By Bill Rothermel
Bonhams will offer a significant vintage Bentley automobile at its upcoming Quail Lodge sale in Carmel, California on Friday August 16th, 2013. The car, a 1931 Bentley 4 1/2-Litre Supercharged Le Mans Roadster, known by aficionados as a “Blower Bentley,” is considered the holy grail of Bentleys among well-heeled collectors. Just 50 production versions of the seminal classic were built in order to meet criteria required to race at the fabled circuit more than 80 years ago.
The supercharged Bentleys have a special appeal to automotive enthusiasts, not only because of their rarity, but also due to their sheer audacity and the connection to the so-called Bentley Boys – race team drivers Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin and Woolf Barnato. In order to remain competitive at the time, W.O. Bentley was convinced he needed to develop an all-new six-cylinder engine. Birkin’s idea was to supercharge the existing four. Since the money keeping Bentley Motors, Ltd. afloat at the time belonged to Barnato, and since Birkin was able to convince Barnato of the efficacy of his idea; W.O. Bentley had little choice but to look the other way, and make room on the factory assembly line for the production of the special run of 50 cars. At $7,375.00, a bit more than $2,000.00 over the cost of an “unblown” Bentley, the price of entry kept production (and sales) to a minimum. Today, the small number of cars adds substantially to their value and cachet among collectors. And, thanks to the magic of supercharging, horsepower rose from 110 to a then-staggering 182 while giving the cars genuine 100mph performance on the open road. Consider it the 1929-31 version of today’s most powerful and exotic supercars.
But supercharging an engine not designed for the added stress and power presented another set of problems. The prototype proved blindingly fast, but unreliable. So much so, that the Blower Bentley failed to make it to Le Mans in 1929. At Le Mans in 1930, the car set a new lap record, and then retired. The car did place second in the 1930 French Grand Prix; however, by 1931, the Blower Bentley became vastly more reliable and Birkin was able to establish the fastest lap ever – 137.9 mph – on Brooklands’ Outer Circuit in the spring of 1932. Regardless of its failures and successes, the Blower Bentley became inextricably linked to Le Mans.
Bearing Chassis Number MS3944, the Bentley to be offered by Bonhams is one of only three production Supercharged Bentleys with its original Le Mans-spec chassis. More importantly, this Bentley has been owned by well-known enthusiast and British ex-pat, Charles R. J. Noble and his family for more than 55 years. Noble was so enamored with the marque, he would eventually own a hat trick of ex-Bentley Boy-owned cars as well as four of those equipped with the vaunted supercharger.
Just five years after it was built, the Noble Bentley emigrated to North America and has remained there ever since. In 1938 it received its only restoration and at the time, was updated with the Brooklands-style two-seater racing body with external exhaust it wears today. When Noble purchased the car, he regularly raced it, driving it from New York City to Long Island’s Bridgehampton Race Circuit and back home. His wins included the prestigious 1967 Vanderbilt Cup.
Authenticity, documentation, provenance, and long-term known ownership history are key factors driving record prices among the collector car community. Dr. Clare Hay, the foremost expert on vintage Bentley production, describes the car as a “rarity among rarities.” When delivered new, it was sold to a gentleman named Henry Leeson, a successful butcher who had shops in a handful of towns on the southern coast of the UK. The car offers evidence that Leeson must have done quite well as he proved himself a loyal Bentley buyer who seemingly always had the most sporting Bentley the company offered in his garage. Fast forward more than 80 years and the appeal and excitement generated by the Blower Bentley has only intensified.
Bonhams sold the aforementioned Brooklands Outer Circuit Lap record-breaking 1929-31 4 1/2-Litre Supercharged Bentley single-seater driven by Birkin at its Goodwood Festival of Speed Auction last July for $7.87 million. There is no reason to expect less than enthusiastic bidding when MS3944 crosses the auction block on August 16th. Stay tuned. It’s certain to be one exciting and memorable ride.
For additional information, visit Bonhams Quail Lodge.
[Source: Bill Rothermel; photos: Pawel Litwinski]