Rakish Rapide. Lagonda’s finest hour Mick Walsh examines the magnificent V12 that took the world by storm. Lagonda’s breathtaking V12 was designed and produced in double-quick time by a brilliant team led by WO Bentley. Mick Walsh relates the saga of Britain’s finest pre-war car. Photography James Mann. Lagonda Rapide: V12 Dream Machine. The stunning Lagonda Rapide was the pinnacle of pre-war motoring.
Spingle-spangled stars are peeping At the lush Lagonda creeping Down the winding ways of tarmac To the leaded lights of home.’ John Betjeman’s wonderful ’59 poem Indoor Games near Newbury features several automotive references that the lovable Poet Laureate used to characterise class, but the description of Staines’ finest epitomises the aura of the exotic V12.
The hurried gestation of this fabulous motor car, which brought together so many talents in the crumbling tin sheds alongside the Thames, is one of the great tales of British automotive history. Thanks to Alan Good, a bored young solicitor who switched from law to car manufacture, the great marque was saved from the clutches of Rolls-Royce. Dick Watney gave the firm bold direction, while an outstanding engineering team led by WO Bentley, with a band of ex-Rolls men including Stuart Tresilian, set about creating the ‘best car in the world’ in just two years.
‘ENTHUSIASTIC TESTS REPORTED GHOSTLY SILENCE AND CHEETAHLIKE SWIFTNESS’
Where the large Derby team had taken four years to develop the complex V12 engine for the Phantom III, the small Middlesex outfit was expected to ready its rival in half that time for the 1936 London Motor Show at Olympia.
Good was a tough taskmaster, but Bentley, after his frustrating time at Rolls-Royce, was fired up for the challenge. The gifted body specialist Frank Feeley – who had started at Staines as a 14-year-old office boy in 1926 – was chosen to style the flagship model. Watney, determined to give the conservative make greater style, encouraged Feeley to create ever more glamorous lines, and the stunning Rapide featured here was the most desirable version.
All through the development of the new V12 model, there must have been involved discussions about the direction of engineering and styling. Tresilian wanted an alloy block but Bentley went for a short, single nickel-iron casting to limit noise and stabilise the front end after his fraught experience with the Derby.
The most radical departure of the 60º V12 was at the bottom end, where WO followed aviation practice with light-alloy connecting rods running directly on a nitro-hardened crankshaft without white-metal bearings. This approach required particular attention to the lubrication system, with a twin-geared pump and flat, baffled sump to prevent oil surge when cornering. Although Lagonda offered a replacement Dural rod service, many engines continued trouble-free for 50 years, provided that the oil was regularly changed. The 4480cc overhead-camshaft unit’s short stoke (84.5mm) was another aspect that enabled high revving to peak power.
The team made the deadline for the 1936 Olympia display, but few visitors spotted – under the glass-sided bonnet – that much of the ‘V12’ was made of carved and painted wood. It would be another year before the exciting new motor was offered for road test, but the wait was worth it when enthusiastic magazine reviews reported ‘ghostly silence’ and ‘cheetah-like swiftness’.
‘THE RAPIDE IS A FINE TRIBUTE TO THE GIFTED TEAM WHO CRAFTED IT IN SUCH A SHORT TIME’
Before the V12 was ready to be tested, though, Bentley drove the prototype chassis saloon with a six-cylinder powerplant. The ‘clean sheet’ Lagonda featured independent front suspension with equal-length wishbones and, impressed by his experience of Citroën’s Traction Avant, WO specified longitudinal torsion bars.
While the chassis and engine team worked at a frenetic pace, Feeley’s drawing board was filled with extravagant sketches for the styling. Early roughs, encouraged by Watney, featured integrated wings, but tension soon developed between the designer and the traditionalist Bentley about the striking proposals. The testbed saloon ‘FPK 500’ eventually featured breast-like cowlings between the wings, but these were also toned down for production. What might have developed if Bentley had allowed Feeley free range with styling can only be speculated on, but he excelled with the Rapide’s lines. Thanks to the V12’s lack of height and its revised radiator location, the rakish profile has a uniquely English grace in contrast to its flamboyant French rivals.
