Any Bentley motorcar built between the world wars is a majestic thing, looking as tough as a steam locomotive and redolent of endurance-racing history. But like anything, some rise above the rest for their unique features or provenance, or as in the case of the Bentley visited here, its original state of preservation.
The 100th anniversary of the founding of Bentley Motors was celebrated in a big way during Monterey Car Week, particularly by the two most-prestigious events, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and The Quail, a Motorsport Gathering.
Mighty pre-war Bentleys, such as supercharged “Blower Bentleys,” Le Mans champions, and grand limousines, were impressively numerous as Monterey became the center of the universe for marque fanatics. Quickly came the realization that nothing else has the massive presence of the great Bentleys.
Among them was an absolutely unique example of the rarely seen (and nearly unknown) Bentley 4-litre, which was W.O. Bentley’s briefly produced final model before the British automaker went into receivership and consequently was taken over by Rolls-Royce. It was the illustrious W.O.’s last Bentley design.
This 1931 4-litre 4-seat sports tourer is also quite remarkable because it is a wonderfully preserved original car, never restored, never repainted, running well and still looking amazingly crisp for an 88-year-old veteran. It was brought to The Quail by Terry Larson, the well-known Jaguar expert, collector and restorer from Mesa, Arizona.
Trim and sporty, the 4-litre was a standout even among the crowded field of pre-war Bentley’s shouldered side-to-side at The Quail Lodge and Golf Club in Carmel, California. Emphasizing the car’s originality and state of preservation, Larson laid out behind the car on a tartan plaid blanket its original tool roll and fitted luggage, plus some books and documents.
No one at Quail was surprised when Larson’s Bentley won the coveted FIVA award for best-preserved vehicle, a prize given by the Historic Vehicle Association.
“To get that award for the best-preserved car in the whole event is pretty special.” Larson said later from his Arizona home. “I wasn’t expecting anything. “
But there is no doubt that this Bentley is also pretty special, and deserving all the recognition it can get.
“I’ve never seen a car this old that’s this nice,” he said. “It’s almost 90 years old now. The fitted luggage is in incredible condition. The leather straps, none of them are broken. The original tonneau is in good shape. Even the clock works. It’s incredible.
“According to the experts, it could be the most original W.O. Bentley in the world.”
One of those experts was Clare Hay, a Bentley historian who examined the car and confirmed its originality and authenticity, compiling a 27-page report and declaring, “In general terms, I would say that this is about the most original and correct vintage Bentley that I’ve ever seen.”
For a Bentley, the originality is doubly amazing since these sporting models were so often rebodied and reconfigured during their working years that it’s an accepted thing that hardly raises a shrug among today’s specialists.
“Amazing just to have its original body, much less original paint,” Larson noted.
Aside from its originality, the model is notably unique. Very few 4-litre Bentleys were made before W.O. closed the company down, and just three of them are known to exist. They were the most-advanced cars, mechanically, that the company ever built, with an entirely new engine design.
“This was really their last hurrah, when they were trying to get into financial stability,” Larson said. “This car is actually the only open sports tourer 4-litre that W.O. Bentley made. It’s one of a kind.”
Larson said he knew the previous owner of the car for about 30 years before buying it last November, and he is only its fifth owner. It started out as a factory demonstrator car, then purchased by P.A.G. Phillips, the British heir to the Phillips Tobacco fortune, who owned it for 29 years, during which time it was meticulously maintained by his chauffer.
Phillips was a pilot who flew with the RAF during World War II, driving the car the entire time and occasionally lending it to his friend and fellow pilot, a decorated squadron leader named Peter Balean. Balean loved the car and, after the war, pressed Phillips for years to sell it to him, which he finally did in 1960.
Balean had the engine rebuilt at that time and, driving it sparingly, made every effort to continue its preservation. Prior to the engine rebuild, he actually contacted W.O. Bentley to ensure that the work would be done accurately – Balean had served during the war with W.O.’s brother.
In the car’s records is a handwritten personal letter from W.O. to Balean, which is an intriguing link between the car and its creator.
In 1989, he sold the car to Ronald Gray of Germany, who then passed it on to a new owner in the United States, Mark Smith, from whom Larson purchased it.
The car, now with just 86,000 miles on it, was in such good original condition when he got it, Larson said, that all he had to do was clean it up and make sure that its mechanical components were in working order.
“We just focused our attention on care and preservation of the car,” he said. “We went over the paint about 5 times with carnauba wax. I didn’t care about making it look really nice but to get some oil into the paint.”
Larson has driven the Bentley a few hundred miles since getting it, taking it on a side trip while in Monterey down Carmel Valley Road.
“It’s a fun car to drive, with a lot of personality,” he said. “It’s obviously been a pampered car.”
As well as being a Jaguar devotee, Larson has been a longtime a fan of preserved original cars, having several time-warp examples in his collection. He probably would not have been enticed by the Bentley, he said, except that it was such an exquisitely preserved example.
“If it wasn’t for the originality of the car, I probably wouldn’t have gone for it,” he said. “I’ve always loved original cars, even before it was fashionable. They attract a lot more attention than they did 15 years ago. I’m pleased that people are appreciating this kind of thing.
“It’s a lovely, lovely old car.”