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Lot 34: Bentley 4.5 Litre 'Le Mans' Tourer

Collectors Motor Cars, H&H Sales Limited (21 September 2011)


The Bentley 3-Litre's reputation for performance had been hard won but by 1926 an increasing number of rivals were fielding machines with a similar turn of speed. Eager to reassert its superiority whilst simultaneously conscious that customers were opting for ever heavier and more elaborate coachwork, the Cricklewood marque began work on a more potent four-cylinder design. Christened the 4�-Litre, the incoming model utilised the proven chassis frame, transmission, brakes and sundry other components of the 3-Litre but allied them to a new engine derived from that of the flagship six-cylinder 6�-Litre. Sharing the same bore and stroke dimensions as its larger sibling (100mm x 140mm) but retaining the 3-Litre's shaft-and-helical camshaft drive not to mention Bentley's fixed-head architecture and four-valves-per-cylinder layout, the resultant 4� Litre unit (4398cc) yielded plentiful power and torque plus the wonderful 'bloody thump' engine note for which the company's four-cylinder cars were renowned. Progressively developed over its four-year production run (1927-1931), the model gained a plate (rather than cone) clutch, more efficient front brakes and a heavy crankshaft etc. Of the 669 Bentley 4� Litre chassis made all but nine of them reputedly sat on the 10ft 10in wheelbase (the others being special order variants on a shorter 9ft 9�in frame).

According to Clare Hay's authoritative tome 'Bentley The Vintage Years 1919 - 1931', Captain Woolf Barnato is known to have been the original owner of just two normally aspirated 4� Litre cars. The first - chassis ST3001 (or 'Old Mother Gun' as the Works nicknamed it) - was used by Frank Clement and Leslie Callingham to set the fastest lap at the 1927 Le Mans 24-hours before becoming embroiled in the infamous 'White House Crash' multiple pile-up, while the second - chassis NX3457 - is the car now on offer. An accompanying copy of the Bentley's factory maintenance record shows that it was built with 'Glacier lined steel shells fitted to conrods' and 'Vanden Plas Sports 4-seater - Our Own Body'. The numbers of its original engine and C-type gearbox are noted as NX3459 and 6545 respectively. The same document reveals that the 4� Litre had '4 new Dunlop Fort Covers Fitted' during September 1929 and its clutch changed the following month. The guarantee for chassis NX3457 was transferred in November 1929 which was presumably when Barnato ceased to own it (the mileage covered during his stewardship being an indicated 9,860 or more).

The Bentley's next keeper is noted as Colonel J.F. Neilson of Pear Tree Cottage, Woodbridge, Suffolk and while we have been unable to establish whether they were one in the same person another Colonel J.F. Neilson acted as liaison to the newly formed Bolshevik army during World War One. Thereafter, the 4� Litre is known to have belonged to - or passed through the hands of - Jack Barclay Ltd of Hanover Square W1, Walsh & Gillson Ltd of Bruton Place W1, Sir John Donaldson Hudson of the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool (a partner in John Logie Baird Ltd), J. Rudd Esq of 'Arcadia', Bramhope, R. Taylor & Co Ltd of Lozells, Birmingham, William Landless Esq. of 'Norwood', Rossendale, James Bown Esq. of Stockport, Harry Faulkner Esq. of Stockport, Malcolm Holt Esq. of Cheadle Hulme, John James Pennington Esq of Gatley, Reg Parker of Nuneaton, William Loughran, Mr Whittaker (Isle of Man) and William Loughran again prior to being purchased by Mr Litchfield during August 1998.

Extensively restored by John James Pennington during the 1960s, chassis NX3457 was treated to a second thorough refurbishment some two decades later. Commissioned and overseen by Reg Parker, this more recent work included a mechanical overhaul by Wiltshire-based marque specialist Tony Townsend and the fitting of a new Vanden Plas-style 'Le Mans' body by H&H Coachworks of Henley, Oxfordshire. Pleasingly retaining its original registration number 'GU 1927' (issued during March 1929), the Bentley has covered a mere 400 or so miles over the past thirteen years. The subject of a recent inspection by Benjafield's Club Member and marque enthusiast Philip Strickland some of his findings are outlined below:

ENGINE: It appears to be fitted with its original pattern block, but it was not possible to define the bore and thus the cubic capacity. I could not discern a block number. It felt like a very sound 4.5 litre when being driven, so I had no reason to doubt that it remains to the original internal dimensions (subject to usual wear and tear). Crankcase is original. Smiths starter of original pattern. Original cross shaft housing. Magnetos of original pattern. Desirable twin SU sloper carburettors original to inlet manifold but which itself may not however be original to this engine. (Note: - Pull off spring and bracket for choke mechanism missing). Original pattern flywheel and plate clutch assembly with clutch stop. The radiator has the correct and possibly original Gallay Core. The steering column number is NX3457 and is original to the car. Non original petrol feed piping (adapted for electric fuel pump) but original Autovac still piped and available. Correct water pump. Original pattern cast exhaust manifold.

CHASSIS: This 10 feet 10 inch wheelbase frame has the correct numbering in the right positions and appears to be totally original, with side rail stringers retained, being an average of 0.188mm or 3/16th inches thickness (correct). Some 230 of these frames were delivered with varying body styles. I was happy to confirm the chassis number, engine number and stampings on the bonnet were all correct and apparently original. The Front axle appears to be original and the correct numbering could just be made out under the paintwork. The car also sports the advanced and desirable self-wrapping front brakes. I was not able to verify the rear axle number, or the ratio fitted, but it again appeared to be correct original pattern.

GEARBOX: I was unable to confirm if the gearbox fitted was original to the car but it is of the correct "C" type and was a delight to operate.

DRIVING: I had a very brief run, but was able to engage top gear and reverse the car. Steering, brakes, gearbox, clutch stop and general ride good in all areas. It had no apparent vices. Oil pressure was good.

It is highly improbable that Woolf Barnato ever used chassis NX3457 for competition. After all as Bentley's then owner he had ready access to all sorts of specialised Works machinery. Notable as the only driver ever to win the Le Mans 24-hours at each of his three attempts, the multi-millionaire's sporting accomplishments were the stuff of legend. Arguably the most important of the legendary 'Bentley Boys', Barnato's wealth not only allowed the Cricklewood firm to compete at International level long after it would otherwise have folded but also funded the development of the 8-Litre and 'Blower' models. With its matching chassis and engine numbers and wonderful provenance, we believe 'GU 1927' to be the most important 4�-Litre to come to auction in recent years.

PLEASE NOTE: This vehicle has an MOT until Sept 2012.

Lot Details
Auction Collectors Motor Cars
H&H Sales Limited, The Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Lot Number34
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price-
Hammer Price (inc premium)£528000
Condition rating0
Registration numberGU 1927
Chassis numberNX 3457
Engine numberNX 3459
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors