Return to Splendour. After more than 50 years disassembled and scattered through a London home, the ‘house-find’ Bentley is back to its best. James Elliott drives it. Photography Paul Harmer.
‘HOUSE-FIND’ BENTLEY 4½ Driving the now-restored vintage coupé
No need to do a double-take, you have seen this car in Octane before. That said, give yourself a gold star if you recognised it because since it took its bow in 2015 this 1928 4½ Litre Bentley has undergone an emphatic and glorious transformation. This is UP 2100, the car universally known as the ‘house find’ Bentley. The last time it featured in these pages it had been reassembled like a Meccano model and would move under its own power but could not in any practical sense really be enjoyed. To recap: back in 2014 Bentley specialist William Medcalf took a call out of the blue from a lady called Bea Wallace Hartstone, who was clearing her late father Stuart’s London home and had seen his advert.
Spread across the property in Kew, she explained, was a mass of car parts that she was pretty confident could reconstruct her father’s beloved Bentley, plus another car that was never identified (possibly an AC Acedes). Medcalf hot-footed it up to town and discovered a treasure trove of parts. Fitting them all together was an intricate jigsaw puzzle because they were haphazardly strewn throughout Wallace’s home and garden, but the good news was that they had all been fastidiously photographed, recorded, packed and labelled. ‘Everything was there… somewhere,’ Medcalf recalls, but it took several visits and a forensic examination of the cluttered house, overgrown garden and outbuildings to root it all out. Luck was on his side, too. A casual aside that it was a shame that the bodywork had been lost was rewarded by a visit to a local lock-up garage and there, perched on top, was a Bentley body unlike any other Medcalf had seen.
It turned out to be one of 20 Bentley bodies – one for a 3 Litre, 13 for 4½s and six for 6½s – created by Victor Broom, and is thought to be the only survivor. While the Camden company that was sired by Broom & Whitehead is hardly a household name and doesn’t warrant more than two sentences in the exhaustive Beaulieu Encyclopaedia coachbuilders volume, the company did exhibit its works at Olympia from 1926 to ’1929. With a clear intent of serving the upper echelons of the market and a reputation for high standards of craftsmanship and finish, Broom is known also to have clothed Rolls-Royce, Buick, Minerva, Hispano Suiza, Delage and Invicta chassis, but seems to have ceased coachbuilding early in the 1930s and to have disappeared entirely by 1942. The bodywork of this 4½ is in the drophead coupé style, meaning that although it has a cloth roof, it is not a convertible and, with no stowage area, the roof was designed to be dropped only a couple of times a year. In the sportily sloping rear is a dickey seat.
Stuart Wallace had bought the Bentley when a hard-up student in the early 1960s. Finding it expensive to run, he laid it up a couple of years later and dismantled it ready for a restoration that never happened. After all, it didn’t owe him that much: he had paid half the price of a new Mini for the Bentley in 1962 and there is a charming invoice from Dan Margulies acknowledging Wallace’s £130 deposit and noting that there is £220 to pay. There’s also a 1981 Christie’s valuation reckoning that, fully restored, Wallace’s Bentley might be worth as much as £35,000.
Almost as important as the parts themselves was the history that came with the car, unusually detailed service records listing the parts numbers for everything right down to the magnetos and carburettors – and they all match, of course: chassis UK 3282; engine UK 3300; gearbox 3161. It was supplied by Henlys of Knaresborough (all the Victor Broom cars went through Henlys apart from one sold by Gaffikin Wilkinson), the first owner being William Doxford, a wealthy industrialist with a portfolio of marine-related businesses in the North-East.
The ownership can be traced via Yorkshire and Northern Ireland to Wallace in the 1960s, and the delicate old documents also reveal the key reason why this car has now been transformed. In reviewing the Victor Broom stand at the 1928 Motor Show, The Autocar noted: ‘Very attractive is the Saxe Blue and Cream cellulose finished coupé on a 4½ Litre Bentley. The silk lined leather head opens, the headlining matching the Saxe Blue leather upholstery.’ The article was actually referring to XV 7381 (chassis XR 3332, engine XR 3337), which Doxford tried to buy off the stand. When told it had been sold, he ordered a twin, UP 2100.
That was the impetus for this car’s new owner to commission its return to its Decoinspired colour scheme that so charmed the judges of the special Bentley class on its first post-restoration outing, to the Concours of Elegance at Hampton Court Palace in September. It is easy to see why. The melding of preservation and restoration is such a fascinating art. This car looks shiny and new on the outside, but making UP 2100 roadworthy has been a meticulous process that threw up some intriguing anomalies.
The Youngs Brothers batteries in the running boards, for example, were standard for a 6½ not the 4½, yet the original chassis fixings confirm that they are no retro-fit modification. Was there a temptation to return it to standard spec? ‘No. The appeal of this car is that it’s so original, so let it be,’ says Medcalf. ‘It’s way more time-consuming to keep something original, but sometimes it is obvious that is is the right, the only, thing to do. It was very satisfying and a huge relief to have an owner who understood and shared that belief and vision.
