The great WO Bentley was not in fact against the idea of superchargers, there isn’t really any such thing as ‘British Racing Green’ and ‘matching numbers’ Bentleys usually aren’t the ones to have. These were just three fascinating things GRR learned during a visit to leading Bentley restoration firm NDR.
‘I actually started out working on Bugattis,’ begins proprietor Neil Davies. Looking around the office at his workshop, surrounded by all manner of vintage Bentley parts and memorabilia this was not what I expected to hear, but then again there’s lots about vintage Bentleys which isn’t quite as you’d imagine, as I found out. ‘I was asked to help rescue the “Chiron” Bugatti T51 back in 1983 and after that worked for a man with a huge collection of cars, including 48 ‘WO’ Bentleys. That lasted until 1990 when I started NDR.’
The workshop itself is based in a relatively modern-looking building and it looks like the exact kind of place you’d want your car to go. At one end is a trimmer’s station, giving-off that grand aroma of fine leather. Next to it is the engine building section where I see the short motor from the ‘Birkin’ Bentley single-seater, complete with crankshaft bearing the all-important ‘RAC’ stamp on number one counter balance (proving it was as used at Brooklands in the handicap races). Elsewhere a brand new supercharger is being completed, carburettor float levels are being set on the bench to perfection, camshaft lobes are being finely scrutineered for lift and duration … This place is a ‘grease-monkey’s’ dream.
Neil modestly describes himself as ‘a toolmaker and a petrolhead.’ The first Bentley he drove was the ex-Forrest Lycett 4.5 Litre. ‘We called that car “The Hooligan” because it just wanted to go flat out everywhere. From then-on I was hooked. Initially the business was half historic racing and half restoration, but when I was racing I spent too much time helping my customers with their cars. You’ve heard the saying “the cobbler always has holes in his shoes”? Well that was me. So, I decided to drop the racing and have a proper business instead! Luckily for me my wife Jo looks after all the admin side of things, so I can focus on the workshop.’
‘Proper’ it most certainly is. The cars you see in the pictures have been sent for his attention from customers in Germany, Belgium, Sweden, the Isle of Man and even South Africa. ‘Some of our German customers are more British than the British ones!’ he reveals. ‘They love driving their cars wearing plus-fours, tweed, deerstalkers, the full bit.’ It’s the loyalty and number of customers which has led NDR to build its own engines from the ground up. ‘A top-notch original “blower” car is going to cost around £5,000,000 nowadays. Wreck that motor and you could be knocking £1,000,000 off its value.’ That’s some rather expensive food for thought. According to Neil, an increasingly popular option is to remove the highly valuable motor from your Bentley and have NDR build you one for around £75,000. ‘Every component is brand new’ Neil explains. ‘We use modern bearings, Carillo-style con-rods, a nitrided crank, steel rockers and so on. We’ll even make a new D-Type competition gearbox, new superchargers and even brand new SU carburettors …’ To date NDR has built 18 new ‘blower’ engines, two Speed Sixes and is currently putting together two Eight Litre lumps.
With a new engine fitted Neil’s customers can, in his words, ‘thrash ’em! Original Bentley engines are a part of our heritage, so it makes sense to preserve them. Besides, Bentleys must be used. They’re not concours cars as far as I’m concerned. You can genuinely drive something like a good Three Litre VDP on the Peking to Paris rally. You can drive them in modern traffic, too. I know people who’ve fitted a tow hitch to an Eight Litre and use it to tow their racer around!
Walking through the workshop my attention is drawn by just about everything, but in particular the ‘Birkin’ Bentley whose renovation to an earlier specification NDR has been entrusted with (more on that car soon), a remarkable 1929 Speed Six which is being made in to a ‘nut-and-bolt recreation’ of the famous Old Number Six car, and a ‘blower’ car (an original one) which causes me to ask Neil about WO Bentley’s alleged dislike of the supercharger. ‘Actually he wasn’t against the idea of the supercharger – just the idea of adding one to a standard car. And they were a bit of a disaster, really. They were very heavy and being driven off the crank at a 1:1 ratio caused a terrible vibration problem. Also they didn’t idle too well. WO was all about reliability and he thought that to simply add a blower wasn’t correct engineering. Over the years working on these cars I’ve thought to myself on occasion that I was smarter than W.O, but it’s only when you try to change something that he did that you realise what a great engineer he was.’
So, that was one myth busted. Another bit the dust when I asked which was the correct shade of British Racing Green. ‘There’s no such thing’ Neil replies. ‘All it originally meant was that green was the colour of British racing cars. The French were blue, the Italians were red, the Germans were white and so on… Brewster Green is most commonly used when a vintage Bentley is painted, although my personal guess is that the original shade was called Parson’s Green. We’ll never know.’
With two myths down, I went for the hat-trick and asked if ‘matching numbers’ cars are the holy grail for Bentley collectors. ‘Nope’ came the reply. ‘At least, not usually. You see, Bentleys were used hard, raced, rallied and so on. So they were always having new bodies made and having different engines fitted. Sometimes their identity could change completely over a number of years. Back in the nineties everybody wanted to own the fastest Bentley in the world, so we’d end up ‘hot-rodding’ them with bigger motors, modern clutches and lightened flywheels. Of course, now we’re putting them all back to how they were!
Photography: Tom Shaxson