Bentley Specials

There is a long and honourable tradition of competition and touring using racing and roadgoing specials built from the excellent 1946-54 MkVI and R-type Bentleys. Ayrspeed continues this tradition in the authentic spirit. 

The next Ayrspeed MKVI Bentley special will take the concept one stage further, with proper hardcore pre-war suspension rather than disguised modern independent coil springs.    

HISTORY

The origin of this slew of occasionally magnificent specials is the standard Bentley sunroof. 

What?

The sunroof relied on a rubber pipe to drain rainwater down the MKVI B-post. The rubber pipe soon perished, which meant the steel B-post itself became the drain. Many MkVIs were rusted out and scrapped within a decade, purely due to body corrosion: the very hefty chassis takes many decades to rust. Apart from the crumbling bodywork, these Bentleys were still fine cars, and many people bought them for a fraction of their original price, scraped the rusty bodywork off and created strong, fast, hugely enjoyable cars with solid handling and a much improved torque-to-weight ratio.  

B357MB

B357MB, the 1950 4 ¼-litre MkVI special pictured here, is the first Ayrspeed Bentley special, built from a rescued MkVI sedan that had been raided for many bits and pieces to keep Vancouver RROC club cars going. 

The car’s original owner had ordered his Bentley in 1950 with no sunroof, so the body condition wasn’t too bad, but the projected cost of replacing door handles, switchgear, the wiper assembly and so on totalled $17,000 in secondhand parts, so the car was built into a a special. 

It was to be built with an ash wood and fabric Weymann-style touring body resembling the 1930s Blower Bentleys, but a spectacular Bugatti-shaped sidetrack presented itself in France a few years back. 

Iain reported on the excellent Circuit des Remparts vintage races at Angouleme in France for a magazine, and discovered that many of the Type 35 Bugattis racing there were brand new, convincingly patinated Argentinian fakes. Detecting which were lookalikes and which were real was a fascinating art history task, during which the beauty of the exquisite Type 35 bodywork imprinted itself on Iain’s soul. 

Would a big – Bentley-sized – version of that diminutive body translate into a huge and spectacular beauty? Scaling objects up changes everything to a dramatic extent, so there was no guarantee. Back in Vancouver, that idea appealed to Iain’s friend Rob Maynard, owner of RWMandCo.com.  Restoring other people’s high-end sculptural creations has its points, but creating your own is stimulating on an entirely different level. 

Rob and Iain spent most evenings for a couple of months obsessing over the design and execution of the new aluminium body for this Bentley, and finished it just before the 2018 All British Field Meet in Vancouver, where it as received with an encouraging fuss. 

The car was then featured in a story in the Flying Lady, the Rolls-Royce club magazine, inviting a new owner to take over and finish it, as Iain wanted to concentrate on the bigger Silver Wraith chassis and go back to the Weymann tourer idea for its body.

Fellow RROC member Al Levit read the story, fell in love with an earlier Art Deco sketch for a Rolls body in the story, and asked if he could buy the Rolls chassis with the Bentley body and commission Iain to have the car finished. 

This sounded like a fine idea. Ayrspeed came back to life to design and build new cars, and has been orchestrating that car for a year. 

The plan was to adapt the Bentley’s boat tail and most of its body to fit the longer Rolls chassis, but the big problem there was the angular Roman-temple Rolls grille. The original Wraith bonnet worked visually and remains with the car, but none of the rest of the body did. The Rolls grille dictates sharp lines and angles, and while the body does still have a boat tail, the Bentley’s tail was too round and soft to work. One by one, all the Bentley panels were replaced, as none of them suited the developing RR body. 

2019

As of now, the boat tail Bentley bodywork is scattered around the Ayrspeed workshops awaiting its reconstitution in some unknown future, while the chassis and mechanicals will become the prototype Ayrspeed Blower Bentley. 

Ayrspeed’s take on the Blower Bentleys will offer an interesting contrast to Racing Green, whose evocations of pre-war Bentleys on 1950s MkVI chassis are beautiful. Their display of gleaming quadruple SU carbs on the straight-eight Rolls-Royce B engine approaches a legitimate use of the word “awesome.” 

Their use of a standard MkVI chassis with its independent coil springs achieves smooth suspension and good handling, and avoids the need to deal with clerks and IVA testing required by any modifications to the chassis.   

In order not to be cursed with a “Q” kit car registration and number plate, the MkVI chassis sale in the UK. They would have to be built twice. The invoice would be awesome. For Brits, we suggest a chat with Racing Green. 

