Penn checks out an exceptional, British-built Blower Bentley replica.
Words and Photos Penn McKay
As I write it’s 10 days since I revelled in a drive in this magnificent classic on a mellow February morning. This drive took us from Auckland to Wellsford in a manner very few makes of cars can emulate — simply because there are very few cars like this one. In fact, I can only remember one — George Unspellable’s magnificent 1924 Renault 45, itself a monster car to rival the big Bentleys.
It was the kind of drive that stays in your memory for the rest of your days; a huge powerful locomotive-like machine hammering along every passing lane as it made short work of rice rockets, buses and trucks alike. You look down on most cars with conscious superiority and across the short space to the truck drivers’ cabs — smirking as you attempt to look nonchalent!
It is designated as a 1933 4.5-litre Blower Bentley, with a Le Mans-type body
Those passing lanes kept my driver, Guy King, busy as hell. Between double de-clutching down, then up the cogs, switching the awkwardly placed electric overdrive control on and off, peering at the array of gauges, sawing away at the wheel and grinning like a maniacal Toad of Toad Hall in his helmet and goggles, he was having a ball. All of this whilst I watched out of the corner of my bulging eye the speedo needle wavering around some magical numbers. Couldn’t have been right though, surely old cars can’t do those numbers? This Blower Bentley Special belongs to John Blair but he, poor beggar, works continuously, thus enabling a helpful Guy King to exercise the car on his behalf — bit like popping next door to exercise your neighbour’s German Shepherd because you’re kind hearted rather than mad on Shepherds — yeah right!
The Petersen Bentley
It is designated as a 1933 4.5-litre Blower Bentley, with a Le Mans-type body. It’s one of a special order of six cars made by well-known Bentley restorer Petersen’s under instruction from that most senior of the Bentley dealers, Barclays of London. The idea was to use appropriate Bentley and Rolls-Royce components to make a version of the famous Le Mans Bentley — the 1929-1931 4.5-litre Supercharged model. These six cars are, in many ways, the logical culmination of many decades of activity in restoring, mixing and matching, rebodying and rebuilding the small fleet of cars actually built at the WO Bentley works during its 10 years of production.
Based in Devon, England, Bob Petersen has been creating individual and beautiful cars for 25 years — vintage Bentleys are restored, rebuilt and recreated. With many replacement parts manufactured on the premises, he sells to vintage Bentley owners throughout the world, as well as using them on the Petersen Bentley Specials.
As well as the Le Mans car Petersen’s builds replicas of the Gurney Nutting coupe well-known as the Barnato Blue Train Bentley — three built so far and another two under construction. These cars were used, incidentally, by Bentley in a European-wide promotion of its latest models. Peterson’s supercharged 6.5-litre Road Racer is also very special, and from all accounts a very exciting car to drive. Built to road-legal specifications, they are single or two-seater racing cars with engine modifications as requested. These have included 4.5-litre Blower, 6.5-litre Blower, and 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin engines — they’re very, very fast!
Founding a legend
WO Bentley had been trained as a locomotive engineer, then moved onto racing motorcycles (finally deciding that the American Indian was the best — and he never saw our film!) From there, WO moved onto refining French DFP light cars, introducing the use of aluminium pistons and successfully racing and selling them until WWI broke out. He took his aluminium pistons to the right authorities, and spent WWI working on aero engines, where he capped a very successful war effort by designing and building the Bentley Rotary 1 and 2 engines for the Royal Flying Corps.
By 1919 he’d built up a large and very useful knowledge base, and determined that it was time to build a vehicle encompassing the virtues he deemed essential in his sort of car. The importance of his training in locomotive engineering, then aero engines, cannot be too strongly stated. British heavy industry set standards of excellence backed by immense personal discipline that we must regret the passing of these days. His first car was the Bentley 3.0-litre, and over the next nine years his company made and sold a little over 1600 3.0-litre chassis. Additionally, Bentley made a further 1400 cars mounting bigger motors — 4.5-litre, 6.5-litre and 8.0-litre.
Five of the Blower Bentleys were built for racing and 50 for homologation reasons
The basic Bentley was such a soundly designed car that to this day the reputation of the marque still stands for excellence in almost every feature.
WO Bentley acknowledged that the two motors which most influenced his thinking were Peugeot’s pre-war dohc (1913) and the Mercedes GP motor of 1914, which he studied in London early in the war. But he had strict criteria by which he built his designs. Reliability was the first aim, then smoothness and silence, and lastly sheer power output. He didn’t go to Peugeot’s twin-cam layout, because at that stage the drive was noisy, and one of his criteria was silence of operation.
It was by these criteria that Bentley resisted the idea of supercharging as an aid to victory in racing. He commented that supercharging was a “perversion and corrupted the car’s performance.” It’s essentially true that the 4.5-litre supercharged cars were never as successful as they should have been. They cost their underwriter, the Hon Dorothy Pagett, a truckload of money before she backed out, and they proved mechanically unreliable under the stress of racing.
Worst of all they made a serious contribution to the firm’s fiscal instability.
The Original Blower Bentleys.
Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato was by far the wealthiest of the Bentley Boys, a group of well-heeled sportsmen playboys who not only raced Bentleys very successfully, but used them as everyday cars — well they would, wouldn’t they? Several of them lived in Grosvenor Square, where they had adjoining flats, and they parked so many Bentleys there that it was known as Bentley Corner. These men who won the races were part of the marque’s exotic presence, and even today are inextricably intermeshed with the ’20s — a gloriously hedonistic image of postwar Europe forgetting the horrors of WWI.
The leading driver was Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, who had already won at Le Mans and wanted to continue the streak using supercharged Bentleys. He had it all figured out that a blower between the dumb-irons driven at engine speed by the crankshaft would work wonders. The basic 4.5-litre motor (1927-’31) was produced to bring back the best features of the original 3.0-litre design, but obviously with extra capacity. Some 665 were sold, plus 55 supercharged versions.
The format followed was standard Bentley practice, with a cast-iron block and non-detachable cylinder head. There were four valves per pot, driven by a sohc operating the Bentley forked double rockers for the inlet and singles for each of the exhaust valves. The crankcases were alloy, but heavy versions taking a 32.4kg crankshaft were made in elektron — I believe these were for the supercharged motors, although the actual Birkin team cars had a large capacity reinforced sump.
Five of the Blower Bentleys were built for racing and 50 for homologation reasons, as required for entry to Le Mans. Most of the homologation cars were built and delivered after the race, and many had the Birkin modifications.
That was all 70-plus years ago, and the cars have grown hugely in the collective consciousness of vintage sports car fans. Hence the commissioning by Barclays of six of these (now called) Barclay Blower models.
Between the take-over of Bentley in 1931 by Rolls-Royce and 1934 a lot (relatively) of Bentleys were made using left-over parts, and by no means always the bits correct to the model. It was Rolls-Royce’s way of recovering some (in fact all) of its outlay of £125,000 in buying the assets of Bentley from the receivers. At the same time there were Bentleys being built that were largely Rolls-Royce models. Furthermore, such was the magic of the name even then that the ’30s saw a proliferation of specials, of rebodied cars — conversions from saloons to Le Mans Vanden Plas replicas — and of reassembled cars. Quite an industry grew up around rebodying scruffy post-WWII cars with reproduction vintage bodies on the solid chassis. Today age has sanctified all of them, of course.
These are cars where, if you want one, you write the cheque — quickly! You can’t lose.
The Barclay/Peterson Bentleys
Our featured Petersen-built ‘Bentley’ is a prime example of a superbly put together motor car. Yet it excites a huge range of emotions amongst the afficianados, ranging from total acceptance to total rejection and, of course, reflecting entirely the personal attitudes of each individual expressing them. The answer as to whose emotions are right will never be resolved because it is entirely a personal matter, various forms of spurious logic notwithstanding. it’s everybody’s right to have an opinion (provided the wife is away) and that’s all it can be.
But the fact is that this car does exist, is a very fine piece of work, and what’s more is an excellent driver. Note also that it sports the registered trademark Bentley badges front and rear, and I’m told that that is all legit! This Bentley badged car is made up of genuine Rolls/Bentley bits from the very early ’30s and built in the style of the great racing Bentleys from the ’20s. It looks the part in every detail.
On display recently in St Heliers with the Bentley Driver’s Club, which had just completed a month-long NZ tour, it pretty much stole the show, judging by the constant crowds gathered around studying it. On the firewall of the Barclay Blower is a brass plate that says it all — “Petersen Blower. 4.5ltr Supercharged Rolls/Bentley Special.” Then follows some data ending with a statement — “Built In The Style Of The Birkin Team Blower Of 1930 for Jack Barclays. — Petersen Engineering.” Clearly a car built to a purpose.
Who wouldn’t be proud to own this car? But you do need deep pockets if you want one, they’re not casually thrown together.
About eight years ago the then president of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club (UK) wrote a rather scornful little article on these cars under the heading, Look-alike Hybrid Specials. It was reproduced for interest in the local club magazine, and was promptly answered by highly respected Bentley/Rolls-Royce afficianado, Ken White. Ken commented that that critic may well have a great deal more to worry about these days, referring no doubt to the foreign ownership that has since taken over Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
Ken went onto welcome this beautifully-made car and its owners to the New Zealand club, and to write in praise of this car.