W.O. Bentley proudly showed the new 3 Litre car bearing his name on Stand 126 at the 1919 Olympia Motor Exhibition, the prototype engine having fired up for the first time just a few weeks earlier. In only mildly developed form, this was the model that was to become a legend in motor racing history and which, with its leather-strapped bonnet, classical radiator design and British Racing Green livery has become the archetypal vintage sports car.

For the demanding motorist who demanded something extra, Bentley offered the sensational 100 mph Supersports model from 1925 to 1927. Only 18 examples were built, of which 17 were on the short, 9-foot wheelbase, the other on the Standard Speed model 9-foot, 9½-inch wheelbase. The Supersports model was instantly recognized by the distinctive green-label tapered radiator. Bentley unashamedly claimed the Supersports to be capable of the magic 100 mph.

Chassis 1161, on the short 9-foot wheelbase, was first registered in July 1925 with London County Council, its recorded first owner being one J.B. Stennett of The Laurels, Winchmore Hill. The original body style is not recorded, although there can be little doubt that it would have been of a sporting nature in view of the high-speed chassis specification. The guarantee period for the Supersports model was just one year, (all others had five years), and the service records for this car quote an expiration date of July 31, 1926. Curiously, the first entry for any service work is for 1929. Lt. Col. Peter Gillett owned the car in 1949 before selling it that year to Lt. Col. Hugh Widdington-Moor. D J Haley owned the car in 1950, W. Main of Fitton was the recorded owner in 1951 and Jim Howarth of Burnley acquired it in 1966.

Interestingly, BDC records state that when in Haley’s ownership, the car was fitted with engine number 72, which further research shows came from chassis number 68, the first owner of which was the aforementioned J.B. Stennett. Michael Hay’s standard work Bentley – The Vintage Years records that at some stage, 1161 was fitted with a 4½ Litre engine, and the engine now fitted, number 546, comes from chassis number 540. The original engine from 1161, engine number 1145, is recorded by Hay as surviving and in chassis number 609.

It was Jim Howarth who constructed the present coachwork in 1987, creating a car in true Brooklands style, following photographic research of similar competition model Bentleys and other cars.

The coachwork is superbly liveried in dark British Racing Green, and the interior is trimmed in black leather with matching black carpets. Driving equipment includes Lucas King of the Road head and side lamps, CAV rear lamps — including flashing indicators and brake lights as a concession to road safety — André Hartford shock absorbers, the luxury of front-wheel brakes, quick-fill-and-release petrol cap and gloriously resounding fishtail exhaust.
Surviving examples of the Supersports model are rare indeed and are highly prized in Bentley circles, where their performance potential is seriously respected.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1925 Bentley 3 Litre Speed Model Supersports
Number Produced:18 Speed Model Supersports
Original List Price:$7,601
Chassis Number Location:Front cross member, right knuckle of front dumb-iron and ignition plate

This car, Lot 432, sold for $601,000, including buyer’s premium, at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Sale on August 18, 2011, in Carmel, CA.

This Bentley and the price it made, despite having a non-original-to-the-car engine, gearbox and body, demonstrates the enduring appeal and market value of 3 Litres.

This is a rare car. In 1925, to meet demand for something even more exciting to drive than the then-current “Red Badge” Speed Model, the Supersports 100-mph model was developed. The “B” badge background was green, and the radiator was tapered at the base like the Standard 6½ Litre.

Most of the bodies built on these few chassis were two-seaters. However, one four-seater body was built to comply with Le Mans regulations. That car ran in the 1926 Le Mans race, along with two other 3 Litre, non-SS Speed models. The Supersports model did not finish. Two hours into the race, it experienced valve “stretch” because of over-revving.

One of 18 Bentley Supersports

Eighteen Supersports cars were built, this chassis included, all derived from the Bentley 3 Litre Speed Model. (They were identified on Works drawings as the “SS” until that abbreviation was negatively associated with Nazi Germany during World War II. At that time, the “SS” was replaced on company documents with “100,” which indicated that the cars were capable of 100 mph.)

