Strive for Perfection

Best of both worlds

Best of both worlds

The best of both worlds - an old silver car parked in front of a building.

The Derby Bentley was unveiled to the world in 1933. Ninety years on, the first Bentley to be produced under Rolls-Royce ownership still has pulses racing

When Rolls-Royce acquired Bentley Motors in 1931, though it meant the end of the latter’s independence, it did at least ensure the survival of the Bentley name. Launched at the Royal Ascot Hotel in Berkshire in October 1933, the first of the Derby Bentleys, as the Bentley models produced at Rolls-Royce’s Derby works would come to be known, continued the marque’s sporting associations but in a manner befitting the refinement of the Rolls-Royce stable.

Even WO Bentley, assigned a new role in the company’s Test Department, acknowledged the quality of the 3½-litre model. “Taking all thing into consideration,” he reported, “I would rather own this Bentley than any car produced under that name.”

Based on the contemporary Rolls-Royce 20/25hp, the 3½-litre Bentley was slightly shorter in the wheelbase and employed a tuned (114bhp) twin-SU-carburettor version of the 20/25hp’s overhead-valve six. Add to this already remarkable package an all-synchromesh four-speed gearbox and servo-assisted brakes, and the result was a vehicle that offered the driver effortless sports car performance with minimal noise. “The Silent Sports Car”, as it was swiftly dubbed, had few peers as a tireless long-distance tourer.

“One’s impression, when seeing the new 3½-litre Bentley for the first time, is that here we have an absolute thoroughbred”

Writing in The Field magazine, Sir Malcolm Campbell enthused that, “One’s impression, when seeing the new 3½-litre Bentley for the first time, is that here we have an absolute thoroughbred. Its low build, its graceful lines, and yet sturdy appearance, all make for a car capable of high speed, combined with the utmost safety and comfort. This impression was intensified when I had an opportunity of handling the car under very adverse road conditions.”

By the end of the 1930s, the Derby Bentley had undergone a number of significant developments, not the least of which was an increase in bore size in 1936 that upped the capacity to 4,257cc, a move that coincided with the adoption of superior Hall’s Metal bearings. This new 4¼-litre model offered more power than its predecessor while retaining the well-proven chassis with its faultless gear change and servo-assisted brakes.

It was the construction of modern highways in mainland Europe, enabling cars to travel at sustained high speeds, that had prompted the introduction of the Hall’s Metal bearings and would lead eventually to the adoption of an overdrive gearbox and improved lubrication system in 1938.

Eventually, some 2,400 Bentleys were produced at Derby in four versions: the 3½-litre, the 4¼-litre, the 4¼-litre overdrive and a very small number of its successor, the Mark V. The Second World War brought production to a close, but the name of Derby Bentley lives on in luxury motoring lore to this day, as these three prime examples go to show.

A black and white photo of a man sitting in a car.
Former Bentley owner Woolf Barnato behind the wheel of B1AE

The original

The 1933 3½-litre Sports Tourer B1AE is a car of huge importance to the history of the Bentley name, as the first production Derby Bentley. One of three cars used predominantly by the company to promote the new era of Bentley to the world, B1AE was vehicle number one of the AE production series and was the only one of the three to carry open touring coachwork, by Vanden Plas.

Registered by the company with the distinctive licence plate ALU 321 – the prefix perhaps referencing its lightweight aluminium coachwork – B1AE was originally finished in silver paintwork. Its open sports body showed the Bentley to be a sportsman’s car, but also ensured that the luminaries of the day who were invited to test the new model were clearly visible for promotional photographs.

Among those who took the wheel – at Brooklands aerodrome, no less – were the former owner of Bentley Woolf Barnato, fellow Le Mans 24-hour winner Earl Howe, who declared his road test “one of the most wonderful treats that I have had for a very long time”, and land-speed legend Campbell.

However, perhaps the most exuberant testimony of all came from the periodical Air and Travel in which, under an illustration of B1AE racing along a country road, the magazine gushed, “Imagine the best sports car you have ever driven, add something to its performance, and let every aspect of its running be carried out in complete silence and with Rolls-Royce smoothness, and that is as near as you will get to an appreciation of the 3½-litre Bentley without having tried one.”

Best of both worlds

A vintage car is parked on a snowy road, combining the best of both worlds.
The first production Derby Bentley, B1AE, earned the model rapturous reviews
Experience the best of both worlds with the interior of a vintage car featuring plush leather seats and a classic leather-wrapped steering wheel.
B1AE’s 1933 interior
A vintage car is parked on a snowy road, offering the best of both worlds with its classic black exterior.
The 3½-litre’s open sports tourer body
An old black car parked in front of bushes, offering the best of both worlds.
The Olympia Show Bentley 4¼-litre
The best vintage car is parked in front of lush green bushes.
The 1936 colour scheme, a “special tone of green”
The world's best antique car with green leather seats.
The showcar sports its original internal fixtures and fittings

The show stopper

As the company’s display model for the Olympia Show, 1936 Bentley 4¼-litre All Weather Sports Tourer W7BM has an illustrious history. Carrying features such as bonnet louvres extended to the scuttle, P100 headlamps and a special petrol tank, at the show it bore the plate “4255CC”, signifying the engine capacity for the new Derby Bentley model. It was registered DLD 273 for the road a month later in November 1936.

The car’s sales particulars describe it as follows: “An attractive four-door, four-light All Weather by Messrs. Vanden Plas. Separate adjustable bucket front seats, folding centre arm rest to rear seat squab. Front screen to open, sun visors, Hunts direction indicators. Dual windscreen wipers with remote motor. Cubby hole in dash with door. Ash trays. Rear boot with lid folding to form additional platform.” Its original colours were: “Exterior finished in special tone of green. Mottled fawn leather upholstery. Fawn hood material. Walnut woodwork.”

The showcar has appeared at countless concours events since it first took the stand at Olympia, winning prizes and admirers in equal measure.

“Imagine the best sports car you have ever driven, add something to its performance … and that is as near as you will get to an appreciation of the 3½-litre Bentley”

The interior of a car with the best steering wheel.
A close up of the hood ornament of both a silver car.
A silver car parked in front of a house, offering the best of both worlds.
B28MR carries a more recent interior
The Flying B mascot
With original “High Vision” side-windows and distinctive glazed roof

The restored masterpiece

With its 4¼-litre engine and overdrive gearbox, B28MR carries owner-driver sports saloon coachwork by HJ Mulliner and features distinctive glazed roof panels and deep side-windows in the “High Vision” style.

B28MR was completed in October 1938 and exhibited on HJ Mulliner’s stand at that year’s Earls Court Motor Show. In 1974, the car was imported into South Africa and, in the 1990s, it underwent the first of two extensive restorations. Works carried out included a respray in its current livery (two-tone grey metallic and silver), a new interior in pale grey Connolly hide, Wilton carpeting and grey West of England cloth, and a complete electrical rewire. It went on to win a concours prize at the South African Rolls-Royce and Bentley Owners’ Club show in 2005.

More recently, the 4¼-litre overdrive Derby Bentley had a full mechanical service and refurbishment, including overhauls of its gearbox, suspension, steering, cooling and one-shot lubrication systems, restoring it to its display-quality (if not original) glory.

Photography and research provided courtesy of Bonhams. For more information go to www.bonhams.com.