In 12 short years, Bentley became one of Britain's most revered marques through its cars' technical sophistication and enviable record in long-distance racing events, including winning the Le Mans 24-hour race five times.
Designed by Walter Owen Bentley and his colleagues, the 3-Litre was the progenitor of the 4.5-, 6.5- and 8-Litre Bentleys. The 3-Litre combined several developments not previously seen in road-going cars, including an overhead camshaft driving four valves per cylinder, the first use of aluminum pistons in an automobile engine, pent-roof combustion chambers, dual magneto ignition and dual carburetors.
Despite these high-performance features, the 3-Litre was untemperamental in its operation and bulldog-tough in its durability. Indeed, Walter Owen Bentley's pioneer effort was so soundly engineered and ruggedly constructed that he was able to offer an unprecedented five-year guarantee with these cars.
Even before retail delivery of the 3-Litre began, it was establishing its enviable racing record, having won its first race at the famed Brooklands oval in May 1921. Le Mans victories followed in 1924 and 1927. The 1927 win was particularly notable because of S.C.H. "Sammy" Davis' epic run to first place after crashing heavily in his 3-liter team car at White House Corner.
World records held by the 3-Litre included 1,000 kilometers at 97.11 mph, 1,000 miles at 97.40 mph and 24 hours at 95.03 mph, all set in 1925 at Montlhery in France. In 1926 a streamlined 3-Litre returned to that course and set a record of 2,000 kilometers at 100.23 mph and 12 hours at 100.96 mph.
Carrying a guarantee of a 90-mph top speed straight from the showroom, the 3-Litre Speed Model had only 507 examples built from 1924 to 1929. They have proven to be the most "tweakable" of the 12 types of 3-Litres and are a great favorite today among vintage Bentley drivers, thanks to their splendid balance of high performance, ease of handling, timeless style and simplicity of maintenance.
The car offered here comes from an exemplary collection of sports and racing cars and was formerly owned by that great sportsman, race driver, sports-car constructor and car collector Briggs S. Cunningham.
While many Speed Model 3-Litres carried Vanden Plas coachwork, this body is one of three built by Vanden Plas in a striking boattail design, with a very clever top storage arrangement. The mahogany decking adds to the visual interest and elegance of the design, as does the unusual combination of brass and nickel brightwork.
While in the hands of a previous English owner in 1960, the car was involved in a road accident, which required replacement of the chassis with another authentic Speed Model unit. The original chassis number was DE1224.
It is equipped with the desirable Bentley "A" gearbox and proper SU "sloper" carburetors. All dashboard instruments appear to be original. The restoration, carried out before Cunningham bought the car, is now mellowed but still quite presentable in all areas, having had minimal road use in several decades but nonetheless maintained in road-ready condition.
With is delightful "dickey" seat, suitable for an adult or two small children, this handsome and unusual Bentley would make a pleasing addition to any collection of prewar vintage sports cars.
This car sold for $121,000, including buyer’s premium, at the RM Amelia Island auction on March 8, 2003.
It’s impossible for me to be impartial about 3-Litre Bentleys as I’ve owned one for 19 years now. A long-wheelbase “blue label,” it may not be as performance-oriented as the Speed Model but it exhibits all the robustness that made the 3-Litres such formidable challengers in long-distance racing events like Le Mans.
In fact, I’d venture that in their price and year range, there is no car that provides the same driving experience as a 3-Litre. It runs happily at today’s highway speeds, is as reliable as Big Ben, has the long-term value of gilt-edged bonds and possesses that scarce combination of speed, style, innovative engineering and prestige that very few marques have ever enjoyed.
At the Amelia auction, this Speed Model attracted more than a fair share of attention from collectors and dealers alike, and when the hammer finally fell it went to a West Coast vintage Bentley specialist who could already have sold it on by the time you read this.
If this car had a fault it was the paint scheme of medium brown and beige, which did nothing for its fundamentally very attractive style. Originally, the car was said to have sported woodgrain effect on its fenders. Further, the original woodgraining extended from the radiator back through the top part of the hood to the coach line at the top of the door, set off by a cream color on the body. Should a new owner decide to return the car to this appearance it would add considerably to its aesthetic appeal, in my opinion. I was also impressed by the top stowage arrangement devised by the coachbuilder. When folded down, it drops below the rear deck in a trap-door area. This adds considerably to the car’s low-slung appearance and sporting demeanor.
For such a good-looking early Bentley with a known pedigree (albeit on its second chassis by necessity), the selling price seemed a bit of a bargain. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the final price had been closer to $140,000, which is what I believe full-tilt retail is today for this exceptional car.-Dave Brownell