Feature 1934 Bentley Derby Drophead and Sports Saloon. Walter Owen Bentley’s design philosophy was quite simple: “build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class” Words: Ashley Webb. Photos: Adam Croy.
BENTLEY NOW 100 YEARS OLD – A SIMPLE FORMULA
The Bentley Motors factory in Cricklewood, north-west London, built cars that were renowned for their superb engineering and sporty performance
Bentley — undoubtedly one of the world’s most recognized and revered car brands — celebrates its centenary in July this year. To mark the occasion, the company celebrated its history and its global success with a special-edition Bentley, inspired by one of its iconic racing models. That car was unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show in March.
The brand owes much of its success to Walter Owen Bentley’s (the man was known universally by Bentley aficionados as ‘WO’) team of ‘Bentley Boys’, comprising “playboys, racers, and adventurers”, who achieved worldwide fame in the 1920s and 1930s and inspired a generation of Bentley enthusiasts.
Over the next 100 years, Bentley earned its place as a brand that combines traditional luxury with modern performance. The company credits its extraordinary success to its cars being designed and built by exceptional people.
In his formative years, WO trained as a locomotive engineer. The youthful enthusiasm that enabled him to enjoy cricket and motorcycle racing extended to racing a 5hp (4kW) Rex at Brooklands in 1909.
After his time at the railway, WO joined his brother, Horace Millner Bentley, in selling French DFP cars, which were renowned for their poor performance; that is, until WO appeared on the scene. WO soon improved their performance by using lighter pistons made from copper and aluminium. With this newfound technology, which included Bentley’s redesigned camshaft, DFPs won several races at Brooklands, taking out class B records in 1913 and 1914.
During World War I, WO worked for the Technical Board of the Royal Naval Air Service, perfecting the French Clerget rotary engine, a task for which his experience in using aluminium pistons was to prove invaluable. These modified engines soon bore his name, being called the ‘BR1’ and ‘BR2’ (with the ‘BR’ standing for ‘Bentley Rotary’).
After the war, WO’s ambition was to see a car bearing his own name, encompassing his knowledge and experience from previous years, and, on 18 January 1919, he formed Bentley Motors Limited, a British-based manufacturer of luxury cars and grand tourers.
In its original guise, Bentley existed for just over a decade, yet the company’s accomplishments in that time were astonishing. During the early years, the focus was entirely on motor sports, culminating in four victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious race, in which the emphasis was on endurance and reliability rather than on how quickly the cars finished — the key to the race was in actually finishing.
The Bentley Motors factory in Cricklewood, northwest London, built cars that were renowned for their superb engineering and sporty performance. The company produced around 3000 cars through to 1931, when it went into receivership. These cars — the three-litre, 4.5-litre, six-litre, grand saloon, and eight-litre — are now collectively called ‘WO Bentleys’.
Prosperous car enthusiasts
Bentley’s reputation for high performance was kept alive and well by a group of prosperous British car enthusiasts — the previously mentioned ‘Bentley Boys’. This group included Woolf Barnato, heir to a partnership in the Kimberley diamond mines; Sir Henry Birkin; George Duller, steeplechaser; Glen Kidston, aviator; Sammy Davis, automotive journalist; and Dr Dudley Benjafield.
The Bentley Boys captured the spirit of the times, partying as hard as they worked. Larger than life, their restless and often reckless love of speed and adventure complemented the big green Bentleys from Cricklewood perfectly. More than a few of them resided in Grosvenor Square in adjoining flats, which soon became known as ‘Bentley Corner’ due to the number of Bentleys often parked there.
At one point, on a bet, Barnato raced a legendary car from Cannes to Calais, then by ferry to Dover, and finally to London, travelling on public highways with normal traffic, and won; the special-bodied 6.5-litre car became known as the ‘Blue Train Bentley’. The dedication of this group to serious racing also aided the company to become noted for its victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1927 to 1930.
Bentley in motor sport
WO’s design philosophy was a simple formula: “build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class”. This idea lay behind all the cars produced by Bentley Motors, and it was a concept whose value was proved in motor racing. WO’s motor racing goals were equally straightforward: it was undoubtedly the most cost-effective way of proving and subsequently testing his designs, and it was also the most successful way of advertising the cars.
Bentley’s first race-prepared car was designated ‘Exp2’. It earned its first victory at Brooklands in 1921, in a sprint race won by works driver Frank Clement. The victory highlighted the reputation of the new car design, justifying Bentley’s participation in motor sport. This prototype vehicle still exists and is owned by Bentley. At the original running of the Le Mans race in May 1923, Bentley was represented by chassis No. 141, a three-litre, driven by John Duff, a Bentley dealer based in London. The car finished fourth, due in large part to mechanical problems, but returned in 1924 to achieve the first victory for Bentley.