The performance of the prototype impressed everyone who drove it, particularly Lord Howe, who flashed silently around Brooklands at 108mph in October 1938 – the perfect promotion for Lagonda’s show-stopping stand opening with three V12s at Olympia four days later. As shadows of conflict were cast across Europe, though, demand for luxury vehicles dropped drastically and between December ’38 and April ’39, no cars were produced at the Staines factory.
Doubtless Bentley and his colleagues never imagined the V12 as a racing car but, just before the end of 1938, Good made the surprise announcement that Lagonda was returning to Le Mans, with two V12 team cars and Richard Seaman as the star driver. Bentley was mortified and protested that six months’ development was an impossible target, but Good was determined.
The team worked all hours to prepare the lightweight machines, concentrating on the suspension, brake cooling and tuned engines with quad carburettors. Weight was trimmed to 27cwt (1371kg), while Feeley worked around the engineers to fashion a streamlined asymmetric body with special attention to driver comfort.
Both Lagondas were finished hours before departure and, after just a few laps of the factory grounds in Staines, they were driven to France. Mercedes-Benz refused to release Seaman for the 24 Hours, but the pairing of Charles Brackenbury with Arthur Dobson and two racing Lords – Selsdon and his friend Waleran – mixed experience and aristocratic patronage.
Dobson made a determined start and led for most of the first lap, but, obeying Bentley’s strict instructions, he soon settled down in sixth place while Selsdon chased back from 18th. The two Lagondas motored around like clockwork and by dawn were running an impressive third and fourth. After minor delays with failed dashboard illumination, clutch adjustment and exhaust repair, the two green behemoths held position with Dobson and Brackenbury taking third at an average of 83.35mph, the very figure that Bentley had stipulated in his planning.
Of the 187 Lagonda V12s produced in three chassis lengths, the highly sought-after Rapide eventually totalled 17 – with production extended into the war years after a special export licence was granted because Britain urgently needed foreign currency for the war effort. The lightest of the line – with its uprated Sanction 2 engine as specified by Lord Selsdon for his road car – was reputedly good for 116mph at 5500rpm, but, disappointingly, no magazine ever road-tested a Rapide to confirm the performance.
Among the wealthy customers for a roadster was the Maharajah Holkar of Indore, who chose J Gurney Nutting to body the 11ft-wheelbase chassis, but the spectacular creation was no match for Feeley’s factory-built drophead.
As war clouds loomed, the wealthy Alfred James McAlpine ordered a Rapide, no doubt to cheer himself up after a recent divorce or to woo his next wife. The original colour specified was mushroom – matched to a fawn top – with the finished car finally delivered in November 1938. The heir to the successful construction firm, McAlpine clearly enjoyed the glorious Lagonda’s performance and, in November 1939, an accident required chassis 14068 to be sent back to the Staines factory for repair.
Car production had slowed, with the focus switching to war contracts including flamethrowers and fuel tanks for Spitfire fighters. The lightweight V12 had also attracted the interest of the Admiralty to power an experimental gunboat to target German battleships. Vosper was contracted to build the prototype hull and, with the Lagonda motor installed, it was ready for test the day that a bombing raid destroyed the wharf. Trials finally began after this setback, but the engine proved problematic with falling oil pressure due to restricted lubrication.
Once it was sorted, the Vosper V12 gunboat produced effortless performance, although the Navy was deterred by reports of lengthy, 18-hour engine overhauls even by an experienced Lagonda mechanic. Instead it opted for far more practical and easier-to-maintain Ford V8 flathead motors. WO Bentley claimed that the Admiralty took the last 50 of the V12 engines before the hydroplane contract was cancelled.
While McAlpine’s car was at the works, it was upgraded to Sanction 2 trim (like Selsdon’s V12), with the fitting of a replacement ‘marine’ engine and Le Mans-spec quad SU DAL carburettors, which increased power to 206bhp.
McAlpine was an enthusiastic motorist, who went on to build an amazing collection and clearly adored driving the fabulous Rapide. With the car’s thirsty fuel consumption of 12mpg at best, dropping to single figures in traffic, McAlpine no doubt had a fuel allowance for his war contracts for factory construction including a new Bristol aero engine plant. The millionaire liked to travel in style, and the Rapide suited his means for 17 years before he sold it on to Arthur Ormsby in December 1955.
