Motoring: A toast to a Derby winner: Phil Llewellin joins the proud owner of a pre-war Bentley on a 24-hour, 1,000-mile journey to mark the 60th anniversary of 'the world's fastest lorries'
Saturday 26 June 1993
Some owners never subject their precious old motors to anything more demanding than a gentle polish. Cast in a far more admirable mould, Mr Kentish decided to celebrate the 60th birthday of Derby Bentleys by seeing if CXM 100 could cover 1,000 miles in 24 hours. The attempt would also salute the 30th anniversary of his relationship with the car.
What is a Derby Bentley? The answer goes back to 1919, when Walter Owen Bentley established the marque whose Bulldog Drummond cars became synonymous with vintage motoring in Britain. Ettore Bugatti called them the world's fastest lorries. They won the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930. This failed to keep Bentley Motors solvent, so Rolls-Royce bought the firm for pounds 125,275 in 1931, and production moved from Cricklewood to the new owner's factory in Derby. There was a two-year gap before the first Derby Bentley appeared, with its 3.7-
litre engine and a top speed of just over 90mph. 'Derby' became a convenient but unofficial label for all Bentleys built there until Crewe became the marque's post-war home.
The 4.25-litre engine was originally intended to be a pounds 50 option, but became standard equipment in 1936. The typical price of a complete Bentley was about pounds 1,500 in the Thirties. Only 1,234 of the 4.25-litre cars were produced. Keith Kentish's is the first of 37 graced with a distinctive saloon body crafted by Freestone and Webb. The Motor magazine tested the new Bentley at 96mph in 1936. We cruised at 60-65mph on this venture.
Mr Kentish's previous longest drive in the car had been 623 miles to Scotland from his home in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. For the 1,000-mile run he was joined by his son, Steve, a young man with professional engineering skills. My role was that of observer, chronicler and reserve co-driver.
Why was Mr Kentish attempting to climb this automotive mountain? 'The anniversary struck me as a perfect opportunity to remind people just how good these cars are,' he said.
There was something quintessentially British about the operation. The Bentley had been treated to a thorough service, of course, but there were no signs of the spare fuel cans, mobile phones, support vehicles and emergency rations that other nationalities might have deemed essential. By far the most important item of equipment was a bottle of champagne.
Small, slow wipers ambled across the windscreen as a heavy shower marked our 6.30pm departure from Leigh-on-Sea. We looped south of London on the M25, then headed for Exeter by way of Bournemouth and Lyme Regis. Yesterday's big-money supercar is no faster in a straight line than all but a few of today's runabouts, and much less agile on twisty roads, but the Bentley's ability to keep its occupants happy while reeling in the miles was very impressive.
We were averaging 46.6mph when CXM 100 paused near Exeter, just after midnight, to take on 16 gallons of petrol. A passenger with long legs would not have been able to stretch them, but after the first six hours I had no reason to complain about the snug rear compartment, whose features include leather upholstery, plenty of headroom and lovely little art deco reading lights. Noise levels were acceptably low and the ride was much smoother than expected for a car with old-fashioned suspension. Solid aides and leaf springs are throwbacks to the days when horsepower had four legs and a nosebag.
Moonbeams were making the low-tide mudflats glisten like acres of molten silver as we paid pounds 3.10 and crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales. The toll prompted references to Dick Turpin, as a mere 90p had been the charge for using the bridge that takes the M25 over the Thames at Dartford.
The almost traffic-free run up the moonlit Welsh Marches to Hereford, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch gave an impression of what motoring must have been like when our indefatigable car was new and there were only 2.7 million vehicles on Britain's roads. Dawn was breaking as we crossed misty Cheshire for a brief visit to Crewe, where modern Bentleys are built. Six decades of inflation account for the basic Brooklands model costing pounds 89,913 while the turbo-charged Continental R coupe leaves little change from pounds 170,000.
We reached the 500-mile mark on the busy M6 near Leyland, then relaxed over breakfast before pushing on to Carlisle, Stirling and Edinburgh. I drove from there to the windswept and bagpipered border on the A68 at Carter Bar, trying not to crunch ancient cogs while changing gear with a vintage-style lever that lurks by the driver's right knee.
The Bentley's steering system is sumo-wrestler heavy in 1993 terms, just as its drum brakes are a far cry from the discs whose efficiency is taken for granted today. In other words, you must concentrate all the time while driving a car whose engineering could have been inspired by the Forth Bridge. The reward can be compared to climbing Snowdon rather than taking the train to the summit. In the car, the sense of satisfaction is enhanced by being the focus of so much admiring attention. Above all, driving something as rare and handsome as this old Bentley fills you with an immense sense of pride and privilege.
Those emotions were endorsed on the M1 when CXM 100 reached 1,000 miles 39 minutes before we were due at our destination in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire. The car had not missed a beat while averaging 43.1mph, including umpteen stops. Fuel consumption was 17.6mpg.
I had expected to feel fit only for a one-way trip to the nearest funeral parlour, but the sense of achievement was sufficient to keep the adrenalin flowing. Champagne has been served cooler, but never tasted better.
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