, so you heave it and suddenly you’ve tweaked the wheel a quarter of a turn when you only needed a sixth.
The bends are getting tighter and the gradients steeper as we approach the woods around South Harting. This is the stretch I was worried about. South Harting was once a competitive hill climb course and even this impressive engine needs to slog up much of it in second, so once at the top we pause to let the Wilmot calorimeter on the radiator swing from Hot to Normal.
There’s some descending to do, which brings me to my second worry – the brakes. But like the rest of the engineering on this car they turn out to be far more efficient than most rivals.
For all its unexpected performance, the Bentley can’t nip from zero to 30mph like a modern car and it’s a mistake to try, as I discover when we join the traffic on the A272. The B-type transmission has a very low first gear so it’s tempting to hang on to first, forcing me to wait for the flywheel to slow after declutching into neutral before I can bang the pedal down and pop it into second. Momentum dwindles away. Far better to get rolling, make the change quickly, hang on to second a bit longer and try to go smoothly into third.
We dodge off the main road and through Hill Brow, down towards Liss. And suddenly, with a glass frontage showing off several of our saloon’s more rakish brethren, here is William Medcalf Vintage Bentley. William is the owner of this car and was kind enough to lend it to us with a fresh coat of mud from his thrash on the Flying Scotsman rally. He’s pleased to see the car back in one piece as it’s been his for three years and was something he coveted for a long time.
‘Saloons are so rare I actually started building one before I found this,’ he says. ‘I needed something the kids couldn’t jump out of. But there are other advantages to a saloon. You don’t arrive wind-burned and knackered – we came back from Gleneagles, three-up, doing 70mph on the motorway and got out feeling pretty fresh.’
William is a serious rallyist. He spent his honeymoon on the 2010 Peking to Paris rally (coming first in class and second overall) and won the Flying Scotsman a couple of times in his 1925 Supersports.
Over the past 22 years he has grown his business into a multi-faceted service, restoration, sales and R&D business. The cars in the service bays include some four-wheeled celebrities. The Pacey-Hassan Special is a single-seat racer created by Walter Hassan using a purposebuilt chassis and Bentley mechanicals, including a tuned 4½-litre engine. It won its first race in 1936 and has been competing ever since. I gingerly step in for a sit-down and discover that Bill Pacey must have had short legs and rubber hips as well as considerable cojones… he lapped this car at Brooklands at nearly 130mph.
Even more exciting is the light green 3-litre Red Label, the car driven at Le Mans in 1925 by Dudley Benjafield and Kensington Moir. It’s going to this year’s Le Mans Classic – the first time a works vintage Bentley will have returned there to compete. Upstairs are more Bentleys, conveyed there via a lift. Next door is the parts store. Hundreds of boxes and shelves are coded by part number, some of which would look unfamiliar to WO. One example is a differential cage. ‘If you’re bouncing through a desert on an event like the Peking to Paris, it’s subjected to rapid changes from no torque to maximum torque and the original cast-iron ones can explode,’ says William. ‘We’ve completely redesigned it and the new ones are made from billet steel. You won’t break this.’
What he’s built here is a blend of old and new technologies applied with a colossal dose of ‘been there, done that’. His fondness for the cars extends into his own choice of family classic motoring, albeit one that we’ve enjoyed today for those sporting origins that a saloon body can’t quite hide.
It’s a difficult place to leave, not only because of the pull of the cars. They’re a happy bunch, with mild mickey-taking replacing the exam-room atmosphere you sometimes find at top-end restorers. But then who wouldn’t be happy if they could spend every working day with cars like these?
Thanks to: William Medcalf Vintage Bentley (vintagebentley.com), the Partridge Inn at Singleton (thepartridgeinn.co.uk)
Nigel’s Bentley pilgrimage ends on the Medcalf upper floor – heaven!
‘In 1928 this 3-litre would have thundered past most sports cars, never mind family saloons’
‘You won’t break this.’ William Medcalf shows Nigel his modern take on a vintage diff’ cage. Nigel was drawn to this 1925 Le Mans 3-litre Red Label in the Medcalf workshop. Roger Valor proved his engine skills at McLaren before joining WMVB to develop Bentley four-cylinder motors.
‘I need to understand how this towering motorised parlour can perform like a sports car’
OUR TEST ROUTE Midhurst William Medcalf Vintage Bentley
Keep the Bentley’s speed down heading away from Singleton on the B2141 – it would be too easy to get a ticket in this old Bentley. The former hill climb course at South Harting is a challenge and you’ll need to change down to second. Let the engine cool at the crest, then it’s downhill to Sheet before cruising up to Medcalf’s workshops.
1928 Bentley Mulliner saloon
Engine 2989cc, four-cylinder in-line, two SU carburettors
Power 85bhp @ 3500rpm
Steering Worm and wheel
Transmission Four-speed B-type gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front, beam axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers
Brakes Rod-operated drums front and rear
Weight 1750kg (3858lb)
Performance Top speed 75mph – plus
Fuel consumption 14mpg
Cost new £1326