The Ayrspeed Bentley-special niche is even smaller than that of Racing Green, and the concept was inspired by a ride decades back with the noted Bentley restorer Dick Moss, in his own short-chassis prewar Bentley. 

This was a revelation: Dick’s Bentley was a brute. A magnificent, challenging, hardcore brute with minimal suspension, muscular grunt, a recalcitrant gearbox and an imperious demand for skilful, committed driving.   

Since then, a fairly nasty 1938 MG TA came and went in an acrimonious divorce – with the car, not the wife – but the MG’s crude beam axles and stiff cart springs brought back the magic of hardcore prewar authenticity and sent Ayrspeed in search of much worse suspension than that of the smooth, independently sprung 1950s Bentleys. 

Iron axles, leaf springs and friction shocks offer a rough ride, inadequate damping, skittering and drifting on rough roads. It’s all rather primitive – but in the most sublime way. 

If you want to drive rapidly on suspension design that is a hundred years old, it takes a mix of stubbornness and a willingness to learn, but balancing oversteer with power is the most enormous fun. Further experience of pre-war sports and racing cars including Bugattis, Astons and one particular ex-Le Mans Alfa Romeo has confirmed that. 

Controlled tyre slipping in corners is actually not as dangerous as it feels, because grip is low and the tyres begin to lose traction at quite low speeds in a controllable way. Up to a point. It’s literally drifting – technically a slow and crap way of getting round a corner, but as you can see from spectating at vintage races, it is the most enormous fun. 

To achieve authentic 1930s handling requires substantial alterations to the MkVI chassis to provide new structural forward beams for the spring hangers, cart springs and a beam axle adapted to the Bentley brakes and steering: a comprehensive rethink of the first four feet of the car.  

While cheerfully compromising the originality of the MkVI chassis, Ayrspeed prefers to retain the correct engine for each Bentley, where possible, and always the correct six-cylinder format.   The straight-eight armoured-car Rolls engine used by Racing Green is magnificent and powerful, but the 1940s straight six sings the perfect baritone blare when inadequately silenced. 

Ayrspeed Blower Bentley engines will also be supercharged. Not excessively, just at engine speed. We like the blower whine, we like the instant grunt, we like the big progressive mid-range push in the back and the controllable power to choose which end of the car we steer with. The 4¼ and 4½ litre MkVI engines have their design issues, but once sorted with new full-height cylinder liners they are tough, reliable and charismatic. Where matching engine numbers are not required, we like the 4.9 litre Bentley S/Silver Cloud straight six – the final, most powerful and most sorted development of the postwar Bentley sixes. 

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1 Mocked-up body is displayed at the Vancouver All British Field Meet. Exhausting day talking to everyone about it.

2 Tail end is brutish, could possibly be handsome, but not beautiful.

3 Excellent proportions, but it’s left the delicacy of the Bugatti body behind. 

4 Cockpit is roomy, with a comfortable seat height for long drives designed in: many Bentley specials are very uncomfortable due to flat floors and low seats.

5 The Bentley’s body is gone, and the mechanicals are being stripped out down to the bare rolling chassis. 

5a The bare Bentley rolling chassis. Very solid, very stiff, beautifully made from thick steel. 

6 Bulkheads are roughed up according to sketches: there are no formal drawings. The Bentley’s original bulkhead will be altered and used. 

7 Symmetrical plywood buck is constructed on which to build the boat tail top, a huge and technically demanding panel. 

8 Rob and Iain spent a long series of evenings making the panels. Here, the power hammer is beginning to create the curve on one side of the boat tail top.

9 Some of the curves are put there by pure muscle, introducing curves and then developing them in the machine. 

10 The second quarter of the four-piece boat tail top is taking shape now. 

11 The panel at the front of the car may have taken ages to make, but it’s just the wrong shape. The tip of it will be used at the bottom of the tail, but most of it is scrap. 

12 and 13 The Bentley is pushed out onto the Boundary Bay airport runway at the back of the RWM shop so we can get far enough away for a proper look at the car. 

14 The bonnet has to match the top of the softly curved Bentley grille shell – but it’s not a compound curve, just a slightly complex single curve. 

15 Clever work from Mr Maynard, suggesting chassis legs that don’t exist: it looks like a pre-war beam-axle Bentley but it’s an illusion. 

16 A neat touch, the driver’s wind deflector that would have a fold-flat Brooklands screen mounted on it.  

    

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