In later years, McAlpine owned a wide range of machinery, from a Ferrari 400 to a grand Hispano-Suiza J12 that was chauffeur-driven to the Wrexham Golf Club where he was the proud president. After a succession of British owners, the Rapide left for America where SA Lincoln of Sparta, New Jersey enjoyed the V12 beauty for the next 24 years. Subsequent keepers included Alabama-based aficionado Knox Kershaw III, whose fleet also included several superb Packards and a Mormon Meteor.
The rare Lagonda headed back across the Atlantic in ’97 when it was acquired by Austrian enthusiast Dr Winfried Kallenger, who instructed Crosthwaite & Gardiner to carry out a full engine rebuild including the fitment of a new crankshaft. Kallenger kept the Rapide for 10 years before it joined the fantastic collection of German industrialist Friedhelm Loh.
Finally, the prized Lagonda returned to the UK when acquired by Lord Anthony Bamford, who has a passion for V12-powered machines, ranging from a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce Phantom III to exotic Ferraris. The perfectionist JCB boss then commissioned Clark & Carter to undertake a ground-up mechanical and body restoration. Steve Clark’s Braintree-based team has tackled four V12 Rapides, and now knows these Staines beauties better than anyone. “Lagonda’s build quality was superb, particularly the bodywork which was all done in house,” he explains.
“The wings were different from side to side when the car arrived and the back was dragging a little, so we stripped it to bare metal and sorted the shape. The steel wire edging to the aluminium wings was also replaced. Lord Bamford gets very involved with projects and, after various discussions, we decided to repaint the car two-tone with a deep green over Old English White.”
The dashboard is typical of Lord Bamford’s input. “We restored the original walnut veneer,” recalls Clark, “but he thought that it didn’t suit the Lagonda and chose a piano black finish that gave the interior added style. The seats were retrimmed by us in dark olive Vaumol leather.”
He adds: “The Sanction 2 engine already had the Le Mans carburetion set-up done by the factory, although we changed the firing order just as Lagonda did on later V12s in period for smoother running. We also added authentic shrouds around the exhaust manifolds to reduce under-bonnet heat exactly as WO had done.
“The hydraulic brakes were rebuilt and all of the springs were reset so that the car sat perfectly. The carburettors and the linkage were carefully overhauled with new bushes, which transformed the engine’s response. The one-shot lubrication and the hydraulic jacking installation were all re-piped, and it will now lift up any corner. The final touch was a set of Michelin racing tyres that really sorted its handling. The result was the best performing Rapide I’ve driven, with a comfortable 100mph cruising speed. Bentley’s separate G10 gearbox is superb and, with synchromesh, it feels just like a modern car to change.”
The finished Rapide is a remarkable tribute to the gifted team – engineers and fabricators – who created this English exotic in such a short time. Maybe one day the brilliant but unsung Frank Feeley will be celebrated at a premier concours, with the V12 Rapide centre stage among his fine work for Lagonda and Aston Martin.
Little wonder its flowing lines and advanced specification tempted orders from such stylish men as American Briggs Cunningham, who rated it WO Bentley’s masterpiece. The dashing playboy sportsman borrowed a V12 from the factory to tour the UK in 1939, and was so impressed that he ordered a drophead with a special Le Mans-tune engine at great expense, and kept it until his death in 2003. For the man who could afford any car he wanted, that loyalty to the Lagonda says everything.
Thanks to Lord Bamford; Clark & Carter (www.clarkandcarter.co.uk); Peter Bradfield (www.bradfieldcars.com)
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS LAGONDA V12 RAPIDE
Produced/number built 1938-’1940/17
Construction ladder chassis, ash frame, aluminium body; DWS hydraulic jacking system and Tecalemit automatic lubrication
Engine nickel-iron crankcase and cylinder heads, sohc-per-bank 4480cc 60º V12, camshafts driven via gears and two short chains, twin downdraught SU carbs (four on Sanction 2 Le Mans spec), twin coil ignition
Max power 180bhp @ 5500rpm
Transmission Lagonda G10 four-speed manual, with synchro on top three, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, torsion bars rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; Armstrong lever-arm shock absorbers f/r
Steering Marles worm and roller
Brakes Lockheed hydraulic drums
Tyres 6.50 x 18in
Wheelbase 10ft 4in (3150mm)
Track 5ft (1524mm)
Weight 3704lb (1680kg)
Top speed 110mph (116mph Sanction 2)
Price new £1600
Price now £1.2-1.5million (2017 UK)