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The Bentley Years
IT WAS MOIDAH!
Supposedly, one of the prime rules of parenthood is that the responsibility for achieving mum or dads’s unfilled goals should not be inflicted on their children.
My father was what used to be known as a commercial traveller . His métier was neither salesmanship nor a successful relationship with whole sectors of society. For example: schoolteachers, Socialists, selected bank clerks, South Walians and other ethnic groups.
His dreams were that his myopic, academically very average, son would play rugby and row for Oxford University, become a distinguished naval officer and share his love of, and own, Bentley cars.
His considerable territory, as a traveller and largely covered by bus, extended from Carmarthen to Cardiff then northwards to the Forest of Dean.
The periodic ventures to the capital led him, not to the sophisticated buyers at prestigious department stores in the city centre, but along windswept North Road, through Maindy, to the private grocers and butchers that huddled beside the road to Caerphilly. They were his customers for paper bags and wrapping.
In those far-off days there was still a sizeable number of delectable motor cars in regular use – an Isotta-Fraschini in Newport, while David Lloyd-George’s one-time Rolls-Royce Phantom haunted an undertaker’s in Treharris. Still more delights were tucked away in commercial and private garages all over the country.
My father, his mind, no doubt, far from commercial travelling, found ‘our’ Bentley at a filling station-cum-car dealer on that North Road in Cardiff.
It’s likely the Derby-built 3 ½ Litre (chassis B 176 EF registration VH 8537) had been what the trade calls a ‘barney’. An up-market car placed at the front of the showroom to imply, invariably falsely, the dealer was, himself, up-market.
Battleship grey with crimson wire wheels, radiator cap removed, ‘VH’ had now been parked ignominiously – desperately - just inside the forecourt kerb, hazardously close to the pumps.
My father felt that rather than something sensible like a sports Austin or MG restoration project, this monster was going to give a 19-year-old’s vintage motoring career a fillip.
By coincidence, at the time my father reported back from North Road, I was at college in Cardiff . I persuaded a classmate who looked alluringly like Faye Dunaway playing Bonnie Parker – even down to the beret – to take me, one lunchtime, in here ‘push start’ Ford Popular, to inspect the car.
The money I had won in a writing competition and was intended to buy books for motoring research, plus a top-up loan, exchanged hands, on condition a MoT test certificate was provided for ‘VH’.
‘I’ officially had my first Bentley. And, to boot, in time for a family outing on the forthcoming Easter Monday Bank Holiday.
Of course, it had been ‘our’ Bentley for at least the tantalizing, lusting, previous week when we scoured every line of scant information on Derby Bentleys that the household possessed.
The MoT was as dishonest as it was desperate. The immediately apparent failure points were: no rearview mirror, non-working semaphor indicators, blowing exhaust and a wiper motor spindle that rotated pointlessly in its arm.
Somehow, my father, who had never ridden in a Bentley, let alone driven one, extricated us from Cardiff during a Friday rush-hour. We arrived home, 30 miles away, without mishap; him oblivious to every one of ‘VH’s’ mounting list of faults; me becoming disquieted.
The holiday outing manifested itself as an extremely long jaunt through central Wales. Me driving, my grandfather happily sweltering* beside me on the once-plush blue leather seats of the front compartment; my mother, grandmother and father reclining in the back.
*Footnote: Not all coachbuilders provided scuttle vents whereupon the front footwells become uncomfortably hot.
Meanwhile, ‘VH’ breathed gas through the bonnet louvres and turned the side panel a golden brown as the exhaust down-pipe jiggled contentedly up and down in the front silencer. Unbeknown to us, the system finished directly under the back seat and most of its smoke exited around the door of the fuel filler aperture.
The doctor said later that my grandmother did not need hospitalizing for the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. My mother said, rather unjustly I thought, that I had ‘tried to murder Granny’.
Overall ‘VH’ had numerous faults, didn’t go very well and stopping was even more of a problem.
Some things were simpler to rectify than others. A silencer for a Fordson tractor of the day was a perfect replacement for the rear one we lacked. A tail pipe was easy to fabricate. Finding someone who could weld stainless steel to attach the downpipe to the silencer was much harder.
Araldite fixed the wipers. Some straightforward re-wiring stopped the sidelamps coming on with the brakes. It also ensured the lights at the back did, in fact, light.
The reason the engine chuffed like Thomas the Tank Engine was diagnosed by a passing engineer as a burnt exhaust valve. A new one was cheaply and swiftly obtained from an excellent firm, at the time, called Adams and Oliver*. It was fitted without problem by a tiny local garage.
* Footnote: They produced several editions of a superb pocket guide to Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. These are now collector’s items.
The Bentley now went like the proverbial ‘scalded cat’. This was somewhat disconcerting for a youngster who had transferred from an Austin Big Seven and one of the tiredest Austin Ten Lichfield’s in the universe. It certainly threw into sharp focus, after one or two excursions onto the verge to avoid oncoming traffic, ‘VH’s’ inadequate brakes.
The bad news was, the Bentley only had braking on two wheels. The good news; they were at different ends of the car and on opposite sides.