To reach 100 mph, assuming the car was fitted with its standard rear axle, and 21-inch wheels, the tachometer would have read 3,900 rpm —far exceeding the factory 3,500 rpm redline. Perhaps that’s why the “SS” model carried a one-year factory warranty — not the five-year warranty offered on other 3 Litre cars. We can easily understand why the Le Mans car failed, as it must have exceeded the redline for several hours. It’s remarkable it held up as long as it did.

W.O. Bentley claimed to have lapped Montlhéry, outside Paris, in a 3 Litre at 105 mph, but we assume he wasn’t overly concerned with warranty issues. Anxious to ensure the car that carried his name was as good as it could be, he usually drove a different bare chassis home every evening, as part of his obsession with quality control.

He loved the 3 Litre, not only because it provided early success for his new car company, but because the last one produced by the old Works provided him with twelve years of enjoyable motoring, long after his beloved Bentley marque was acquired by Rolls-Royce Motors in 1931.

Many 3 Litre survivors

About half of all Bentley cars produced under W. O. Bentley’s management (1921-1931) were 4-cylinder, 3 Litre models. Fortunately, most vintage Bentley cars have survived in respectable condition, as this particular car has, albeit with swapped engine, gearbox and a new body.

Many Bentley enthusiasts claim the 3 Litre cars are the most fun to drive, as they are lighter than the later 6-cylinder, 6½ Litre and 8 Litre cars. On January 24, 1920, The Autocar magazine published their first road test review, which was titled “A Car Which combines Docility in Traffic with Exceptional Speed Potentiality on the Open Road.”

Some of the early, longer-wheelbase 3 Litre cars can be a little less bright, but they can still reach comfortable cruising speeds in the 60 mph range. We can’t help, in energy-conscious 2011, but wonder what fuel consumption was for these early sporting cars. Autocar was interested in these numbers as well, and routinely conducted their own testing as new cars were introduced in England. The testers reported the 3 Litre Bentley’s mileage as 22 to 25 miles per gallon.

If the original A gearbox is still fitted to 1161, the new owner will find changing gears to be quite manageable, compared with other cars of the era. The A and D gearboxes are the ones most often preferred in vintage Bentleys. Some prospective buyers will not purchase a car if it’s fitted with one of the dreaded wide-ratio B gearboxes.

What was once considered by some to be a cult car, the vintage Bentley, with its distinctive exhaust “burble,” has in recent years become the car to have to complete a balanced pre-war British motor car collection.

Changes — done right — not a deal killer

The recently updated mid-year 2011 Sports Car Market Pocket Price Guide lists the value of a 3 Litre Speed Model Supersports from $400,000 to $575,000. Therefore, this car was very well sold. However, in this same condition, with original coachwork, it could have easily brought a million dollars or more.
As evidenced by this car’s respectable auction price, a vintage Bentley’s value is not completely damaged if it has been correctly re-bodied. (Bentley did not construct bodies for the 3 Litre, or any other model, until after World War II.)

If a buyer chose a chassis-only purchase, the Works would agree to deliver it only to a limited list of coachbuilders who adhered to the detailed instructions issued by the company.

During body construction, Bentley sent a representative to the coachbuilder each week to ensure that all was being built to the highest standard. Upon completion, the car was sent back to Bentley for final testing before it was delivered to its new owner.

Regardless of the quality of the original coachwork, these cars were usually driven hard and fast, often in adverse conditions on poor roads. Few original bodies remain intact today, 90 or so years later. If the original body is no longer usable, the car itself would not be usable — unless it got a new body.

The body isn’t the Bentley.

Therefore, when refitted with appropriately designed and well-constructed coachwork, as it would have been when new, no excuses need be made. The same is true if a correct period engine and gearbox are fitted. In the end, the chassis carries the identity of the car, and this is one of 18 factory-built Supersports.

It will be accepted and respected at any club or major concours event — and bring $600k at auction.

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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