24 June 2015

The Bentley 8 Litre

There are some classic cars that are just a bit different. The hand brake may be on the wrong side, or they may be fitted with an overdrive. Driving them takes a little getting used to.

Then there's pre-war cars. Thought you were a good driver? Well, think again- rip up the rule book, don't pass go and don't collect two hundred pounds. Every muscle memory you ever had is suddenly irrelevant- be prepared to don the metaphorical dunce's cap and drive like a fool, at least for a bit.

This week I was introduced to the Bentley 8 Litre. In a lot of ways, it should have been an easy car to drive- at least the accelerator was on the right, the brake in the middle, and the clutch on the left. Even the four gears even lay where you would expect them to.

But from the moment I climbed over the side of two-seater bodied in a copy of the Forest Lycett racing car, I sensed it could feel my fear. With a flick of the lever to advance the timing, a turn of the key and a satisfyingly solid button to press, the engine roared into life. Peering through the double windscreens, I released the handbrake and (feeling immensely smug) pulled away with a roar but without incident.

Two minutes later and we were building speed down our Cotswold lane- it was time to change gear. Clutch depressed- out of first- blip the throttle, drop the clutch and.... It sounded like I'd dropped a bag of spanners into a cement mixer. A £1.5m cement mixer.

My co-driver Richard was very kind. 'Don't worry- every old gearbox is different, and this one is especially difficult." he said, just to make me feel a bit better. "Try again."

So I did, and this time managed to find second.

Shortly we turned onto a sweeping A road, and with a little difficulty found third, then fourth. Our 'chase' car- a Jaguar F-type- overtook, dropping the gauntlet and challenging me to go faster. With my manliness in question, I ripped open my shirt and pushed my foot to the floor.

To be honest, it is only at speed that this gorgeous car comes into its own. We talk about modern cars being full of torque- they have nothing on these old monsters. The more you press, the more it gives- forty, fifty, sixty- all pass in a blur. Am I brave enough to go faster? Not today, not on my first outing in this beauty, and not with our turning coming up. But, gaining confidence I drop down the gears, and almost shout with delight when I manage to down-shift without a graunch. I press firmly on the brakes- nothing happens. I stamp on the brakes, and we gradually slow. Still we carry a little too much speed into the corner, and we both lean over to counterbalance the car as she sweeps round the bend.

Lycett’s original Bentley 8 Litre held the standing kilometre record at Brooklands, and in 1938 Motorsport reported that it had a 0-60 time of 5.2 seconds. To put this in context, it’s quicker than a Porsche Cayenne GTS, a De Tomaso Pantera and a Lamborghini Countach LP400S . My hat goes off to the men and women who drove them back in the day- no proper helmets, no belts, not even any run-off at most of the tracks. They didn't just drive those cars at that speed, they fought with them, like Tarzan did with crocodiles. Tamed, the cars performed extraordinary feats. If they failed, then the cars bit them, hard.

Later, Richard showed me how it should be done. With seemingly no effort (despite bulging forearms) he drove the car beautifully through villages and back along the faster roads to our final destination. With the wind buffeting my face and my arm resting on the verdant green leather upholstery, I could not take the smile off my face. This is motoring at its most raw- the smell of the fuel, the feel of the car as it carves its way down the road, and the sound of that immense six-cylinder engine blasting its way through the countryside are about as far away as you can imagine from the sanitised normality of a modern motorway cruiser. Do you ever wonder why vintage cars attract so many enthusiasts? I don't. If they'd take a child in part exchange, I'd buy this tomorrow.

With thanks to Martin Chisholm and Richard Wrightson from Cotswold Collector Cars for making this article possible. www.cotswoldcars.com. The car driven in this article is available for sale- for more information visit www.martinchisholm.com

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