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Bentley boys and girls come out to play

One hundred years of Bentley. Time to sit down with a picnic hamper

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As one-make car groups go, few are as exclusive as the Bentley Drivers’ Club. And few locations are more associated with the Bentley marque than the Brooklands race circuit. The two came together on Mothers’ Day when the club held its centenary drive on the breathtaking banked circuit.

Fettling the beasts in the pits

Second gear

Not that there’s much banking left these days. The stretch which is preserved as part of the Brooklands Museum site is hardly long enough to get the Museum’s resident 4½-litre Le Mans into second gear. But the backdrop, limited as it is, was a fitting canvas on Sunday to paint a picture of the marque over the past 100 years.

The off…. no power steering and probably no synchromesh gearbox to ease the pain

Brooklands and Bentley go together like Leicas and Wetzlar. Soon after the first Bentley rolled out W.O.Bentley’s workshop in New Street Mews in London in 1919, the big, expensive sports cars became a fixture on the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit. Brooklands itself had opened for business in 1907 and was the inspiration for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. Brooklands closed during the First World War and reopened in 1920. From then on the two Bs were constantly in the news. Bentley and Brooklands are now synonymous.

On the lower edge of the banking under Members’ Bridge

Record speed, record price

In 1932 Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin reached a top speed of just under 138 mph on the legendary banked circuit in his red “Monoposto” Bentley Blower No.1, nicknamed the Brooklands Battleship. The record stood for two years until John Cobb achieved just over 143mph in the incredible 24-litre Napier-Railton which is now a permanent exhibit at the circuit museum. The Birkin Bentley sold for £5m ($6.55m) at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2012.

A big wave for the camera as the parade stops under the Members’ Bridge. The modern Bentleys are sweeping around the corner in the background. The crop below shows perfectly demonstrates the capabilities of the new Leica Q2

The Bentley Boys

Birkin was one of the so-called Bentley Boys, a group of wealthy motorists who drove Bentley sports cars to victory in the twenties and early thirties, keeping alive the marque’s reputation for high performance. In 1925, at a difficult time for the company, Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato bought the company. It was his inspiration which led to the creation of the supercharged Bentley Blower, despite some opposition from W.O.Bentley himself.

The modern image of Bentley, all mod cons but you’d think they could afford a roof…..

BB Reunion in 1973

Another Bentley Boy was S. C. H. “Sammy” Davis, the renowned automotive journalist and sports editor of The Autocar magazine. Our photo of Sammy was taken at a 1973 Bentley Boys’ reunion (at Brooklands, where else?) by my old friend Don Morley, a keen fellow Leica enthusiast who has used Leicas from the days of the screw-mount cameras in the early 1950s. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the great W.O. had died two years before, in 1971, at the age of 82.

One of the last of the Bentley Boys, Sammy Davis at the BB reunion at Brooklands in 1973. Looks like there was a bit more Castrol R in the air than at Sunday’s sedate 100th anniversary parade (photograph by Don Morley).

Here at Macfilos, we have another association with Bentley through our contributor David Bailey who has written several articles on Fuji cameras. David’s grandfather, Herbert Frood, was the founder of the Ferodo brake-lining company and was a friend of W.O.Bentley in the early 1920s. Ferodo sponsored Bentley cars at major events such as the Le Mans 24-hour and developed special brake linings to cope with the rigours of the endurance race.

Organising the group centenary picture…. watch the birdie

The Brooklands Bentleys

The Bentley company itself acknowledges the strong association with Brooklands in the name of two distinct cars. The first Bentley Brooklands was a full-size luxury saloon, launched in 1992 to replace the Bentley Mulsanne. It was succeeded by the Bentley Arnage in 1998. Bentley resurrected the name in 2007 with the Brooklands Coupé, a two-door four-seater hardtop version of the Azure. It was made between 2008 and 2011 in limited numbers.

Bentley Eight Litre grabs the attention

Nostalgia

Whenever I experience nostalgia on this scale my thoughts turn to what Brooklands might have been if it had survived the Second World War — the circuit closed in September 1939 for the last time. Sadly, banked circuits are no longer in fashion.

But there’s nothing like a banked circuit to get the juices flowing and I well remember my own days of motorcycles testing on the banked circuit at MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association, near Hinckley. It could be a hairy experience at times and there was always the chance of going over the top, a fate which befell several motor and motorcycle racing entrants at Brooklands over the years.

Roland Frey strides out on the Brooklands banking

Exclusive

With this depth of history behind the marque, there could be no better place to celebrate a centenary than at the Brooklands Museum. Yet for Brooklands, the Bentley Drivers’ Day was a very exclusive and low-key affair compared with some other one-make car days. Example…

Austin Allegro

One-make clubs are a perennial feature of the Brooklands Scene. Rolls Royce and Bentley must be near the top of the tree in exclusivity — it costs a small fortune to own and maintain a late-20s Bentley, for instance — but there is something for everyone and every pocket in the automotive world.

A couple of weekends ago I visited the Mini day at the circuit. In contrast to yesterday, there were thousands of Minis, a herd of visitors and a much wider cross-section of society than was evident at the Brooklands Day. But if you really want an exciting experience, try the Austin Allegro owners’ Day.

Some say the Allegro, with its revolutionary “Quartic” square steering wheel, was the worst car ever made. Unfair, probably, but it isn’t far from the bottom. And that square steering wheel idea never caught on. Bentleys have round steering wheels. QED.

