Among all Brooklands habitués of the 1920–30s, perhaps the most glamorous and charismatic of all the historic motor course’s racing celebrities was the diminutive Bentley-driving Baronet, Sir Henry Ralph Stanley “Tim” Birkin. He combined his “Bentley Boy” high-society image with a fearless driving talent. With fellow enthusiast/racer Mike Couper, Birkin & Couper Ltd was established at Welwyn, where it produced the prototype 4½ Litre “Blower” Bentley in the summer of 1929. W.O. Bentley recalled: “They would lack in their preparation all the experience we had built up in (our own) racing department over 10 years. I feared the worst and looked forward to their first appearance with anxiety....” Birkin ran his prototype tourer-bodied car in the Brooklands 6-Hour race on June 29, 1929. The car retired. In the RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards in Ulster, Bernard Rubin’s “Blower” overturned while Birkin, who had challenged W.O. to act as his riding mechanic (the marque’s founder accepting), placed a worthy second overall and won his class. W.O. summed it up as follows: “The supercharged 4½ never won a race, suffered a never-ending series of mechanical failures, brought the marque Bentley disrepute and incidentally cost Dorothy Paget a large sum before she decided to withdraw her support in October 1930...” The assertion that the “Blower” Bentley never won a race is wrong. The car offered here is the exception. At the Birkin & Couper Ltd Works in Welwyn, this special track-racing “Blower” Bentley was developed. In its 1930 form, with Villiers’ supercharger driven from the crankshaft nose and inhaling through two huge horizontal SU carburetors, the car’s engine developed some 240 horsepower on alcohol fuel mix, some 65 horsepower more than a standard “Blower” Bentley on petrol. The first Brooklands Meeting of 1930 saw Birkin taking second place in the three-lap Kent Short Handicap race. His flying lap was clocked at 123.89 mph. He then contested the meeting’s Surrey Short Handicap, setting fastest lap at 124.51 mph. In the four-lap Kent Long Handicap, Birkin then won by one second at a 119.13 mph average, and setting fastest lap at 126.73 mph. This was the first race victory ever achieved by a “Blower” Bentley. Brooklands’ Easter meeting then saw Birkin campaign his single-seater before a crowd of 20,000, easily winning the Bedford Short Handicap at 117.81 mph. In the BRDC 500 Miles on October 4, 1930, a front tire burst at top speed during practice, which both car and driver survived despite “some astonishing subsequent gyrations.” Dorothy Paget withdrew her backing from the “Blower” Bentley endurance racing team but retained the successful single-seater. The BARC Whitsun Meeting in 1931 saw the great car’s return to Brooklands, but again Birkin’s best efforts with it were overshadowed, as it lapped at a best of 128.69 mph in the Gold Star Handicap, then 131.06 mph in the Somerset Senior Long before retiring. For 1932, the single-seater was resprayed red in place of its original blue, and its engine was re-bored to 100.5 mm, providing a capacity of 4,442 cc. The new season opened on Easter Monday, but four days prior to that meeting, Birkin attacked the Kay Don Outer Circuit lap record and broke it at last — raising the mark to 137.96 mph. Birkin died in 1933 at the age of 36 after contracting septicemia from burning his arm on the exhaust while racing a Maserati in Italy. Dorothy Paget retained the single-seater until 1939, resisting all offers from would-be buyers until Bentley enthusiast Peter Robertson-Rodger blew up the engine of his ex-Birkin French GP “Blower” at Donington Park, and he charmed her into selling him the track car, so he could use its engine in the sister Birkin car. Then came World War II. The number one “Blower” engine was then returned to the single-seater, which Robertson-Rodger decided to convert into a two-seat roadster. The project was finally completed in the late 1940s using a two-seat body designed by Robertson-Rodger and made by Chalmers of Redhill. Bentley specialist and VSCC luminary John Morley subsequently worked on the great car, and when Peter Robertson-Rodger died in 1958, he bequeathed the single-seater in his will to Morley. Meanwhile, boyhood Birkin fan and Bentley enthusiast “Rusty” Russ-Turner heard the car was for sale and bought it, with the single-seat body included in the deal. After Russ-Turner’s death, George Daniels was lucky enough to acquire it, and it is now offered here as a machine with a unique place in racing history. The Bentley comes with road equipment including wings, an extensive history file including correspondence, road-registration documents and large-format photo album.  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1929 Bentley 4½ Litre
Years Produced:1929
Number Produced:1
Original List Price:Immeasurable
Tune Up Cost:$2,000
Chassis Number Location:Engine compartment firewall
Engine Number Location:Stamped on engine bearer, blower number on front of blower
Club Info:Bentley Drivers Club

This car, Lot 204, sold for $7,867,190, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Goodwood Festival of Speed sale on June 29, 2012.

Now this is a proper old bit of British tackle, from an age when drivers and cars were truly heroic, and is the exception to the W.O. Bentley rule that “the supercharged 4½ never won a race.”

The Paget/Bentley/racing story is a bit confuddled, but the basic consensus is that Paget was extremely wealthy and decided to invest in motor racing after having been a horse-racing backer. The racing world has traditionally gritted its teeth and put up with wealthy backers.

So, when Sir Henry Birkin, Bt (baronets inherit their title) wanted to go racing, and furthermore decided on a blown Bentley, of which its designer disapproved, it must have been a match made in heaven — or at least the concrete of Brooklands.

Birkin was a physically slight man. Brooklands is famously — and terrifyingly at high speeds — bumpy. Yet he managed to wrest 137 mph from this beast, sometimes with wheels off the floor.

You had to turn left or you’d slide over the top of the banking — into what’s now a housing estate. Many have been the times I have stood halfway up the curve of what’s left (about 300 yards) and wondered quite how they did it. It’s a haunting moment, and if ever you are in the U.K., I advise you strongly to make the trip to Weybridge, see the wonderful museum, wallow in history and then go and stand there yourself. Yes, there’s a sign there saying you shouldn’t, but these moments have to be snatched.

Same as it ever was

Still wearing the Villiers blower “No 1,” this car is roughly as Birkin got out of it, save now for a token speedo mounted in the left side of the cockpit to satisfy U.K. law (although the Isle of Man, where Daniels lived, is not part of the U.K., it forms part of the British Isles).

You might particularly enjoy the earlier speed estimation device, as speeds were marked on the rev-counter in top, based on 36 mph per 1,000 rpm. Doing the math, that is 126 mph at 3,500, 144 at 4,000 and a projected 160 mph at 4,500, although the upper figure was rather hopeful as the rev limit was set at 4,000 rpm.

“It can get very expensive around there,” said one-time owner Rusty Russ-Turner. Later he suffered a fatal heart attack at Silverstone while racing the car, after which it was acquired by George Daniels.

Robert Coucher, editor at large of Octane, got a chance to sample it at Goodwood and said, “The supercharged 4½ starts lazily and immediately emits that wonderful ‘bloody thump’ from its fintail exhaust: deep, mellow, typical of a large-capacity 4-cylinder engine running on low compression. The throttle pedal is located centrally, and just feathering it elicits an instant response from this lusty engine. On the move, the Bentley belies its lorry-like dimensions and is fast but well-behaved. The engine spins with verve (it was heavily reworked in its day), the big carbs suck hungrily and the blower provides instant torque. The chassis is composed and the ride is surprisingly comfortable, while the brakes are strong and reassuring.”

But the Birkin is no short-track sprinter. It is set up to crack 137.96 mph on the outer circuit at Brooklands. Rather “Tiger Tim” than me.

Price no object for provenance

This is a fairly unmodified piece of history, saved thanks to the patronage of watchmaker Daniels, who loved his 4½s, and it’s unrepeatable.

The price paid is almost irrelevant, as it was to the anonymous bidder who bought it on the phone, raising the bar from the opening suggestion of £1.8 ($2.8m) to £3m ($4.7m) in one go, and then, when the underbidder timidly suggested another £100,000 ($156,000), steamrollered back with a £3.5m ($5.5m) answering bid. At just over £4m ($6.2m), he responded with a £4.5m ($7m) punt, which blew away the opposition and secured the car. Well — and stylishly —bought indeed.

There’s nothing with which to properly compare it, except perhaps the original “Mother Gun” 1927 Le Mans runner (retired after an accident), which is also now a single-seater, or YW2557, the 4½ Litre Le Mans that finished third at Le Mans in 1929 and is coming up with Gooding & Co. on August 18, 2012, at Pebble Beach with an estimate of $5.5m–7.5m. The last “real” Blower not to sell at auction, five years ago in Geneva, was asking $4.25m, and this car easily surpassed that.

The money was always going to be huge, and, once past the number that the market felt would have fairly bought it, what’s another million between determined collectors? The main issue is: May we please see it run some more? ?


(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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