Walter Owen Bentley's automotive efforts were directed from the outset toward sporting motor cars, and the initial 4-cylinder, 3-liter models proved lively until burdened with saloon bodies. Bentley's solution was to double displacement and horsepower to 6½ liters, but disappointing sales figures and steep production costs threatened the company's financial stability.
Luckily, "Bentley Boy" Woolf Barnato purchased the company in 1926, and after a second victory at Le Mans in 1927, he introduced a sportier 4½-Liter available as a two-seat roadster, tourer, and refined saloon. With Barnato at the company's helm, Bentley scored two more wins at Le Mans and many at Brooklands.
Like other exclusive automakers, Bentley offered custom coachwork. Freestone & Webb, Gurney Nutting, Vickers, and Vanden Plas all produced tourer bodies for Bentleys. Vanden Plas was also employed by Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Alvis, and Lagonda.
A limited number of early Vanden Plas-bodied cars have survived, and Bentleys are among the most sought-after. While approximately 665 4½-Liter Vanden Plas Bentleys were produced, it is believed that only six examples of the 4½ feature original tourer coachwork. Experts suggest that approximately half of these VdP Bentleys were assembled with cycle-type fenders, presumably placing this example among exclusive company.
The Bentley 4½-Liter presented here was originally owned by A.F. Rollason in Great Britain before its purchase in the 1950s by Carl B. Seaman of Columbus, Ohio. Correspondence between Rollason and Seaman indicates that the car had retained its original Vanden Plas body and was in "first class condition." It was described as being of the Le Mans type, with a heavier chassis and underslung strengtheners, and the original engine had been overhauled.
Seaman sold the car in 1961 to Robert H. Kimes, Jr. of Dayton, Ohio. Letters received by Kimes described the car as a "most desirable specimen" and he owned the car at least until 1978. More recently, XF3505 belonged to Frank Allocca of New Jersey. In the last three years—less than 1,000 miles ago—the car had an extensive overhaul.
The car is presented in very original condition, from its engine and body panels to the upholstery and dash. The brightwork is very presentable, as is the black paint. Virtually every element is either period-correct or part of the car's storied past. Signs of road use are apparent, which is to be expected from an active tourer. This is one of the most extensively documented cars RM Auctions has ever offered, with paperwork dating back to the early 1950s.
XF3505 is one of the rarest of all vintage automobiles, having never been restored. Simply sitting in the car gives you a sense of its past in such things as the lovely patina of the leather, the shiny spot worn by the arms of a dozen caring owners, and the smooth grip of the steering wheel. The engine bay is lovely and carries the soft slick glow of a well-oiled machine.
This Bentley 4½-Liter tourer was hammered sold for $880,000 at RM's "Automobiles of Arizona" auction on January 18, 2008.
"If people had only been as enthusiastic about the car in its early days as they were about it as a historic relic, the success would have been unbounded," remarked taciturn company founder W.O. Bentley to motoring journalist and former "Bentley Boy" Sammy Davis shortly before his death in 1971.
Considering that the original Bentley company built just over 3,000 cars from 1922 until financial meltdown in 1931, W.O. would probably have appreciated the irony that over 75 years later, interest in this most British of brands is at an all-time high, boosted by the modern firm's slick marketing, which has made today's Volkswagen-derived all-wheel-drive behemoth a favorite of L.A. rappers and Russian…er, businessmen.
Bentleys built before the take-over by rival Rolls-Royce in 1931 have long enjoyed a macho image based on exploits at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and no-nonsense engineering that owed much to W.O.'s railroad training.
Hand-assembled by Brylcreemed men in brown work coats with cigarettes in the corner of their mouths, Bentleys were bought by well-heeled, plummy voiced gentlemen (and high spirited ladies) often in the inheritance business.
Since a low point as $200 beaters for British university students in the 1950s, "Vintage" (i.e. pre-1931) Bentleys have become highly collectible, and examples grace the world's great car collections. Despite predictions that pre-war cars have "had their day" due to changing buyer demographics, interest and values continue to grow—highlighted by the sale of a supercharged Bentley 4½ at last summer's Gooding auction for $4.5 million.
