Destroyed Bentleys the stuff of legend: Jonathan Glancey on the loss of several 'automotive adrenalin pumps' yesterday

AMONG the Bentleys destroyed in yesterday's fire is the oldest surviving Bentley (chassis number 5, engine number 1), a 3-litre car built in September 1921 and used by Bentley as a demonstrator to sell one of the greatest all motoring breeds to the rich and racey.

The other machines undergoing restoration, rebuilding or simply being stored at Excel Engineering - an expert Bentley restoration outfit - date from between 1922 and 1931. Among them is YV9987, a 1927 4 1/2 -litre tourer: its distraught owner had brought it back to Solihull on Sunday for a 500-mile service after a complete restoration.

Vintage Bentleys are not just valuable, but the stuff of motoring legend on and off the track. These are the great Bulldog Drummond breed of green and black Bentleys that won the famous Le Mans 24-hour race five times for Britain, beating contemporary Bugattis and Alfa-Romeos. Ettorre Bugatti, in a famous quip, described the 35-cwt racer as the 'world's fastest lorry'.

Small wonder Jim Pike and Graham King, joint owners of Excel Engineering, risked severe injury in an ill-fated attempt to save the cars. These were not just any Bentleys, but the real thing: magnificent high-speed machines designed and built by one of the greatest of all British engineers W O Bentley (1889-1971) during the all too brief 12-year history of his headline-snatching, yet chronically underfunded manufacturing company.

Bentley Motors went bust during the Great Slump and was snatched up by its British rival Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce began making its own Bentleys in 1933, but the cars were softer, smoother and altogether less sporting than W O's automotive adrenalin pumps.

Rarity, racing pedigree and the sheer quality of the engineering that went into their construction have made vintage Bentleys some of the most valuable and sought after of all cars.

The legendary 4 1/2 -litre supercharged Bentleys are worth about pounds 1m today.

Launched in the teeth of the 1929 slump, this model was priced originally at pounds 1,720.

But Bentley dealers were forced to sell the last 50 cars for as little as pounds 950 as buyers for such luxury machines faced bankruptcy. As late as the early Sixties it was possible to buy one of these 110mph Twenties' supercars for well under pounds 600. Since then, prices have shot into the stratosphere.

Real Bentleys are rare because Bentley Motors went bankrupt because it built cars to a standard way above the ceiling of the company's finances.

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