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A Fantastic Discovery
American Bentley enthusiast George Giese recently discovered a Bentley that competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in the 1950s. He has carried out a magnificent restoration, and, here is a superb slide show of the story. I am indebted to George for allowing me to publish the story and enhance my website by a considerable amount. Meanwhile, I have written for you the story of gentleman adventurer Mike Couper who campaigned this car and others in the 'Monte'...
Mike Couper is a little known figure in Bentley history; more renowned for his exploits in pre-war days with Roesch Talbots at Brooklands and elsewhere. Yet, post-war, as a Rolls-Royce dealer, he publicized the marquee and models in this most remarkable way.
Couper’s first escapade on what was then a major happening on the world motoring calendar was in 1949, the first event of the new peace. Through a contact at Rolls-Royce - sales manager, Jack Scott - and after some very informal discussions, Couper was able to procure Bentley Mark Vl B 216 DA (registered LLG 181). He said of the negotiations: ‘I had the feeling of a spy in wartime who is most carefully briefed and trained, but who, in the event of things going wrong, is then disowned.’
The Bentley was nick-named ‘David’ for, Couper claims, ‘obvious’ reasons. Sixty years on it may not be so clear, particularly to those of less Celtic ancestry than myself who can only assume the registration letters approximate (very loosely!) to the initials of ‘Welsh wizard’ David LLoyd George!
‘David’ was so impressive on a ‘shake-down’ trial to the West Country that Couper, obviously a highly technically minded person, commented: ‘So silent is that remarkable gearbox it seems to be made of silk and ivory pulleys’.
The car was run in virtually standard form and started from Glasgow. Couper was partnered by Leslie Seyd, whose claims to motoring fame included driving a Morris Ten to Timbuctoo and back, and Dr Melville Balfour who had some Monte Carlo experience with an Alvis.
The rally passed with much bonhomie among competitors and bystanders and without major incident. Although not quite. ‘David’ was almost placed hors de combat by a French farmer who turned his horse and cart across the overtaking Bentley’s path and into a gateway. Protest was of no avail because, as the agriculteur pointed out, the manoeuvre was obvious as he lived there!
In Monte Carlo itself Seyd met friend and BBC correspondent, Max Robertson, and began a liaison that would ensure extensive future coverage by the Corporation.
Impressively, the Mark Vl took the Concours de Confort award. The marketing value was immeasurable. Not only had the car beaten a Buick to that accolade by 35 points, Prince Rainier of Monaco was soon to take delivery of B 441 EW with coachwork by Facel Metallon. In addition, many of Couper’s comments in a letter to Rolls-Royce executive W A Robotham (known as Rumpty at the Works) manifested themselves as improvements to the design.
For the 1950 rally Couper received a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, WGC 56, registered KXP 462 and carrying Park Ward coachwork. This year’s story though, was dramatically different from that of 1949. It began well with some excellent publicity from BBC doyen, Richard Dimbleby, who broadcast that the ‘Wraith’, which had again started from Glasgow, had made history by being the first Monte Carlo Rally contestant to have been flown between stages. Couper had arranged for a Silver City Airways Bristol Freighter to take the car from Lympne, near Folkestone, to Le Touquet.
Not long after the car collided with a lorry and the front left side was destroyed. There are many heroes that helped fulfil the crew’s stoical commitment to reach Monte Carlo. The Rolls-Royce representative in Monaco sent out his chief mechanic who battled through snowdrifts to reach the country garage that had recovered the victim. There, with the aid of the proprietor, his foreman and Couper and his companions the wrecked suspension was welded and hammered back to functionality.
With these improvisations the Rolls-Royce made it to the finish where another forgotten stalwart, fashioned, from seven pieces of sheet metal, in sixteen hours, the flowing curvaceous lines of a Park Ward wing.
Thus equipped, but with no left side headlamp fairing the car secured the Grand Prix de Confort. The favourable publicity for Rolls-Royce and all concerned was incalculable and when the car was put on display in Couper’s St Albans garage 500 people flocked to see in just a few hours.
It was back to a Bentley for the 1951 rally – another Standard Steel Saloon (B 235 GT) registered MMB 396. By a strange coincidence this car, or the remains of it, was the first Couper Monte Carlo car George Giese owned although he was not aware of its fascinating history at the time.
In it’s competitive days it was known, rather ingloriously, as ‘the hot soup car’.
Couper had devised an ingenious soup warmer that utilized a Mark Vl oil filter bowl fed with radiator water to heat the can.
‘MMB’ was more extensively modified than its predecessors. There were headlamp wipers, a spotlight on an extendable arm and, if you can forgive the pun, some souping up of the engine.
Most important though, it all added up to a third Concours de Confort win for Couper and his companions.
B 94 MD was the Mark Vl for 1952. Another Standard Steel Saloon, but with the ‘big bore’ 4½ litre (as opposed to 4¼) engine. And as the press were swift to point out, another ‘hot soup car’.
The weather this year was particularly severe, but the Bentley, which started from Monte Carlo, completed the round trip back to the city unscathed and won the Concours de Confort a fourth time in the face of mounting luxury car competition.
A special cine camera had been fitted and the film attracted over 1200
enthusiasts when, back in Britain, it was shown at club evenings nationwide.
For the 1953 event Couper had wanted to use the recently announced Bentley R Type Continental but there were technical and administrative difficulties and he was loaned instead standard R Type B 68 SR registered PLG 728.
This is the car George discovered in America and undertook a magnificent restoration that included fitting replica rally plates and such exquisite detail touches as an Automobile Association transfer depicting Continental road signs on the fascia capping rail.
In Couper’s hands, after starting once more from Glasgow the R Type reached Monte Carlo without incident . But this year there was no top ‘Confort’ prize only a first in the over 1500cc class.
Rolls-Royce were losing interest and ‘our hero’ was not to take one of their products on the ‘Monte’ again. As far as ‘PLG’ is concerned, it will take part in the 17th Vernasca Silver Flag hillclimb in Italy, themed this year on British cars that have contributed to automobile racing history.
I am extremely grateful to George Giese for most generously allowing me to use his pictures of PLG 728. It think they have enhanced this website considerably. If you want to read more about the exploits of Mike Couper refer to my own Bentley book.