Three main models
Broadly speaking, Vintage Bentleys divide into three main models—early and almost dainty 3-Liters, flagship 6½s, and all-rounder 4½s. Later came the luxury 8-Liter (which almost bankrupted the company) and finally the "last hurrah" 4-Liter (too little, too late).
There were also "go faster" versions of the three main models—the "Red Label" 3-Liter Speed Model, the supercharged 4½ (only 50 "Blowers" were made—against W.O.'s wishes—and they were as unreliable in racing as they have become legendary in history), and W.O. Bentley's own favorite, the high-performance 6½-Liter "Speed Six," which would nudge the magic ton (100 mph) at a cost of $8,200 for the chassis alone.
Add to these variants the availability of different chassis lengths, ad hoc factory updates, and a wide range of coachwork. Then factor in some eight decades (including WWII) since most were built, and you can see how no two Vintage Bentleys were created equal, and few today look as they did when they left the factory.
Nowadays, most vintage Bentley owners like open-air motoring, but in the late 1920s, many buyers opted for closed bodies, the weight of which led to Bentley increasing engine sizes. Another irony is that the touring bodies so prized today were originally the cheapest. Countless saloons, coupes, and limousines were butchered (and occasionally still are) to create open "Le Mans Replica" bodies complete with Union Jack flags on the side, fold-flat windshield, and a large racing fuel tank at the rear.
Provenance and sex appeal compete for the attention of collectors, and one frequently excludes the other. Much is made of originality, but when a prestigious German dealer recently offered an original 4½ long-fender Vanden Plas tourer and a racy, rebodied Le Mans Replica at almost the same price, guess which one sold first?
Eyebrows raised at this sale
The sale of RM's car for $880,000 has caused much comment in Vintage Bentley circles. Eyebrows have been raised and questions asked, as this figure is significantly above informed estimates, including that of its long-term collector owner, who sounded out experts before selling it just months before the auction.
The supercharged catalog entry for the car suggests that perhaps the author didn't have all the facts at his disposal: "Experts further suggest" and "presumably placing this car" don't imply familiarity, while the claim that 665 Vanden Plas-bodied 4½-Liter Bentleys were built is unfair to the car. There were actually 667 4½ Liters of all types, of which only 204 were clothed by Vanden Plas (England), based in Kingsbury Works, Hendon. The heavier chassis referred to as "Le Mans-type" was standard on all 4½s from April 1929, and all normal (i.e. 10' 10˝ wheelbase) cars had the underslung strengtheners.
Dealing with other details, H. Aron, not Rollason, is recorded in Clare Hay's authoritative book as the first owner; Mr. Rollason is thought to have sold it from England to U.S. owner Carl Seaman.
Finally, the suggestion that six genuine VdP tourers remain is wide of the mark; the real figure is closer to ten times this number, and this car started life with less racy long fenders (the retaining brackets are still in place) rather than the cycle type it has worn for many years.
On the plus side, all the numbers on this car were correct—chassis, engine, rear axle, and steering box. Most importantly of all, it is a genuine Vanden Plas-bodied tourer with a lovely patina (if ever a car looks better the more used it appears, it is the Vintage Bentley), and it has documented provenance.
This price is not indicative of the market value for the model, nor does it represent a shift in preference away from Le Mans Replica-bodied 4½s toward untouched, original (if slightly tame) open tourers. I'd put this sale down to the mystique of an auction and congratulate the new South American owner on backing his good taste with courage worthy of a Bentley Boy.
The SCM Analysis
Years Produced 1927-31
Number Produced 667 approx.
Original List Price $4,775-$5,200 (chassis only)
SCM Valuation $200,000 (bitsa)-$1,250,000 (matching numbers)
Tune-up Cost $2,000
Distributor Caps $300
Chassis # Location Front chassis crossmember and left front dumb iron knuckle
Engine # Location Left side of crank on starter motor housing
Club Info Bentley Drivers Club, Ironstone Lane, Wroxton, Oxfordshire OX15 6ED, UK
Website click to visit
Alternatives 1911–22 Vauxhall 30/98, 1927–33 Bugatti Type 43 Grand Sport, 1931–35 Invicta S-type Low Chassis