|1926 Bentley 3 Litre Red Label Speed Model Tourer
|1,613 (513 Speed Models)
|Original List Price:
|$5,000 plus coachwork
|Tune Up Cost:
|Chassis Number Location:
|Plate on firewall and on front engine crossmember
|Engine Number Location:
|Stamped into engine bearer integral with crankcase
|Bentley Drivers Club
|1925–27 Vauxhall 30-98, 1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500, 1926–27 Bugatti Type 38
This car, Lot 243, sold for $372,734, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ RAF Museum sale at Hendon, London, U.K., on November 21, 2019.
It’s the W198 factor. Similar numbers of Bentley 3 Litres and 300SL Gullwings were made (1,613 to 1,400) and, just as we thought all of them must have been accounted for, another comes out of the woodwork.
These are highly prized engineering masterpieces of their time. As the catalog had it, “With characteristic humility ‘WO’ was constantly amazed by the enthusiasm of later generations for the products of Bentley Motors Limited, and it is testimony to the soundness of his engineering design skills that so many of his products have survived.”
Although Ettore Bugatti is famously supposed to have described them as “the fastest lorries in the world,” Bentleys were high-quality products — with performance that put them in the supercar league of their day.
Let’s take a look at the engine, a clean-sheet design. It’s “only” a 4-cylinder engine, but for good reason, as a big 4 is a friction-efficient division of capacity. Porsche adopted the same for its 944 and 968.
Four inclined valves per cylinder opened by an overhead camshaft were advanced for the 1920s. The light-alloy pistons were an aircraft-inspired innovation, and Bentley avoided head-gasket problems by doing without one (although it does mean dismantling the bottom half of the engine to get the valves out).
Rather than using a simple chain and sprockets to spin the camshaft, the 4-cylinder engines use a vertical shaft with bevel gears top and bottom. Bentley “Fours” won at Le Mans in 1924, 1927 and 1928.
By the way, on the “Sixes” (which won Le Mans in 1929 and 1930), the camshaft drive is poetry. In search of silence, Bentley used a version of J.G. Parry-Thomas’ elegant triple-crank system, where the eccentrics gently pull, rather than push their opposing partners, differential expansion being taken care of by stacks of spring washers, their delicate torquing balanced by oil damping.
It proved both quiet and reliable.
Military officers and great care
Just checking the car histories and the names of Bentley owners and drivers — such as legends Woolf Barnato (who owned Bentley from 1926 to 1931), Jack Dunfee, “Tim” Birkin and Sammy Davis — tells us that connoisseurs of fine automobiles have revered Bentleys all their lives. This, along with their high cost and build quality, helped ensure a high survival rate for the cars.
In the case of our subject car, former owner John Percy was one of the first RAF airmen whose life was saved by a parachute, when he successfully bailed out of his stricken Armstrong Whitworth Siskin fighter following a mid-air collision in 1930.
His RAF career culminated after World War II in service with the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE) in Paris.
The next owner was a major, at a time when these military titles carried some weight in British society, although the “Kensington Gardens Rally” sounds more like a concours event than any display of Le Mans-style heroics.
In any case, the car’s past owners, most of them military officers, lavished care on our subject car.
Hidden away for decades
Our subject car, along with two others in the sale, a 1934 “Derby” Bentley 3½ Litre open tourer by Vanden Plas, and a 1926 Rolls-Royce 20HP open tourer, had been in the possession of Parker Snyder of Ohio for almost 60 years.
Snyder had apparently used the 3 Litre for a couple of summers before putting it away in Bursville, while his wife used the Derby 3½. The Rolls-Royce had never been unpacked from its shipping crate.
Snyder died in 1994, and the cars remained in dry storage until early in 2019.
Although dusty, all three cars were in super, unmolested condition — although they need some fairly serious recommissioning before use.
These are tough, well-engineered old things and would need little more than a change of rubber seals and hoses plus fresh fuel and a battery before they would run again. New tires would be a must if you actually meant to drive them.
Our subject car
In the case of the 3 Litre, which was originally supplied in maroon with black wings, there was some paint damage on the right front mudguard, but the plating on the radiator shell and headlights remained good, and it looked identical to when it was pictured in 1932.
A sale room notice confirmed that the original engine, still fitted to the car, was supplied in Super Sport specification by the factory.
A long-standing member of the Rolls-Royce and Bentley community with a large collection of pre-war cars bought all three cars from the Bursville Collection in June 2019.
He told me he didn’t know much about them, and had been introduced to them by a sales agent acting for the deceased’s family. Confirming that they had been in storage for 50 years or more, he felt on reflection that he might have liked to keep this very original car.
The 3 Litre still wore its original U.K. registration, which is always nice to see, although technically it no longer belongs to the car, and the new owner will have to re-apply for the number. This is unlikely to be a problem unless the number has previously been traded and swapped to another vehicle, because DVLA does not generally reissue numbers it has already allocated.
This car is not well known in the English Bentley community, which had high hopes for its auction price, based on its originality.
Leading fettler and builder Neil Davies of Neil Davies Racing said, “I’m disappointed with the sale price; I’d hoped it was going to fetch £350k ($440k) all up, at least.”
So there you go. An unmolested “proper” car, long out of sight but previously owned by the right sort of chaps. The only surprise was that it didn’t sell for more, but these are straitened times. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)