By now the Bentley Blower is well into its stride, running strongly up the banking of the UTAC Bedford test circuit. In top gear, the Amherst Villiers supercharger is boosting hard and what they used to call the ‘bloody thump’ of the 4½ litre engine is combining with the seal-honk blast from the fish-tail exhaust.
Well, this is quite lovely.
A bit cold perhaps, and the value and difficulty of driving this car means you need to concentrate like billy-o, but driving a Birkin Blower is most certainly one of the occasional high days which come with my job.
This is, of course, one of the most famous racing cars there ever was. Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s favourite out of all five Blowers built at the Welwyn factory in 1929 and 1930, which was bank rolled by Dorothy Paget, the Whitney family fortune heiress and keen race-horse owner and gambler. This is car number two, in fact, the car which was entered in the 1930 Le Mans 24-hour race.
The very same car Birkin drove like a bat out of hell in the initial stages of the race with the tacit approval of the Bentley factory, which had entered a team of 6½ litre naturally aspirated cars and was looking for its fourth consecutive Le Mans victory and the marque’s fifth overall.
The reason they used Birkin and this car as ‘the hare’, was the presence of the Mercedes-Benz works supercharged, 7-litre SSK driven by Rudolf ‘Rudi’ Caracciola (ironically Dorothy Paget owned one of these rare and exotic machines). As mighty as that Mercedes surely was, Bentley had no idea how fast or reliable it would be in the race and Birkin, a fast and courageous driver, was sent out in his Blower to poke a stick at the German ace from Remagen in the Rhineland.
And it was a pointed stick that he most certainly wielded, overtaking Caracciola twice at over 120mph at the end of the Mulsanne/Hunaudieres straight with one wheel on the grass and the rear tyre down to its canvas. Reports have it that Caracciola was so startled simply because he couldn’t countenance anyone actually overtaking him.
Legend has it that in pursuing Birkin, Rudi Caracciola damaged the engine by over using the supercharger, though the truth is more nuanced, Birkin drove his car so hard, he twice lost a tyre’s tread and had to pit early. He continued the assault on the Mercedes, but other Bentleys took up the challenge. After a thrilling battle into the night, the Mercedes’s lights started to flicker and die as a wire worked lose from the dynamo and with a flattened battery, on its 85th lap, the big car was eventually retired.
The two Bentley Blowers were also retired with engine problems (the Birkin car had a broken connecting rod) and eventually it was the Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston Bentley 6½ litre which took the chequered flag for Bentley’s fifth Le Mans win. Did Birkin make a difference? Almost certainly, but perhaps not quite as much as the stories would have it.
As a side note, a Bentley Blower is also the car which Ian Fleming gave the original James Bond in his books. Finished in elephant’s-breath grey, Bond crashes his car in a high-speed chase against villain Hugo Drax in the book Moonraker (1955). More obscurely still, in more modern times, Bentley wanted to call one of its colours elephant’s breath grey, but was warned that in America, buyers might think it was actually painted with real elephant’s breath…
With each of the needles in the ten-dial dashboard dancing away and Bluemels wheel twitching in your hands, it’s easy to imagine this is Birkin’s Quixotic steed registered UU5872, though in fact it’s nothing of the sort. The original Birkin Blower, one of the most original extant vintage racing Bentleys, is the property of the Bentley Motors, the Volkswagen-owned luxury-car maker based in Crewe.
There it lives a cossetted life, though is still driven occasionally and enjoyed when it is. Its value is pretty much priceless as it will never be sold by the factory and that goes for the other four Welwyn Blower Birkin/Paget cars in private hands. Even a decent version of the additional 50 Blower models built by the factory to comply with the racing regulations, would cost well in excess of £4 million.
So, Bentley decided to build 12 examples of what it calls Continuation Blower models, which are exact replicas of the Birkin car, based on extensive disassembling the original and scanning.
They left out harmful materials such as asbestos and lead in the construction and introduced a couple of updates such as an electric fuel pump and better location for the rear fuel tank. All in all, however, this is a near-exact copy of the car which Birkin ran across to on a sunny day at Le Mans in June 21 1930, complete with its hastily widened headlamp mountings and bonnet full of holes to get rid of the phenomenal heat from the boosted monobloc engine running on benzene.
