Bentley 4 1/4 Litre Cabriolet
Walter Owen Bentley learned engineering at Clifton College, leaving at 16 to apprentice at the Great Northern Railway. It was during the Great War, however, that he began designing engines, working at Gwynne’s of Hammersmith, who were then building Clerget aero engines under licence. His versions of the Clerget, the Bentley Rotary I and Bentley Rotary II, were made by both Gwynne and Humber.
After the War, Bentley opened his own drawing office and rented a workshop. The first Bentley car was displayed at Olympia in October 1919, and deliveries began in 1921 from a new factory at Cricklewood. The car had a long-stroke three-litre, four-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft; four-wheel brakes were adopted in 1923.
Six-cylinder cars joined the range in 1926, with a 6½-litre “Big Six.” This became the “Speed Six” in 1928, and a massive eight-litre six was shown at the London Motor Show in 1930. Unfortunately, Bentley Motors was on the ropes. Financial troubles had emerged in the mid-1920s, and the company had been propped up by money from millionaire Woolf Barnato. In 1931, however, Barnato pulled out and left Bentley foundering. Ultimately Rolls-Royce, Ltd. stepped in, and Bentley Motors became a wholly-owned subsidiary.
Operations were moved from Cricklewood, London, to Rolls’ Derby works. Thus the 1933-39 cars are known as “Derby Bentleys.” Built first as 3½-litre cars, with a pushrod overhead valve six of 3,669 cc, they rode a 126-inch wheelbase and left the factory as bare chassis to be bodied by outside coachbuilders.
In 1936, in order to provide more power to counteract the increasing tendency toward heavy bodies, Bentley Motors offered an optional engine, bored a quarter-inch to give 4,257 cc. These 4¼-litre Bentleys quickly became the norm, to the point that a few 3½ chassis were converted at the factory. Servo-assisted mechanical brakes were used under license from Hispano-Suiza, and shock absorbers had come into use early in 1935.
Long distance, high-speed motoring had pointed out a problem in the lubrication system, and an improved oil pump was developed, along with revised oil passages. This all but cured the problem, resolved for good with the adoption of an overdrive gearbox from late 1938. At this point, a bypass oil filter was also added. In all, 2,422 Derby Bentleys were produced between 1933 and 1939, some not delivered until well into 1940. By far, most were bodied by Park Ward, a major supplier to Rolls-Royce, Ltd. by the early 1930s and fully acquired by them in 1939. Occasionally, though, clients, particularly those in continental Europe, preferred to use their own coachbuilders. Thus a number of Derby Bentleys were bodied by the likes of Erdmann & Rossi of Berlin and Vanvooren and Binder of Paris.
Guaranteed by Bentley Motors on 15th September, 1938, chassis B125LE was dispatched to Switzerland to receive coachwork by Carrosserie Worblaufen of that city, in the Canton of Bern. The firm had been opened in 1929 by Fritz Ramseier, who had learnt his craft in a small workshop run by his father. After apprenticeships in France and with Gangloff in Geneva, Ramseier returned home and joined with his brothers Hans and Ernst in the new company. Early work was performed on Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Ford, Renault and Peugeot chassis.
Increased demand by wealthy clients allowed Worblaufen to exhibit at the Geneva Salon in 1932. On their stand were creations on Panhard, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Hupmobile chassis. A handsome Mercédes SSK built for industrialist Hans Hürlimann won a gold medal in the Zürich Concours d’Elegance in 1935.
Chassis B125LE was fitted with a handsome four-door cabriolet body, the only work by this coachbuilder on a Derby Bentley chassis. It was then delivered to Dr. Hans Wildbolz (1873-1940), a professor of medicine who is generally regarded as Europe’s foremost urologist of the period. This early history has been verified by Urs Ramseier, nephew of Worblaufen founder Fritz Ramseier.
The intermediate history of B125LE is not fully known, but after acquisition by the current owner, it was given a complete restoration by Chris Kidd’s Tired Iron Works of Monrovia, California in 2007. Stunningly finished in two-tone grey, it has a beautifully-appointed deep red pigskin interior. Blackwall tyres nicely set off the polished full-wheel discs, and much of the car’s beauty comes from its striking simplicity. The boot accommodates fitted luggage, which is included with the car.
The engine compartment is correctly detailed, yet not over-restored, and the chassis and underbody are in commensurate condition. Fresh from restoration, the car was awarded third-in-class honours at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It has also appeared at the centenary observance of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club at Monterey, California in August 2004 and was invited to Villa d'Este in Italy.
Upgraded to the 1939-specification four-speed overdrive gearbox, this one-off Bentley is a dream to drive. The Derby Bentley has become known as “The Silent Sports Car” for its sophisticated deportment and excellent performance. This Bentley is both silent and sporting.
This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in October of 2010 at the Battersea Evolution, London.
125 bhp, 4,257 cc overhead-valve six-cylinder engine, four-speed overdrive manual gearbox, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel servo-assisted mechanical brakes. Wheelbase: 126"
Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel