By 1926, Bentley saw a need for a new 4-cylinder model. Although a Le Mans winner, the 3 Litre was wanting in international competition, and the standard road cars suffered from increasingly heavy bodies. With the 6½ Litre in production, Bentley sought to combine the light chassis of the 3 Litre with the added power of a larger motor. The result was essentially a 3 Litre chassis with a cut-down, 4-cylinder version of the 6½-liter engine.
With a handful of 4½ Litre Team Cars at their disposal, the Bentley Boys quickly amassed Le Mans and Grand Prix finishes and victories. Although the Speed Six was the true victor at Le Mans for Bentley, it was Birkin’s respect for the 4½ Litre that led to the development of the Blower Bentley.
The 4½ was W.O.’s racing workhorse, but the production 4½ Litre was to be, in most cases, a luxury car fitted with saloon coachwork. For Bentley enthusiasts, the 4½ Litre was a racing car. Campaigned privately throughout Europe, the 4½ quickly gained a reputation for being the best-handling vintage Bentley with an exceptional power-to-weight ratio.
As Bentley’s preferred coachbuilder, Vanden Plas produced a standard Sports Tourer for the 4½ Litre. The fabric-bodied tourer with long wings was a handsome, sporting automobile and, with its lightweight construction, the 4½ proved a fast car. In addition to the standard coachwork, Vanden Plas built bodies to order, as is the case with KL3584. As with previous design 464, the body was to include a second cowling and screen, which was a body style used on a small number of Speed Six chassis. The front doors were fitted with roll-up windows — a rare and luxurious appointment in 1929. The body remained closed-coupled, enclosing the brake lever, with the coachwork ending directly over the rear axle.
Ordered through Kensington Moir and Straker Ltd., KL3584 was delivered new to Capt. P.R. Astley of Portland Place, London, in late 1929. Throughout his ownership, the car saw regular maintenance with Bentley Motors, accruing nearly 20,000 miles. In 1931, Astley wed stage actress Madeleine Carroll, and the 4½ was sold.
The second owner was A.M. Jones of North Kensington, London, and the Bentley continued to receive factory servicing. With approximately 25,000 miles on the odometer, the 4½ was sold to J.B. Stennett of The Laurels, near Winchmore Hill in England. Factory service records continue to note maintenance into 1938 without any major work or replacement of parts.
During World War II, the whereabouts of KL3584 remained unknown, although early post-war photographs show that it survived in London undamaged. Acquired by avid Bentley enthusiast H.J.K. “Tony” Townsend, KL3584 saw spirited use for 13 years, until it passed to Per Thorvaldson in Norway. Six years later, Philip Wichard of Glen Cove, Long Island, saw the car there during a trip to Europe, negotiated a deal, and by 1971, KL3584 was bound for America. With lasting restoration work dating from Mr. Townsend’s ownership, KL3584 needed little preparation before Wichard could show the car.
In its first major outing at the RROC National Meet in Newport Beach, CA, KL3584 was the first Bentley to win Best of Show at an RROC National Meet.
Seen here in a fitting dark green finish with impressive patina, KL3584 remains exceptionally original. The original frame and engine remain, as well as the original and desirable C-type gearbox. The 4½ has a proper appearance, both under the bonnet and in the driver’s seat. An original Vanden Plas body tag is mounted above the dash, as well as a plaque denoting its 1973 Best of Show.
With the growing status of pedigreed vintage Bentleys as collectible motorcars, KL3584 is a motorcar of great significance.
This car, Lot 33, sold for $2,145,000, including buyer’s premium, at Gooding & Company’s sale in Scottsdale, AZ, on January 20, 2012.
The first Bentley Motors Ltd. was founded in 1919, and between then and 1931, W.O. Bentley created the motor cars that became a legend. They are prized and treasured possessions almost a century later, something that would have surprised the intensely modest Walter Owen Bentley, but he also would have been very proud.
Replacing the Bentley 3 Litre, the 4½ is famous for epitomizing pre-war British motor racing and for its popular slogan: “There’s no replacement for displacement,” which W.O. created with victory at Le Mans the aim. A total of 720 4½ Litres were produced between 1927 and 1931, including 55 supercharged cars.
The Vanden Plas Vintage Bentley strikes an iconic image, recognizable the world over. For many, it’s the Vintage Le Mans car — don’t forget that Bentleys won the 24 Hours four times consecutively from 1927 to 1931. It made such an impact on writer Ian Fleming that he drove one, as did his alter ego James Bond in the first three 007 novels.
Very minor changes over time
When our subject car was sold new to Capt. Astley, the body was finished in black with painted lamps, and the car sported drop windows at the front — only two were built like this. Since the 1950s, the car has gained a better radiator mascot and a few extra badges and running-board toolboxes. The car has lost its central spot lamp, and the fake radiator louvers were fitted while in the ownership of Tony Thompson, presumably to give the car the appearance of an 8 Litre. Around the same time, the original headlamps were changed to Lucas P100s, painted black like the originals and fitted to the original Barker dipping system.
After 24 years of ownership, in 1995, our subject car was sold for $365,500 against an estimate of $270,000 to $300,000 when Christie’s disposed of the Wichard Collection in New York, making it as expensive as a Blower was then.
The buyer, Nicholas Springer of Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, kept the car for four years before selling it to German collector B. Fusting. In 1999, KL3584 received its FIVA Passport and was displayed at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este.
In 2003, the car was briefly sold to Christophe Grohe of Switzerland before returning to Germany in 2008, where it found a home with Uwe Kai on the Tegernsee outside Munich. In Kai’s ownership, the 4½ received some needed attention and regular maintenance. Receipts from 2005 to 2010 account for work, which included the installation of an overdrive for 4½ Litres. The overdrive is not original, but it’s invisible and reversible, although current thinking is that a taller diff ratio is a more elegant solution for Bentleys that need longer legs for modern traffic.
Climbing values for originality
Our subject car would be welcomed at any rally or concours with open arms, and the second cowl and collapsible rear screen make it a very adaptable and comfortable touring car.
In comparison with our subject car, the most recent public sale of a 4½ Litre car was at the H&H Auctions Buxton, U.K., sale in September 2011. This car was first owned by Woolf Barnato — but not with the original body, as the current Le Mans type body was fitted in the 1980s, although it was always in the style of Vanden Plas. It fetched $824,626, which was considered the right money.
But the real point here is the $2.1m paid for our subject car. That money comes from a collectors’ market that is increasingly willing to pay a premium for originality. Our subject car fetched way over its estimate of $1.2m to $1.5m, especially when a 50% premium over an average rebodied 4½ would have appeared fair.
Given that Bentley Motors habitually chopped and changed mechanical components, and that most vintage Bentleys have been rebodied at least once in their lives — usually with non-original, Vanden Plas-type replica bodies — this matching-numbers, original-body car is incredibly rare. That meant the seller could practically hold out for any price, secure in the knowledge that there would be a buyer for this important artifact. Extremely well sold, but only slightly less well bought. And in today’s era of enlightened collectors, we can safely assume this important artifact will be preserved, not (heaven forbid) restored.