The next Bentley to win at Le Mans was ‘Old Number Seven’ in 1927, following a shocking crash that left the two other Bentleys out of action for the duration of the race. Number Seven was seriously damaged, but eventually caught and passed the lead car to claim victory.
Bentley Boy Sir Henry Birkin had at this point become an accomplished Bentley racer, and won at Le Mans in 1929, but he is significant in the Bentley story for another reason as well: it was his suggestion to supercharge the overweight Bentleys to overcome their enormous size and weight disadvantage on the track. Eventually, WO was convinced to fit a supercharger, giving birth to the classic ‘Blower’ Bentley. Initially unreliable, the car went on to become a motoring icon, with its distinctive front-mounted supercharger. Birkin met an unfortunate end in 1933, dying from complications after being burned during a refuelling stop in the Tripoli Grand Prix.
WO realized the publicity that motor racing success would generate and enthusiastically encouraged it, commenting that the company’s activities, particularly in its racing, “attracted the public’s fancy and added a touch of colour, of vicarious glamour and excitement to drab lives”.
The Great Depression was particularly hard on luxury car manufacturers, and, by 1931, Bentley was having financial difficulties that couldn’t be solved by winning races alone. When funds ran out in 1931, the receivers were negotiating with D Napier and Son Limited for the sale of the remains of Bentley. (Napier was a British engineering company best known for its luxury cars; it had ceased building cars at that time and was producing aero engines.) However, Rolls-Royce put in a secret bid through a Liechtenstein company, and secured Bentley Motors for £125,256. For this, Rolls-Royce got the factory equipment, quite a number of incomplete eight-litre chassis, and the services of WO for three years. The theory goes that if D Napier and Son had WO as its designer, then Rolls-Royce would see it as a potential competitor, and any cars it might produce would negatively affect sales of the Rolls-Royce 20/25 and the Phantom.
A new company was established, called ‘Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd’. After the purchase, Bentley racing was largely confined to private teams, with factory backing at an absolute minimum.
At the time, and in response to the Depression, Rolls-Royce was developing the ‘Peregrine’ project, a smaller and less expensive car than the 20/25. This progressed alongside a new ‘Bensport’ project for a while, but was eventually dropped in favour of the Bensport, which then became the Bentley 3.5-litre. This used a modified version of the 20/25 engine in a new chassis. The car was produced in the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby on the same assembly line as the 20/25; hence they are often referred to as ‘Derby Bentleys’. A magazine called The Silent Sports Car was published through the 1930s featuring Derbies in exotic places to tempt buyers.
Initially, the Derby had a 3.5-litre engine (actually 3.7 litres); in 1935, it was uprated to 4.5 litres. In the late ’30s, a standard overdrive unit was added, which lowered engine revs by about 20 per cent to give smoother and more economical cruising.
Of the 2424 cars produced, only 265 were exported. Cars were sold as a chassis and engine for owners to fit their own coach-built bodies. The bulk of Derbies have bodies built by coachbuilder Park Ward, in a number of styles: limousine, saloon, sports saloon, and a few drophead. Production ceased with the outbreak of World War II.
Cars were sold as a chassis and engine for owners to fit their own coach-built bodies. The bulk of Derbies have bodies built by coachbuilder Park Ward, in a number of styles: limousine, saloon, sports saloon, and a few drophead.
1934 BENTLEY DERBY DROPHEAD AND SPORTS SALOON COACHWORK Park Ward
ENGINE Inline six-cylinder
MAX. POWER 110bhp (82kW) at 4500rpm
FUEL SYSTEM Twin SU carburettors
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual; synchromesh on third and fourth gears
SUSPENSION, F/R Solid-axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs with adjustable hydraulic dampers / Live-axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs; ride-control hydraulic dampers
BRAKES, F/R Drums front and rear with servo assist
WHEEL TRACK, F/R 1422mm/1422mm
KERB WEIGHT 1111.3kg
TOP SPEED 94mph (152kph
WO’s design philosophy was a simple formula: “build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class”
1934 DERBY BENTLEY SPORTS SALOON
Rodney Hutchison’s interest in Bentleys began when he was about 17 years old. He recalls that, one Christmas holiday, as his family was camped in the Greymouth camping ground, a post-war MkVI arrived towing a modest caravan. To his eye, this was an incongruous combination, but the car had oh-so-much presence. Rodney made a pledge that, one day…
‘One day’ finally came to pass about 40 years later! During a visit to Bruce McIlroy’s workshop in Ashburton, Rodney was introduced to a Derby Bentley, and was instantly smitten. After much research and several false starts, he received an email from a contact in the UK to say that he knew of a good one that was about to come up for sale in Germany. Many emails and photographs later, Rodney became the proud owner of B87BL, a 1934 3.5-litre Derby Bentley. Having acquired the car from afar, sight unseen, it was with mounting excitement that Rodney tracked the container over the 12 weeks or so that it sailed slowly halfway round the world. Coincidentally, it arrived in Christchurch in time for its container to be opened on a big birthday, and what a present it was. The Bentley was given a thorough onceover in Christchurch as part of its compliancing and commissioning, and was confirmed to be a very good example of the marque.
The car has a full history, with Rodney being only its fifth custodian. It was delivered in August 1934 to one Col. Hugh Campbell of Ascot, and then passed through various hands until, in 2012, it was auctioned by Bonhams to Mr Marc Jaeppelt in Stuttgart. He owned the car for less than a year before Rodney became its current owner.
This is a driving car rather than a show car. It drives incredibly well; to quote Marc, it drives like a “modern”. It shows no sign of the chassis shake that bedevils so many others — hence the Wilmot Breedon front bumper dampers fitted to most. It is also a relatively effortless drive, which has been further enhanced by the fitting of a Laycock overdrive unit, enabling it to keep up easily with normal open-road traffic.
So far, the car has been relatively trouble-free. Rodney fitted a new cylinder head shortly after its arrival — it had done a lot of sitting idle, and the very narrow waterways were well clogged.
Every time Rodney takes the car out, he reminds himself how lucky he is to own and drive an amazing piece of motoring history, and one with such a distinguished story.
The most famous and valuable of all the Bentley racing cars is the eight-litre Speed Six, ‘Old Number One’. This car has an illustrious history, recording two consecutive Le Mans victories, and made a huge impact by winning the Brooklands 500-mile (805km) race in 1931. Clive Dunfee was killed when he crashed it at Brooklands in 1932. Following the crash, Old Number One became an almost mythical beast in the motor racing world. A high-profile court case in 1990 determined that the car did still exist, although it has been extensively rebuilt with other parts.
1934 DERBY BENTLEY DROPHEAD
Simon Longuet-Higgins is a mechanical consulting engineer by profession and has always had a bent for cars — from building a paddock basher from an old Standard Vanguard back in his student days to fixing Porsches in the UK during his OE and rebuilding a ’50s Willys Jeep with his kids.
Simon’s father had a Mark VI Bentley when Simon was young, as did his uncle in the UK. Simon always admired the look of Bentleys and their superb engineering and thought that one day he’d like to own one himself. The stars aligned for him in the mid 2000s, when a 1962 Bentley S2 saloon in Wellington popped up on Trade Me and subsequently became his first Bentley. According to Simon, it’s a lovely cruising car, effortlessly wafting along, and very grand.
Simon then went on the lookout for an open tourer, possibly a project for his retirement. However, in 2017, a Park Ward– bodied Derby Drophead became available, already refurbished, so Simon bought it. This car has been great fun for Simon and his family, but he admits that it’s a handful to drive, with heavy steering at low speeds, no synchro in first or second gear, and marginal brakes. With all old cars, there is always something to fix or improve, and the Derby is no different. Simon has fitted an indicator light and sounder to alert the driver that the indicators are on — he has often found himself indicating left some distance after having made the turn. He has also fitted rear-vision mirrors, which has made motorway driving much less stressful, as he can now see into the massive blind spots caused by the hood. The cars have been put on ceremonial duty on quite a number of occasions as Simon’s children and their friends started getting married.
According to Simon, there is some debate as to how many Derby Bentleys came to New Zealand new. Some records show that a 1935 3.5-litre, B145CW, with Thrupp and Maberly drophead coachwork, came here to a Mr JD Lawson. A 1938 4.5-litre, B193LE, with Park Ward sports saloon coachwork, was apparently delivered to a Mr Archibald Scott here in October 1938. This car is still in New Zealand and has been in Auckland for many years. It is believed that there are currently five Derby Bentleys in and around Auckland, and another 10 or so spread across the country.
Simon’s daily-driver is an early Bentley Continental GT — a fantastic machine: 447kW of modern engineering and craftsmanship. However, he is once again on the lookout for a suitable project to get stuck into.