‘The greatest advance in the classic car market in recent years is that originality is now valued, cherished and preserved. It wasn’t so long ago that everything was built brand new, with all the original parts going in the bin. In the Bentley world the body would be discarded so it could become another Le Mans replica. Some people still want that – and we have to accept that, while Bentley mechanicals were built to last 100 years, the coachwork definitely wasn’t – but a growing number are taking the opposite approach. I believe that if it can only be original once then our duty is try to honour that. Future generations will thank us.’
As a result, UP 2100’s chassis was handpainted as it would have been in-period, and more than 40% of the wooden frame was reused. The bulkhead and the plating on the radiator, headlamps et al were given a good clean, but nothing more. The same went for the engine, gearbox and diff and other mechanicals – checked and tidied though not rebuilt or replaced – while 98% of the aluminium panels and steel wings remain original. Even the original ‘prehistoric’ tyres still exist, though the Bentley rides on 5.25/6.00 x 21 Blockley crossplies for safety’s sake. Inside, while the (correctly) unvarnished woodwork could be retained, the original leather had been hand-painted red and could not be salvaged.
Beautiful touches abound, such as the full complement of tools that slides out from under the bench seat, but, best of all, close inspection reveals that the engine still wears its lead seal. Bentley used to put a seal on the motor so that it could tell when it had been worked on elsewhere, which would invalidate the warranty. To find an original one still in place is almost unheard of.
As a process, it has not been easy, or quick or, one suspects, cheap. ‘They took 60 hours alone,’ exclaims Medcalf as he points agitatedly at something at the front of the car.
It turns out to be the original leather spring gaiters that were painstakingly fed and nurtured back to life. ‘Worth it though…’ he sighs as a postscript. He would say that, though. Bentleys are not just his business, they are in his blood. Brought up in North London, at the age of five he and his two elder siblings were taken out of school and driven around America for nine months and 28,000 miles, five-up in their father’s freshly rebuilt 1923 Sinclair-bodied 3/4½. Some 22 years ago, working on the family Bentley transmogrified into a business that steadily grew until it sprawled across several buildings in Edmonton. Six years ago, the company moved lock, stock and barrel to Liss in West Sussex, where it took over an old service station and now employs 25 people who spend some 60% of their time doing rally preparation. Such is the modern, laudable attitude towards using these vintage beauties that a whole programme of reversible enduro rally mods has been developed At the heart of the busy workshop, though, resplendent in that Saxe Blue over cream cellulose paint after some 1800 hours of meticulous recommissioning, is UP 2100.
‘Beautiful touches abound, but, best of all, close inspection reveals that the engine still wears its lead seal’
It’s a majestic place to be, as you perch on the well-sprung bench seat. First you must adjust your driving senses to cope with the centrebutton throttle and long-travel brake. Plus, of course, the notoriously tricky C-type gearbox with its canyon between first and second. Retard to start, coast away on low revs with the G5 SU carburettors on the ‘sloper’ manifold fed by the Autovac, and advance it up a bit as you accelerate, eager to drive the 4½, but reluctant to add too much to the 39,599 showing on the splendid odometer.
Driving UP 2100 is closer to travelling back in time to drive a factory-fresh handbuilt Bentley in 1928 than anyone else will ever be able to enjoy. In comparison to a roomier four-seater 4½ on the standard 10ft 10in chassis you can hear less of the wind – in part thanks to the set-square screensides – but more of the authentic rattles and squeaks of a coachbuilt car. It also feels heavier on the move, which it would with half an ash tree in it. This is also reflected in slightly heavy steering that Medcalf says needs to be fettled.
As we dash through rural tree tunnels, the Bentley seems content in its surroundings, with few modern distractions to interrupt this terrific flashback. We approach a hill on a trailing throttle, I move to change down and Medcalf outlaws it: ‘No, no, let the torque do the work.’ So I boot it and it effortlessly tugs the Bentley up the incline. There is so much torque that it dictates a relatively simple driving style for even complete novices – get it into top as soon as possible and leave it there. When you want to explore the gearbox more thoroughly, just remember that it needs revs for a clean change and there are only really 3500 of them to play with.
As we bustle down the other side of the incline towards the garage in Hill Brow, Medcalf is beaming: ‘It’s been a while since it did this.’ Did what? ‘Was driven properly on the roads.’ Indeed, more than 50 years. In its previous incarnation this Bentley was an aesthetic wonder to behold, but rather less of a masterpiece in motion, like the famous ‘lake find’ Bugatti that now resides in the foyer of the Mullin Museum in Oxnard, California. It was a relic, a gorgeous work of art rather than a magnificent car. Today, the Victor Broom Bentley is both.
Thanks To Champneys Forest Mere for the location, www.champneys.com.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1928 Bentley 4½ Litre Victor Broom Drophead Coupé
Engine 4398cc, four-cylinder, SOHC, four valves per cylinder, twin SU carburettors
Power 110bhp @ 3500rpm / DIN
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and wheel
Suspension Front and rear: beam axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers
Brakes Mechanically operated drums
Top speed 90mph