Across America


Roland and Helen Frey are enthusiasts who don’t just polish their vintage Bentley and bring it out on special occasions. They drive it hard. They drove it right across the United States, unheralded, and generated major interest wherever they paused. Just imagine the logistics, never mind the cost (I’d be surprised if it manages 8 miles per gallon). And I wonder what the AAA would have said if called to a breakdown? But I bet they felt the adventure was worth every penny. It’s something most of us can only dream about.

In a less adventurous mood, Swiss-born Roland and his British wife enjoy lunch from the luxury hamper, a fitting benefit of taking part in the Bentley Drivers day at Brooklands

Far from this madding crowd, well insulated from hoi polloi, the centenary Bentley Boys and Girls settled down on the grass with their exclusive hampers for a traditional picnic, another unforgettable tradition at Brooklands between the wars. And long may it continue.

All photographs (except Don Morley’s Sammy Davies shot) taken by Mike Evans with the new Leica Q2.

Our colleague William Fagin points out that Bentley even include a scrap of Tim Birkin’s seat as part of the £250,000 Continental GT package. See this in Motor Sport

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Ok so who knows what happened to, or where is John Steed and Emma Peel’s Blower Bentley’s or Bentley Speed Sixies?

  2. And here is me merely plotting about how I could do Route 66 (sorry I am not original on some fronts) with my newly set up Leica X typ 113 monochrome (yes Wayne I tinkered over the weekend). I am also plotting, how to convince Liz that a trip around the NC500 is decent campervan adventure – but Roland and Helen have taken this narrow thinking to a purely new level. I hate to think of the cost of hauling that Bentleys sorry backside across the states was, in fact the Yorkshireman in me has a bank balance that is purely quaking at the thought.

    Nice Image, looks like a cracking day out too. If it was not for Macfilos, I would never have come across these events. I just need to find a break in work to attend at some point. 🙂

    • Dave, Look at the list of events and arrange to drive over (just off the M25) and I will be happy to show you both round. It‘s a great place for photography, as you‘ve noticed. There‘s something different every time you go. Yesterday I didn‘t even know it was Bentley day but as I arrived they were just lining up for the off. It would have been churlish not to have taken a few snaps.

      • Cheers, I will have to pay more attention, and let you know – at the moment work is burning more hours than I care to mention. And a few more beside.

        I do have a plan for my X monochrome though. I just hope you approve straight out of camera Leica monochrome jpegs (never done this before).

        • Perhaps we should start a trend of popularising the use of the X, X1, X2 and XV as faux B&W cameras. Wayne has a point here. They all produce very attractive monochrome jpegs, they are all dead simple to use and all are now relatively inexpensive on the used market (for Leicas, that is). But even if they cost more than a less exalted mirrorless, at today’s prices they will be a better investment. The X1, for instance, now sells for about 45-50% of its original price after, in some instances, nearly nine years.

          • It might help keep the little beasts in vogue – using them this way.

            I haven’t really got out with mine set up like this yet, but I will do in the coming weeks as I have plans, and I have an article forming to roll on from Waynes.

      • Hi John, I am basically following on from Wayne’s coffee morning with his X1 and X2 set up to produce monochrome jpegs. I have set up my X typ 113 in a similar way, and will pull something together to show off the results (if they are worthy naturally). Dave

    • Dave:
      Check out Turo.com. It’s a rental agency for private cars (airbnb for autos). I might take the Giulia listed here in San Diego… Rates are good, though I don’t see any blower bentleys listed right now:).

  3. Missed this because of the ‘night time’ posting. Can I recommend the book ‘ A Racing History of the Bentley’ by Darell Berthon with an introduction by W.O. Bentley? It was published in 1956 by the Bodley Head. I was doing some research on the Bentley Boys at the Irish International Grand Prix races 1929-1931 at the Royal Irish Automobile Club when I came across the book and I immediately sought out and purchased a copy. It is still available second hand and, while it is not cheap, it is well worth the money.

    The book includes photos and stories about all of the races undertaken by the Bentley teams, including Dublin, Le Mans and Brooklands. It includes photos of the Dublin races, but unfortunately, it does not have my all time favourite motor racing photo, which I have in another book, and which shows Tim Birkin in his Blower Bentley giving chase to Tom Thistlethwaite in a Mercedes SSK in the 1929 race with people sitting on grass verges, including boy scouts, just feet away from two of the most powerful racing cars on the planet. The race was won that year by Russian Count Ivanowski in an Alfa Romeo. My other book also shows Birkin in 1929 driving his financier for the ‘Blower Bentley’ project, Hon Dorothy Paget, in the car which she had financed. Birkin returned the following year, but he was beaten by another great driver Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes SSK. There was scandal in 1930 when Caracciola’s wife obtained entry to the pits by dressing as a man! Birkin finally had a win in Dublin in 1931, but by that stage he had switched to an Alfa Romeo. Heady days, indeed. My reason for researching this is that my father attended these races between the ages of 13 and 15 and spoke to me about the great drivers and cars he had seen. I have photos of a wonderful display at the Irish Classic Car Show some years ago which featured a Brooklands Riley, an Alfa, a Bentley and a Mercedes SSK. A friend who was a judge at the show told me that the SSK alone was probably worth north of $7 million.

    William

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