I always thought that the figure of John Steed must have been slightly out of scale on my Corgi Toys ‘Avengers’ red Bentley. The real thing, though an imposing car, is a bit smaller than you’d expect. Lined up on the start-finish straight at the Yas Marina circuit it looks somewhat like the old toy-box model, apart from the colour.
Referred to, by Ettore Bugatti, whose own team of lightweight racers vied for supremacy at Le Mans 24 Hour races in the late 1920s, as ‘the world’s fastest lorries’, principally for the stoutness of the build, the Blower Bentleys started as a back room project set up by Tim Birkin – one of the original Bentley Boys.
Birkon, along with a small team of ex-Bentley mechanics, worked in a rented warehouse in Welwyn Garden City in 1929. W.O. Bentley despised forced-induction engines and famously stated that ‘there is no replacement for displacement’, preferring to up the engine capacity rather than have it force-fed. In 1926, the 3-litre Bentleys were bored out to 4.5 litres, and it was on the four-and-a half that Birkin developed the now famous car you see here.
Birkin and his team persevered, however, and produced a first batch of five cars – all road-going models for racing, including a ‘spare’ car, to tackle Le Mans. A total of fifty-five units of the 4.5 were fitted with superchargers, behind the scenes as it were, by Birkin and his team between 1929 and 1931.
Whilst a non-supercharged 4.5 litre car crashed out of the Le Mans race in 1927 – though a 3-litre car did win – the same car, rebuilt, went on to win in 1928. Boardroom arguments in favour of basing the next racer on the bigger-engined Speed Six, a six-and-a half litre, six cylinder car, were won and further development work bore fruit when, for the next two years, the bigger non-blower cars took a clean sweep at Le Mans in 1929 and 1930.
The 4.5 Blower never won the great race, but the first car in the five-car pilot run was rebodied as a single-seater, and held the Brooklands Circuit record for two years.
The featured car is part of the Bentley Heritage collection and is the seventeenth car of the fifty-five Blower specials. Cloth-bodied by Vanden Plas as a four-seat, open Sports Tourer, it was the Bentley Motors demonstrator for a number of years and in the hands of several others, before being bought back, at auction, by Bentley in 1997.
GH 6951 is a ‘black label’ car: it was difficult to differentiate the cars visually, so the 3-litre Speed cars had red enamel in the flying-B badge, the Supersports green, and the 4.5-litre car seen here, black. Later, as popularity and production increased, the enamel in the badge was changed to blue for the six cylinder cars and eventually could be ordered in any colour at all!
In pristine condition – with a beautiful patina rather than ‘concours’ show appearance – GH6951 was rolled off its transporter to take pride of place at Yas Marina’s Formula One Circuit, to celebrate 90 years of the Bentley marque.
There are only two people in the world fully insured to drive this car, and I am emphatically not one of them, so one could only imagine the whistle of the Blower as it was pushed into place for the main photograph.
Sweating slightly from various joints, the car not only looks good – it smells good!
The leather spring gaiters, soaked in oil to prevent rust and squeaks, the belt-and-braces leather hood straps complimenting the chromed bonnet-fasteners, the exposed flywheel, the massive supercharger, the huge spoked wheels and the drainpipe exhaust are all archetypal features of this heroic period in both the story of Bentley and the story of motor racing.
She may not have won anything in her time, but this lovely old car deserves to win the heart of anyone with petrol in their veins.