1931 Bentley 4½ Litre Supercharged Le Mans

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.”

Paul Hardiman

Paul Hardiman - SCM Senior Auction Analyst

Paul is descended from engineers and horse thieves, so he naturally gravitated toward the old-car marketplace and still finds fascination in the simpler things in life: looking for spot-weld dimples under an E-type tail, or counting the head-studs on a supposed Mini-Cooper engine. His motoring heroes are Roger Clark, Burt Levy, Henry Royce and Smokey Yunick — and all he wants for next Christmas is an Alvis Stalwart complete with picnic table in the back and a lake big enough to play in.

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