The “Blower” Bentley is one of the most masculine, muscular and sporting motorcars ever built. While some companies hid their superchargers behind the radiator grille, the Bentley wears it right out front, and that statement alone says it all about the car and its creators. First shown at the 1929 London Motor Show, it was developed as a private venture by “Bentley Boy” Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin in order to extract more performance from the proven 4½ Litre model, which was becoming outclassed by its rivals on the racetracks of Europe. His aim was to produce a British car that would enable British drivers to continue to win races as spectacularly as the 4½ Litre that had won the 1928 Le Mans 24-Hour race. The supercharger installation was engineered by Amherst Villiers. W.O. Bentley never supported the development of the supercharged car, preferring to increase engine capacity, as evidenced by the 6½ and 8 Litre cars. W.O. did not hold the purse strings, however, and Bentley Motors built 50 production supercharged 4½ Litre Bentleys to support the homologation of five Birkin team cars. Birkin took 2nd place in the French Grand Prix at Pau with his supercharged 4½ Litre tourer amid a field of monoposto GP racers. When Birkin campaigned his Blower at Le Mans in 1930, his car retired after 138 laps and almost 20 hours of racing. But in an incredibly heroic effort, he passed the leading 7-liter supercharged Mercedes driven by Rudolf Caracciola on the Hunaudieres Straight. The pass at 125 mph shocked Caracciola and caused him to overstress the Mercedes engine in efforts to keep up with the Bentleys. This effort and the continual Bentley pressure caused the Mercedes to fail and withdraw from the race with a blown gasket. Birkin therefore eased the way for the Works Speed Six to win the marque’s final Le Mans victory until this century — on the way setting the fastest lap and breaking the lap record at 89.696 mph. Despite representing the epitome of “Boys Own” motoring and providing the heart and soul of the hobby, selling the requisite 50 cars that had needed to be built in the dire economic climate of the late 1920s proved hard work for Bentley Motors. As a result of this, not all were sporting tourers, and 17 were delivered as drophead coupes or closed saloon cars. In the words of recognized marque historian Dr. Clare Hay, MS3944 is a “rarity among rarities,” as it is one of only three of the 50 production supercharged Bentleys recorded on the factory build sheets as a Le Mans chassis — the others being SM3918 and MS3937. It was delivered to its first owner in the U.K. with a lightweight Le Mans-specification, 2-door, 4-seater Vanden Plas body, finished in gray, with gray leather. In 1932, the car passed to Garner & Lee of London, and then on to C.B. Myers of London’s Finchley Road. Service records note the cancellation of its guarantee: “Owner going to America.” Myers clearly moved to the U.S. and took his Blower with him. In 1938, it became the property of Canadian William K Johnson, of Winnipeg, for $500. By November that year, Johnson and some local friends decided to rebuild the Bentley, replacing the body from the firewall back with a sporty two-seater, metal-skinned body that it has worn ever since. From Johnson, the car stayed in Canadian ownership until 1946, when it came on to the radar of one of D. Cameron Peck’s car sleuths. In the ’40s, Peck was building what would become one of the foremost pioneering collections of historic automobiles, and the Bentley joined from J. Gordon Edington in April 1946. In 1952, citing health reasons, Peck disposed of a large part of his collection, including MS3944, which passed to Sidney Brody of Los Angeles. Four years later, the car returned to the East Coast, to Pennsylvania vintage Bentley collector William “Bill” Klein, and shortly after this it was offered for sale at Inskip’s dealership on East 64th Street in New York City. It was bought by Charles R.J. Noble, a former president of the Bentley Drivers Club Northeast Region of the U.S., who owned at various times four Blower Bentleys. Within the past decade, it has been exercised regularly on the quiet country roads of New England, and it competed at the inaugural “Ascent” Hill Climb event tied in with the Elegance at Hershey in 2011, driven by one of Charles Noble’s sons. Dr. Hay has recently completed a comprehensive report on the car and noted that MS3944 “looks to be untouched since it was rebuilt by Mr. Johnson around 1938/39.” Interestingly, she notes, “the large-diameter Jaeger rev counter is similar to that fitted to the Birkin Team cars,” while “the large-diameter Smiths oil pressure and boost gauges are as Birkin practice” and “the drip feed oiler for the supercharger is the same as those fitted to the Birkin cars.”  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1931 Bentley 4½ Litre Supercharged Le Mans
Number Produced:50
Original List Price:N/A
SCM Valuation:$1.2m to $6m
Tune Up Cost:$400
Chassis Number Location:Engine side of firewall
Engine Number Location:On right engine bearer
Club Info:Bentley Drivers Club

This car, Lot 152, sold for $4,647,500, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Quail Lodge sale in Carmel, CA, on August 16, 2013.

