GRR

GRR Meets... William Medcalf, The Vintage Bentley Specialist

10th May 2016
Bob Murray

More than 8,500 miles in 33 days, across deserts and over mountains, the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge is a unique test of man and machine. The flag drops on this year’s event outside Beijing on 12 June.

william_medcalf_bentley_11051606.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051607.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051608.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051609.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051610.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051611.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051612.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051613.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051614.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051615.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051616.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051617.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051618.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051619.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051620.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051621.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051622.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051623.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051624.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051625.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051626.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051627.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051628.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051629.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051630.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051631.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051632.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051633.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051634.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051635.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051636.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051637.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051638.jpg

The best old car for such an endurance feat? Something immensely strong, reliable, durable and powerful. Something perhaps not a million miles away from a very fast lorry…

Ettore Bugatti’s famous put-down of the 1920s Bentleys Le Mans winners doesn’t worry William Medcalf one bit. As someone whose life and business revolves around every facet of vintage Bentleys, he thinks “a fast lorry” is a positive advantage when you are in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

“W O Bentley was a solid Victorian engineer and drew on his railway training to build incredibly durable cars. A well prepared vintage Bentley today is faster, stronger and more reliable than ever – there is nowhere I wouldn’t take one, and the madder the better.”

And he has been in some pretty mad events, often alongside other latterday “Bentley Boys” from the exclusive Benjafields Motor Club.

Sand racing, stubble racing, even a 24-hour thrash at Portimao – vintage Bentleys prepared by William Medcalf have been in them all.

william_medcalf_bentley_11051604.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051603.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051602.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051601.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051605.jpg

But the cars’ piece de resistance is endurance rallying, and William has the trophies to prove how good they are at it. His proud boast is that cars prepared by him and his 16-strong team in Sussex have finished every rally they have taken part in for the past decade.

“I love showing the world what a vintage Bentley can do,” William tells us when GRR calls in. He is clearly a man on a mission – to show another side to the quintessentially English road racers of the 1920s and ‘30s, one far away from Steed’s bowler hats, and even Tim Birkin’s Blowers.

“The cars were originally made for this sort of competition. Mr Bentley was all about endurance rallying. He never wanted to go racing and did so only for the commercial benefits.”

william_medcalf_bentley_11051639.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051640.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051641.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051642.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051643.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051644.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051645.jpg

Life-changing experiences

Collectors with an eye for adventure leave their moneyed worlds behind and embark on Bentley-borne adventures for weeks on end, thrashing their 90-year-old cars at 100mph and more in some of the world’s most inhospitable places. The cars shrug it off, says William; the experience for the drivers is often life-changing.

William Medcalf Ltd does everything such events require from sourcing and preparing a car to all the logistics and support. They will even teach you to be an ace behind the wheel, to master the crash ‘box and centre accelerator (most people get used to it in a weekend, he says). One of William’s customers is so hooked he has an identical pair of 6½-Litre models, both endurance rally-prepared to the nth degree. Why two? So he can be competing in one event while the other is on its way by boat to the start of the next challenge…

But why are there no Blower Bentleys, the supercharged cars that most people think of when fast Bentleys are mentioned, in William’s world?

You can bring the worst 3-Litre you can find to us and it would roll out of here with 200bhp.

William Medcalf

“They have a lot of kudos but they never won a major race in period and are totally useless when it comes to rallying today. They are highly strung and the carbs are down low at the front where it’s too easy for them to suck up water.” William says he will send crews anywhere in the world at any time to support his customers, but clearly a hydraulicked engine thousands of miles from anywhere is not ideal.

This year Medcalf Ltd has prepared four cars for the Peking to Paris: two 4½-Litre cars, and two of the firm’s own series of continuation models that recall the highly desirable Super Sports. Re-configuring a 3-Litre Bentley into a Super Sports Continuation requires a complete strip down, a foot or so being taken out of the wheelbase and renewal of all worn components to incorporate the Super Sports chassis upgrades.

“You can bring the worst 3-Litre you can find to us and it would roll out of here with 200bhp, weighing 1,450kg and ready to take on the world in endurance rallying. It’s essentially the same car as when it came in but re-engineered to be something different and better, just as they did in period.

“I’d like to think what we do here is the best work that anyone could possibly do, staying true to the Bentley ethos. I think W O Bentley would be proud to drive the cars that we have built.”

william_medcalf_bentley_11051609.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051610.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051611.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051612.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051613.jpg

Started in a North London lock-up

William is far from the vintage Bentley driver of popular imagination. He’s a young family man who happens to drive old Bentleys all the time: shopping to Tesco’s, to school to drop off his boys – and around the Sussex lanes to check and recheck every component before a car is handed back to its owner. And also to take GRR for a blast in a Super Sports. It’s a long way from the B2070 to a track in the Gobi Desert, but we suspect William attacks both with equal gusto.

William’s story is an unlikely one. His father, a toolmaker, had an MoT test garage in Edmonton, North London. It was successful enough – 5,000 MoTs a year! – for the family car to be a Bentley. William started out on his own 22 years ago, aged 18, “in a lock-up with a bag of tools”. He had grown up with Bentleys so that was what he specialised in, though soon focusing only on the vintage W O variety built between 1922 and 1932.