Our very questionable assessment was that a re-line was required. To achieve this on a Derby Bentley requires special tools to remove brake drums that are an integral part of a beautifully manufactured hub assembly.
The parts are so exquisitely sculpted that when I eventually had these works of pure art in my hands, and much to my mother’s chagrin, I stored them for a time on the living room mantelpiece.
Getting to that stage was problematical. Rolls-Royce hired the necessary equipment for a modest fee and an enormous deposit. The kit arrived by rail in a wooden crate with the tools submersed in a morass of straw.
Working by torchlight in a cramped lock-up we were mystified as to why the puller would not detach the rear hubs. More and more leverage was applied until the end snapped off the puller’s forcing bolt. The ‘trick’ is to remove the small fasteners from a locking plate and then, as with all properly designed assemblies, it comes apart virtually on its own.
By now it was apparent all the back brake linings were in excellent condition. And, so probably, were those at the front. We never checked. But instead, decided to look elsewhere
We reassembled the hubs, hid the puller in the straw and repacked the crate. Rolls-Royce duly returned the deposit and in 45 years I have heard nothing more.
On a Derby Bentley the front brake cross-shafts are contained within the axle beam and actuated by curved levers attached to the brake ropes. One of our shafts was seized and the other partially so.
My father poured so much Plus-Gas over and into the system that he was certainly entitled to a dividend from the manufacturer. And, we did achieve some movement on the right shaft and improved the working of the left. But, it has to be said, ‘VH’s’ brakes were never confidence inspiring.
A baffling aspect of this Bentley, unlike all other vehicles, was the otherwise excellent steering had no castor action. We came to the ill-conceived conclusion that this must be something to do with the steering column.
Just under the dashboard the latter sports a cylindrical casing, the two halves of which are temptingly simple to screw apart. We did this and a multitude of small ball bearings descended into the grit and grime of the driver’s footwell.
Somehow we got it all back together.
It was after this that, walking home one day and facing a parked ‘VH’ head on, may father noticed the Bentley had a bent stub-axle on the left side.
He never told me.
In the end, it was not the mechanical ailments that defeated us.
The whole of ‘VH’s’ wooden frame was probably not in the soundest condition. But the striker plate for the left side front door was very clearly adrift in the ash.
String attached to the fascia and looped over the interior door handle was neither safe nor de rigeur. But, at that time, in our environment, there was no one, who could, or was prepared to, effect a repair.
Furthermore, as someone who has never been particularly adept at changing gear on crash gearboxes, I found the unsynchronized shift from third to second on the Bentley ‘embarrassingly loud’. Plus, even with the arrogance of youth, I questioned whether a 1935, coachbuilt Bentley sports saloon was the most appropriate transport for a junior reporter covering events in the South Wales mining valleys.
I down-traded – with difficulty - to a Mark Vl.
That said, for all her ailments ‘VH’ was incredibly reliable. I drove her thousands of miles. Yes, there were minor hiccups. But I never failed to get home.
So let the credits roll…vandalism of history was almost as prevalent in the early 1970s as it is today. ‘VH’s’ Rippon body was one of the most exquisite I have ever seen on a Derby Bentley chassis. No more than two were fitted to this make. I’ve seen the same style on a Rolls-Royce only once. It contained extraordinary examples of the coachbuilders’ craft , not least, an outward flaring of the door bottoms. And that’s not to mention ivory inlays to the window winders, even on the miniatures that opened the quarter lights. And natty little circular mirrors, the size of florins, at the top corners of the windscreen, that were supposed to show if the semaphor indicator arms were extended.
All this was smashed to bits by a replica builder called Brockman whose stock in trade was turning tired Derby saloons into fake Vanden Plas tourers. These exceptionally attractive models are, of course ‘worth’ much more than even the most beautiful and well-preserved saloon.
The last I heard of the remains of ‘VH’ was that she was in the hands of a collector called Lassiter in Palm Beach, USA. But I’ve never been able to obtain any information. Wonder why?
My father, before he died, owned his own Bentley. R Type B 184 WH (registration OLT 776) was almost as troublesome as ‘VH’. But that’s another story. I have no idea as to whether or not it survives.
My relationship with ‘VH’ almost put me off Bentleys for life. But the practical, driveable, reliable, equally well-engineered Mark Vls that replaced her began an adoring relationship with the immediate post-War cars (Mark Vl , R and S Types) that has endured to this day.
The moral of this tale? My father and I were totally out of our engineering and financial depth with Bentleys. If you want to take on a car of this sort please make sure a) you can afford the considerable costs that will be involved (thousands not hundreds) and b) are signed up, in adavance, with one of the excellent organizations that will guide you through every aspect. I recommend the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club, Bentley Drivers’ Club and Vintage Sports Car Club. Details on the internet.
In conclusion, the conduct and procedures undertaken with, and on ‘VH’ were, mostly, unacceptable 45 years ago, in what was a more free-living and less regulated society. They are totally unacceptable now and the author condones nothing described herein.
How you bring up your children is your business!
Magnificent Mark VI