Watching Formula One Champion Phil Hill tinker with the handbrake assembly on a 1929 Bentley three-liter open tourer was like being at a rehearsal in Manhattan while modern dance choreographer Martha Graham fine-tuned her ballets. Graham had an instinctive understanding of how to put a dance together for maximum artistic and intellectual effect. Hill, after a lifetime devoted to racing and restoring motorcars, can tell after a moment behind the wheel what a car needs to put it right.
Bentley Motors Limited invited a group of journalists to Knoxville, Tennessee to drive their new four-door Arnage Red Label and two-door Continental R, along with four vintage Bentleys. The Bentley saga is an unusual one. After a brief and glorious history, which included five outright victories at Le Mans, they were taken over by Rolls-Royce in 1931. For the last seventy years, Bentleys, with the exception of the R- and S-type Continentals of the '50s, have been a slightly more powerful, but essentially rebadged version of a Rolls.
Now, with their purchase by VW, the stage is set for Bentley to become a world-class, performance luxury car in its own right. No other marque has ever re-emerged from the obscurity of badge engineering. With the resources and corporate willpower of VW behind it, Bentley seems poised to set a precedent.
While new cars are not the focus of SCM, we were pleasantly surprised by the competent road manners of the Bentley Arnage Red Label. Far more nimble than its 5,556-lb. bulk would suggest, the 400 horsepower and 619 lb-ft. of torque generated by the 6.75-liter V8 was enough to leave one good ol' boy, who challenged us in his two-tone (primer and Rustoleum) '57 Chevy, behind in a cloud of expensive, $209,000 Arnage dust.
Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars President and CEO for the Americas, the young and enthusiastic Alasdair Stewart, is a man on a mission. His years at Toyota will serve him in good stead if he can bring a Japanese attention to detail and quality to a company that already excels in taste, performance and class.
As for the vintage cars, only my long years as a dancer prepared me for the intricate foot and handwork necessary to drive a center-throttle, right-drive, outside hand-brake 1929 three-liter open tourer through the winding roads of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
The additional Bentleys we sampled included a 1928 4.5-liter fitted with Le Mans replica coachwork, a 1927 Speed Six and a built-up 1926 "hot rod" bored out to seven liters with coachwork by Markham of Reading. Most satisfying was the Speed Six, which pulled like a locomotive in top gear, and cruised easily at 80 mph. The 4.5- and 6.5-liter cars were brought by Nic and Birte Moller, the 3- and 7-liter by Dr. Paul and Barbara Sydlowski.
At each stop, Hill would walk around the old Bentleys, finding a protruding fender bolt that was eating into tire tread, making suggestions about front steering caster, or suggesting improvements to pedal layout. His calm, thoughtful manner brought memories of a top-flight trainer examining a stable of racehorses, gently running his hand down their flanks, and finding those small things that might be done to allow them to perform better.
The group included Automobile founder David E. Davis, Car and Driver Editor-at-Large Brock Yates, and AutoWeek Senior Contributing Editor Denise McCluggage, among others. At night, over brandy, Hill, Davis, Yates and McCluggage reminisced about their lives spent in automobiles. Much of the conversation revolved around the tragedies that took so many young drivers; for instance, Hill was making a driver change in the pits at Le Mans when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes hurtled disastrously into the stands, killing himself and more than eighty spectators. Hill and McCluggage recalled Lou Brero Sr.'s Chevrolet-powered Maserati competing in Hawaii, and a broken halfshaft splitting the gas tank. "Poor Lou tried to put on the brakes, and the instant he did, the gasoline just blew up and covered everything in flames," recalled Hill. "He asked me for a cigarette," said McCluggage, "as they slid him, lungs already fatally charred, into the ambulance." She did as he wished. He died hours later.
In the surreal auction arena, where vintage racing cars restored beyond perfection change hands for millions of dollars, it is easy to forget the sweat and blood expended by the drivers that piloted them to victory. Hill, McCluggage, Davis and Yates have observed and lived through many of these thrilling and sometimes nightmarish times. Would that they could find the time to collaborate on a memoir, sharing their thoughts from different perspectives, so that their memories are not lost to time. (Additional photos of the Bentley Grand Tour on page 83.)
PT TO PARIS
At the recently completed Louis Vuitton Concours in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, I had the honor of serving as a judge, helping to select four cars for special awards given by primary sponsor Chrysler. A specially outfitted, one-off "Louis Vuitton Edition" PT was auctioned at the Saturday dinner for participants. It brought $110,000, the proceeds going to benefit charity.
Ms. Banzer, daughter Alexandra and I will be in Paris next week, driving a PT Cruiser, but one without the Vuitton livery. We'll be visiting subscribers and vendors in France, while discovering just how well America's latest automotive homage to the past, the PT, plays out in the land of baguettes and Bordeaux.
ON THE COVER
We see Peter Collins, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss on this month's cover, creating a high-speed traffic jam through the Gasworks Hairpin on the opening lap of the 1957 Grand Prix de Monaco. Fangio, piloting #32, a six-cylinder Maserati 250F (S/N 2528) with a special lightweight chassis, went on to win the race.
The painting is by English artist Peter Hearsey, a six-year exhibitor with AFAS at Pebble Beach. Hearsey, after many years of working as an illustrator in London, moved to the Isle of Man where he has been painting now for over twenty years. In the UK, he is best-known as having produced the poster image for the Goodwood Festival of Speed since the event's inception in 1993.
The original of "F1 Battle at Monaco" is available. It is 24 x 28 inches, oil on canvas. A limited number of prints, made by the Giglee process of continuous tone printing, may be commissioned in the future. Contact the artist directly at (44) 1624 611755, fax (44) 1624 611754 (England.)