After the Tottenham riots (“they were at the top of our road!”) William decided to leave London for a quieter life and bought a former Vauxhall main dealer’s premises in Hill Brow, between Liss and Petersfield, an area not known for its rioting.

There could have been a riot at home, though. Establishing the business required a substantial investment, money that was equally needed for a deposit on a house for the recently married Medcalfs. It was decided instead to spend it on competing in the 2010 Peking to Paris in William’s own Super Sports, the very first one made. The new Mrs Medcalf didn’t just agree, she co-drove with William in the event – winning their class and coming home second overall.

William tells us: “We had to do the event because if we pulled it off it would prove our expertise and make the business – then we could buy a house. But it was quite a honeymoon.”

william_medcalf_bentley_11051614.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051615.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051616.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051617.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051618.jpg

World’s most original vintage Bentley

That the business is now “made” is self evident from a visit. A sign in the office says there are 31 vintage Bentleys on site, three off site and six on the waiting list. There are cars in every stage of preservation, restoration and preparation.

Some are totally original – like their newest acquisition, a 4½-Litre “barn find” found in bits in a house in London and complete with an unbroken winged B lead seal put on the engine in 1928; William says it is probably the world’s most original vintage Bentley. Other cars here have had “virtually all their moving parts replaced” ready for endurance competition.

Medcalf pattern parts are made in-house, extend from complete engines to the smallest washers, and often, like the Medcalf differential, incorporate CAD-CAM analysis to cure known weak spots. The range of skills, from hand-crafted trimming to computer stress analysis, and range of machinery here spans 90 years like the cars themselves. The result is that, apart from casting, there’s not much they can’t do, and no parts for a vintage Bentley they don’t hold or can’t make. No wonder owners send their cars here for a service from all over the world.

A car can only be original once and it is our job to keep to that as much as possible.

William Medcalf

The showroom (ring first if you want to have a look) is full of cars, all with the most amazing stories behind them, and some still with the dents and dust from recent adventures. Some are for sale, like the wonderful 8-Litre, an original team car that was timed at 133mph in Belgium and which is complete with even its own set of Louis Vuitton luggage. “If you want to drive across Australia or America this is the car to do it in,” says William. “It will cruise at 85mph at 2,400rpm for ever…”

The 8-Litre also makes a point about vintage Bentley prices, according to William. In the crazy multi-million pound world of classic car values, this glorious matching-numbers car with a history to die for is for sale at around £800,000, what William says well illustrates the breed’s relative affordability.

Among all the Bentleys is just one car without the winged B, and very well known at Goodwood it is too. It’s Nick Swift’s Mini, last seen at MM in March and recently acquired by William Medcalf with a view to racing it.

Summing up the usability of a vintage Bentley on today’s roads is the 3-Litre saloon that William drove on the recent Flying Scotsman Rally, an event he has won twice already. “After the rally we drove home in the 3-Litre from Gleneagles, arriving in Sussex eight-and-a-half hours later. The 85-year-old car had averaged 54mph.  There are modern saloons that can’t do that…”

william_medcalf_bentley_11051623.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051624.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051625.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051626.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051627.jpg

CONFESSIONS OF A ’BENTLEY BOY’

First car memory?

Dad’s idea of a family holiday was to drive us all around America in his 4½-Litre. I was five. In Florida we drove into the orange groves and I picked the fruit off the trees.

First car?

Morris Minor that I rebuilt when I was 12. Then I bought a 1950s Mk6 Bentley and rebuilt that. Then I found a 3-Litre and rebuilt that. I was on the vintage Bentley ladder and I have never got off.

Your favourite Bentley?

The Super Sports. There were only 18 of them in period and I have owned No.1 for 18 years now. I love it to bits.

Are you primarily restorer or preserver?

Preserver. A car can only be original once and it is our job to keep to that as much as possible. But cars used as much and as hard as these are need new moving parts. The good news is that Britain is leading the shift away from bling over-restorations. There’s a lot of fun in driving something mechanically perfect but which looks its age.

Anything you won’t do for a customer?

One owner asked for a coffee machine to be installed in his car before he took it on an endurance event. We said no to that.

william_medcalf_bentley_11051628.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051629.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051630.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051631.jpg
william_medcalf_bentley_11051632.jpg

Your next Bentley adventure?

Le Mans Classic. We are driving there and back in five vintage Bentleys with tents in the back. I will be sharing the drive down with the owner of a very special 3-Litre – it was the first Bentley works entry at Le Mans and this will be the first time it’s been back since 1925.

Any more Bentley challenges?

I wouldn’t mind going for a new Bentley speed record. The fastest vintage Bentley at the moment is 157mph. I think we could beat that with a supercharged 8-Litre and around 500bhp. That would be a totally fun thing to do.

Photography by Tom Shaxson

  • Bentley

  • William Medcalf

  • Overdrive

  • e-fuel-bentley-1.jpg

    News

    E-fuelled vintage Bentley wins at Castle Combe

  • bentley_pacey_hassan_special_fos_goodwood_18102017_list.jpg

    Historic

    This Bentley is the world's craziest safety car

  • bentley-pacey-hasan-special-revival-2019-video-main-goodwood-13092019.jpg

    Goodwood Revival

    Video: Crazy Bentley 'Pacey Hassan Special' on track at Revival