In a year when world records have been falling like flies, this is yet a new standard. This was part of Bonhams’ 16th Annual Carmel auction and a resounding success with a near 90% sale-through rate and $32.7 million realized.

Originality has become the must-have to serious collectors, and this car, MS3944, retains its original numbered chassis, engine (MS3941), supercharger (144), axles and steering box — as well as its original numbered hood, firewall, radiator and instrumentation.

It runs a D Type close-ratio gearbox (7255) as original spec, if possibly not the original hardware.

Dr. Hay’s opinion is that the team car pattern seats, fold-flat windshield and aero screens, front and rear fenders and some of the instruments were all retained when the car was rebuilt in 1938. In Bentley terms, this makes it an exceptionally original car — aside from the 75-year-old body, but a Bentley with its original body is the exception rather than the rule.

Going rate for an average, almost certainly rebodied 4½ in the U.K. is £400k–£450k ($600k–$700k). If it’s supercharged, probably twice that, and if it was one of the original 50 supercharged cars, probably twice that again — about the same as a 4½ Litre Le Mans team car. (Blowers, sadly, for all their spiff, never actually won very much).

Remember this is one of three Le Mans-spec cars built in period.

SCM’s Donald Osborne was on the ground at Quail and actually saw the car, commenting: “Excellent bodywork. Shiny paint shows some alligatoring, rubs and general signs of aging, but is consistent. Great brightwork. Beautiful patina on seats.”

Sensibly, it had an electric cooling fan but retains the standard magneto, and the center throttle, which many owners change to a right-handed gas pedal because they can’t get on with the “back-to-front layout.” This was refreshing.

Great on the road

These are simply marvelous old buses to drive — once you’ve acclimatized to the pedal layout and the heavy, non-synchromesh gear change. When you’ve got it right, the shift is a joy and the lever snicks between ratios like a well-oiled counterweight. When you’ve mastered that, try double-declutching down a couple of ratios while also signaling by hand that you’re about to turn at a junction. Hours of entertainment….

Then, of course, there’s the famous “bloody thump” from the big “4” — these things are immensely torquey and surprisingly quick even in 3 Litre form. As 4½s, there’s more oomph and the blower makes it all more fizzy and exciting.

Star of the show brings the bucks

Osborne added: “Wonderfully documented and oozing presence, this was the star of the sale. During the preview it attracted endless attention. Charles Noble’s son was with the car all through the preview, answering questions and presenting it and it was taken out on a number of test drives, which served to entertain all within earshot. I loved the car, thought it to be quite neat.”

And, yes, being on hand to answer questions does always win confidence for buyers — other sellers, please note.

So one very original Blower plus one-family owned for 55 years equaled spirited bidding in the sales room and on the telephones, driving the winning private European buyer to pay $4,647,500, resulting in a new record for a production blower Bentley.

Was it priced right? Compare it with one of the most untouched of the 50 “Blowers” — one of the three original boattails — that was priced aggressively and failed to sell to a $7m offer at Gooding & Co.’s Pebble Beach sale in 2012.

Also consider that the 1929 Birkin Blower single-seater 4½ Litre brought $7.9m at Bonhams’ 2012 Goodwood Festival of Speed sale — and is currently the subject of a dispute as to whether H.M. Government will let such a work of art out of the U.K. — the same government that hosts the Elgin Marbles… oops.

So, I have to agree with the esteemed Mr. Osborne when he concluded: “This is one of the most charismatic Bentleys and was worth every penny paid — maybe even a bit of a bargain.” ?

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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