Looking at this 1934 Bentley race car, I could visualize this impressive car winning on an oval race track or spitting stones and dirt as it victoriously climbed hills.
That was the accepted test of durability and quality in the early days of the automobile. This car could not have looked better if it were brand new.
"I bought it in 2012 in the UK," said Danville resident John Place. "A friend over there found it in a barn on a big estate. It had never run in 50 years."
A few days later, Place flew to England to see the car and bought it.
"It was a mess, tires were flat, and the roof was caved in. The barn had sheep on one side and hay on the other. In the middle were old tractors and this car."
At the time this Bentley was built, Bentley and Rolls-Royce only made the engine, chassis and drive train, which sold for about $1,000 (about $18,000 in today's dollars). Bodies were built by different coach companies.
Place took his new possession to his sister's house near London. After researching for the best restoration shop, he selected Bentley Coach Works, which only restores 1927-1935 Bentleys. "They did a phenomenal job," Place said.
The owners of the estate and the original owner of the car insisted that Place take the car out of England with no publicity about the sale. In a clandestine operation, Bentley Coach Works loaded the car in an unmarked van and hauled it to their shop. The Bentley was restored in about two years, but the cost of the car and restoration must remain a mystery to you and me. Place estimates the current market value, based on auctions of similar Bentleys, to be between $1.25 million and $2.5 million.
"I went over to the Bentley Coach Works when they were putting it together," Place said. "They have what they call 'a fitting.' That is when they place the seat to fit you, place the steering column to fit you, and, if you are not a very big guy, you can have the gear shift on the inside and the brake on the outside. If you are a big guy, both the brake and gear shift are on the outside."
Place's gear shift is on the inside.
As a race car, refueling and adding necessary oil and water requires speed, so the filler caps for those three liquids are huge and spring loaded for minimum spillage and quick service. The windscreen (English, you know) is unique. For traditional driving, there is a normal windscreen. It also has two little glass windscreens for racing, but the smaller ones can be attached to the traditional one to act as side vent windows.
The attention to detail is impressive. Place pointed out some examples: "The front and rear leaf springs are hand wrapped with a special oiled cord and pressed together. They always stay oiled and are completely quiet. Additionally, all the joints are leather encased." The steering wheel is also hand wrapped.
Even though this Bentley is a race car, it's also a five-passenger car with a top and three doors. There are two back doors and one front door on the left (passenger) side. The driver slides across the passenger seat to sit behind the steering wheel. When racing, the co-driver would sit in the passenger seat and watch all the aeronautical gauges on the dash to monitor the engine's performance, including oil and gas flow. If the gas flow is inadequate, there is a hand pump built into the dash that the co-driver uses. This particular model did 137 mph at Le Mans.
Place drives this car every other week and even takes it on the freeway. "It does great," he says. "The super charger only cuts in at about 70 mph, so you can't use it much." The 3,500-pound car has a Bentley-built 4.5-liter, straight-six engine rated at 250 HP.
Bentley has never been a volume car maker. According to the website exoticcars.about.com, Bentley history goes back to 1919, when W. O. Bentley and friends bought out a French auto company and renamed it Bentley. Like a lot of automakers, they had financial ups and downs. Rolls-Royce bought Bentley in 1931, and Volkswagen bought Rolls-Royce, including Bentley, in 1998. BMW then bought the rights to the Rolls-Royce name in 2002. So, after 67 years, the two makes are no longer related.
Place, a mechanical engineer, started racing cars at age 16 and started building cars at age 19. He has restored four in the past seven years, and three of the four are now in top museums. But this Bentley was just too unusual to do himself.
"It's a fantasy just to own one of these," said the car collector extraordinaire. He has no plan to ever sell it.
Have an interesting vehicle? Contract David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com