The question is, what are you going to call it? Continuation has become car makers’ accepted nomenclature when they plunder their back catalogues and produce versions of their most famous cars. Jaguar (with recreations of the C-Type, D-Type, XKSS and Lightweight E-Type) and Aston Martin (DB4 GT, DB4 GT Zagato and James Bond DB5) have used the term. Classic car dealers tend to use the term ‘tool-room copy’, but frankly you could pin replica, copy, or facsimile on it. But is it a fake? We’ll come back to this.
Starting this engineering car (the 13th example numbered 0), is something of a rigmarole, but it’s a dependable process, so click the electrics and ignition on, clunk both magneto switches down, fuel pump on, press the big black wooden-button starter and with a gentle whirr, the fires light and a grey puff of hydrocarbons blows back across the tonneau.
Push down on the heavy clutch, slide the blade-type gear lever into first and feel the gears mesh. The centre throttle isn’t the last word in progression and if you’ve got feet the size of mine, you have to blip the throttle with the side of your foot, but unlike the team car which has moderate boost in respect of its age, this one has the full-fat 245bhp at 3,200rpm, so it leaps away from the standstill, with the exhaust bellowing and the supercharger whining.
It’s difficult to guess, but I reckon if you were carefree with the clutch linings, it would probably manage zero-to-60mph in about 12 seconds.
Driving any vintage Bentley is a fierce work out for the shoulders and upper arms, nor indeed, something which you should undertake lightly, especially when you add in the vestigial drum brakes, that centre throttle with the clutch left and brake right (it’s not quite as bad as it seems), the high driving position and 1.8-tonne weight, along with the Bentley Type D gearbox, a device supremely untroubled by any sort of synchromesh.
So, the steering is heavy at low speeds and you need to heave on the flexible wheel, or get the car moving slowly before you do any direction changes. Speed up and it gets lighter and has a lovely balance, but there’s still an undeniable impression of a runaway train. Up into third and the Blower really starts to move. It’s not the instant torque we’re becoming used to from battery-electric cars, but a fierce shove in the back nevertheless.
In the cold weather of the test day, the 21-inch narrow Blockley tyres take a while to warm up and with a full tank in the back, the old/new Bentley feels tail happy. It’s predictable up to a point, but there’s value, rarity and that massive supercharger in the front, which leaves you wondering at just what point tail happy becomes spin happy and thinking you’d rather not go there.
At £1.5 million each, Bentley has sold all 12, but who to? Ben Linde, the charming project manager says most of the new owners are well acquainted with vintage cars, but one in particular has only ever owned modern exotica, which you don’t have to climb in from the passenger side, having a care the gear lever doesn’t slide up your trouser leg, get oil stains on your fashionable trainers from the leaking dashboard drip indicators, or have your brain frozen over lapping at high speed in a sub-zero blast.
“We’re giving him driving lessons,” says Linde with a grin. “We’ve also reprinted the original driver’s handbook and we’re managing expectations from those more used to moderns; these are very high-maintenance vehicles…”.
And while these cars are superbly engineered, they pass diddly squat in terms of modern crash safety, type approval and emissions, and that means they will never be allowed out on the public road, which is the very essence of the enjoyment of these remarkable machines. The other thing is that the £1.5 million purchase price would buy you a tyred 4½ litre Bentley and a professional restoration/conversion into a Birkin replica, which you could then drive on the public road.
All vintage Bentleys are brilliant things and this nut-and-bolt replica is as well. And Bentley has been honest and straightforward in the project, crediting the specialists and making a great job of the lesser stuff (the interior for example), which it did in house. There are plans afoot for a series of 6½ litre continuation cars as well, but those won’t be allowed on the road, either, so they’ll also be a rich man’s plaything.
Should we be glad Bentley did it? I’m marginally on the side of yes. It shows a dogged spirit and a skill set, as well as being remarkable devices in their own right, but not everyone agrees and Bentley needs to tread carefully here. Amazing tribute to Birkin’s skill and bravery as this car undoubtedly is, it also tantalisingly reminds its owners what they can’t do with it and that would be like a pantomime curse (owning one of the world’s most desirable cars but not being allowed to drive it anywhere).
I don’t know about you, but that would be almost too much to bear.