A smile spreads over Bill Hardy's face as he recalls how he bought one of the most coveted of vintage cars. The year was 1943. There was a wartime ban on non-essential motoring, so the supercharged Bentley had been languishing in an orchard. When new, in 1930, it had been listed at pounds 1,720 - then an astronomical price for a car.

'My father died and left me his Rover,' says Mr Hardy, who sold that car for pounds 185 and bought the Bentley for pounds 140, counting the money out on an unlit stove in the waiting room at Slough railway station. The old dreadnought is expected to fetch between pounds 300,000 and pounds 400,000 when Sotheby's offer it for sale next Monday. The top price paid at auction for a 'blower' Bentley was pounds 1.1m in 1991.

Bentleys built before Rolls-Royce acquired the company in 1931 epitomise the Bulldog Drummond school of British engineering. They were described by Ettore Bugatti as the world's fastest lorries; and they won the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930.

The prospect of getting behind the wheel of Mr Hardy's car kept me awake at night. The mind's eye sees these barrel-chested heavyweights cruising along the almost deserted roads of pre-war England crewed by characters out of P G Wodehouse. It pictures them racing to dust-caked glory at Le Mans, driven by swashbuckling 'Bentley Boys' such as Woolf Barnato, the diamond millionaire, and fearless Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin.

But cars have changed almost beyond recognition since the 'blower' was regarded with the awe now reserved for the likes of the Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1. Were those the days, my friend?

I was concerned about features that a modern motorist takes for granted, such as brakes and gears. I recalled what a friend with a sense of humour said about his vintage Bentley: 'Three things happen when you push the brake pedal. First, the car's nose weaves from left to right a few times. Second, you smell a faint whiff of brake lining. Third, you may detect a slight reduction in speed.

'The parish is an appropriate unit of measurement for braking efficiency.'

Mr Hardy has covered about 200,000 miles in GH 6951, and I was acutely aware of his presence. The open, four-seater Vanden Plas body does not have a driver's door. You slide across from the passenger's side, or risk a technique similar to that adopted when mounting a horse. Points are lost for getting the gear lever up your trouser leg. We are talking about the right leg, because the lever is on the 'wrong' side of the cockpit.

The wheel looks big enough to have come from a Great Western Railway steam locomotive, and the leverage it provides is welcome when almost two tons is moving at very low speeds. Modern cars rarely require more than a genteel flexing of wrists, but getting a vintage Bentley in and out of tight parking slots is a practical lesson in the upper torso's musculature.

Enough dials and switches to delight Heath Robinson are scattered across the dashboard, but there is no sign of an ignition key. Sparking life into the four-cylinder, 4.4-litre engine depends on flicking two magneto switches, retarding the ignition and adjusting the mixture control before pressing the starter button. An exhaust pipe big enough to be part of the Channel tunnel plays a deep bass as Mr Hardy checks the oil pressure.

The blower Bentley's image belies the fact that Walter Owen Bentley opposed the idea of increasing power by supercharging the engine, which produced 130bhp when tuned for Le Mans. Tim Birkin's enthusiasm for such a modification was endorsed by Woolf 'Babe' Barnato, who was Bentley Motors' chairman as well as one of the team's drivers. The cars became known as blowers because the huge supercharger blew fuel into the engine under pressure, boosting power to 175bhp at 3,500rpm.

Birkin's car failed to go the distance at Le Mans in 1930, but hoisted the lap record to 89.69mph during a Boy's Own Paper duel with Rudolf Caracciola's supercharged Mercedes. Birkin later lapped the Brooklands track at 137.96mph in a blower with a single-seater body, which still competes in vintage races. His team accounted for five of the cars. Fifty were bought by rich enthusiasts. Mr Hardy's started life as Bentley Motors' demonstrator.

Men have wept like babies over their failure to master a vintage Bentley's gearbox. Getting it right involves the almost forgotten art of double de-clutching. Slot the lever into first, engage the clutch - no problem - and the Bentley moves off like any other car. The view down the long, louvred, leather- strapped bonnet is inspirational, even at a walking pace, but it is important to remember that the accelerator is where you expect the brake to be. Another prayer wings its way to heaven as I floor the clutch, move the gear lever into neutral, release the clutch, then floor it again and - miracles] - ease into second.

Confidence grew as the Bentley accelerated and the steering lightened. Second to third? Perfect] But my attempt to change from third to top produced noises like the Anvil Chorus, leaving me with what the cognoscenti call a box full of neutrals. All you can do, apart from swearing and apologising, is to stop the car and start again.

Still, I was soon confident enough to hum 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'The British Grenadiers' as the Bentley thundered along roads so quiet we could have been time-warped back to 1930. The difference between vintage and modern brakes had to be taken into account, of course: only a fool would expect the handling or ride on a 64-year-old veteran to match up to what is taken for granted in even a run-of-the-mill 1994 model.

Modern cars insulate you from the outside world, but a vintage Bentley feels, sounds, and even smells fast, with its bellowing engine, howling gears and hot oil. And it can keep pace with today's traffic. The supercharger provides strong mid-range acceleration, and The Autocar reported a top speed of 97.82mph when its issue of 19 September 1930 featured a report subtitled 'The Appeal of Immense Power, Linked with Great Docility'. The test car was GH 6951 and it averaged 11 miles per gallon.

The vintage Bentley's peerless character is complemented by a tremendous appetite for hard work. I know an owner who took his blower to America for an 8,000-mile tour that included races on both sides of the continent. Above all, perhaps, these old motors are tangible and indomitable links with the days when Britannia ruled the waves, and waived the rules.

Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1A 2AA (071-493 8080).

(Photograph omitted)

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