1929 Bentley Speed Six

1929 Bentley Speed Six

No marque’s heritage epitomises the true passion, excitement and sheer sense of adventure that is the Le Mans 24 Hour race, more than Bentley Motors. Bentley first won Le Mans in 1924 and went on to win every year from 1927 to 1930. In 2003 Bentley returned to Le Mans took a historic 1st and 2nd nearly 73 years to the day that the two Speed Sixes performed the same in 1930.

Founded by visionary designer W O Bentley, the first car to carry the Bentley name left the New Street Mews in London in 1919.  Shown at the 1919 London Motor Show, it was not until 1921 that the first 3 Litre Bentley were ready to be sold to customers – with the first 3 Litre going to the original owner of this car (more about that later).

From the first running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1923, W.O. Bentley was hooked. John Duff and Frank Clement drove their Bentley 3 Litre to an impressive 4th overall in 1923. In 1924 they surpassed themselves by returning and winning the race outright. This relentless pursuit of performance and glory drove Bentley motors forward from strength to strength in the early years.

By 1924 W.O. had developed a new 4 ½ Litre car and he drove the prototype, ‘The Sun’, to Le Mans with A.F.C. Hillstead in June 1924. On that occasion W.O. had the opportunity to compare his new car with the Rolls-Royce prototype, the ‘New Phantom’, also on test. A decision was taken there and then to increase the engine size of the new model to a mighty 6 1/2 litres. Feverish activity saw the new chassis and engine developed in time to launch the 6 1/2 litre car on the stand at The Olympia Motor Exhibition in October 1925.

The straight-six engine actually had a capacity of 6,597cc, the chassis was very similar to the 3-litre but with enhanced braking, a more substantial differential and a plate clutch replaced the rather Edwardian cone clutch of the 3-litre. The new car had 3mph to 80mph flexibility in top gear, comparable with Rolls-Royce equivalents, and could easily carry the more luxurious saloon coachworks demanded by many of Bentley’s wealthy clients.

In 1927 Bentley were victorious again at Le Mans with Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis wining in the famous 3 Litre ‘Old Number 7’.  In 1928, it was Wolf Barnato and Bernard Rubin’s turn for glory taking victory in the 4 ½ Litre ‘Old Mother Gun’. Bentley were unstoppable. As in all motorsport, development moves fast and conscious of remaining on top, W.O. and the team concentrated on developing the standard 6 ½ Litre model into a sports car that would go on to become Bentley’s most successful racer, the Speed Six, in late 1928.

This development principally involved a tuned version of the 6 ½ litre engine with higher compression ratio and a new inlet manifold with twin SU HVG5 carburettors. Several different camshafts were specified for the Speed Six, usually specified in the Service Record. The 1929 Model Speed Six engine developed 160bhp compared to 147bhp for the 1928 Model Standard Six engine. Externally the Speed Six differs from the Standard Six as the radiator and bulkhead were redesigned, with parallel sides rather than the tapering radiator and bulkhead used on the earlier chassis. The 1930 Speed Six model was announced at the 1929 Motor Show, with detailed improvement to both engine and suspension. 182 Speed Six were produced, of which half were the 1929 model and half the 1930.

The Speed Six positively shone in long distance endurance racing as well as becoming one of the most prestigious and desirable sports cars of its time. The first Speed Six was fitted with a Gurney Nutting saloon body and used as a demonstrator, while the second chassis was allocated to the Racing Shop. In the hands of Woolf Barnato and Tim Birkin this car stormed to victory at Le Mans in 1929 at an average speed of 73.62mph. Known as ‘Old Number One’ after its race number for the 1929 24 hour race, it went on to have an extraordinary racing career, winning Le Mans again 1930 in the hands of Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston and finishing second on handicap and first on speed at Brooklands in the 1929 500 Miles race, as well as scoring notable results in Ireland and in other Brooklands races.

So dominant were the Speed Sixes for the 1930 season, that they took first and second in the Brooklands Double Twelve and Le Mans. The Speed Six was truly the supercar of its time and therefore has a unique place in motor racing history.

This stunning example, chassis number LB2331, is an early 11’6” Speed Six chassis and is the twentieth of the 182 produced. The engine LB2333, which it still retains to this day, was fitted with one of the “hot” specification camshafts, BM7055. Dispatched to high-class London coachbuilders Gurney Nutting, the body is noted as being a Weyman saloon. According to highly respected Bentley historian Dr. Clare Hay, Gurney Nutting built at least three closed-coupled saloons such as this on Speed Six chassis. KF2393 as a demonstrator for Jack Barclay, this car LB2331 and KR2676, which went on to be sold to the Maharajah of Indore.

LB2331 was signed off from its final test at the works on the 12th of April 1929, with the five-year guarantee issued two weeks later on the 26th of April. The first owner was Noel van Raalte of Burseldon Lodge, Burseldon, Hampshire. Van Raalte was a wealthy playboy and keen racing driver. Based on the south cost where he had interest in the motor boat industry, he also owned Brownsea Island and was a director of the KLG Sparkplug Co. In 1915 he drove a Sunbeam to 10th place in the Indianapolis 500 under a pseudonym.

Famous in Bentley circles, he ordered the first production 3 Litre, chassis 1. He also owned 3 Litres chassis 400 and 1185, and a 6 ½ Litre chassis BR 2356. Mrs. Van Raalt also owned a 3 Litre chassis 47. The service records for this car are consistent with his fondness for sporting driving and interests in engineering. In November 1929 the top end of the engine for this car was updated to the new 1930 Speed Six specification with a new single port cylinder block and manifold. This would have been fresh off of the drawing board at this time. At this same time, the gearbox was also changed for a “C” type box, No. 6601, which it still retains today.

Some time between July 1934 and March 1935, LB2331 was sold to H.E.B Holden who had addresses in London, Sussex and Berkshire. Some minor work was carried out during his ownership before being sold to Dr. J.H. Reid of Birkinhead, some time between December 1935 and March 1936. Some repair work followed accidents in July 1936 and March 1937, with a reconditioned front axle bed fitted after the first of these.

The post-War owners for LB2331 are listed as J.S.H. Reid in 1947, Bertie Hopcutt in 1948 and a Mr. R.T. Cookson in 1950. In Mr. Cookson’s ownership the car sat outside awaiting restoration. Eventually the car got the long-awaited restoration, but sadly not before the original Gurney Nutting body had been left to deteriorate and was finally scrapped. A Vanden Plas style sports four-seat open body was fitted with long wings and this body (although not on the car) accompanies the car to this day.

The current owner purchased LB2331 from the Cookson family and had the car totally restored to the highest possible standard copying the 1930 No.2 Team car for Le Mans, GF 8570, where possible while still retaining its original integrity. Bentley specialist Wayne Huckle was entrusted with the work along with help from Michael Hope of Brineton Engineering and the owner, himself an accomplished engineer. The chassis retains its original 11’6” length and all of its original matching numbered components. There has been no expense spared in the attention to detail on this restoration as is clear to see. GF 8570 has been copied down to every detail although the decision was made to leave the servo in place to enable the car to stop properly in modern traffic.

The ash frame for the body was the last one produced by Roger Wing and it was covered to Team car specification smooth finish and painted. The mesh screen and individual side carpets are as per the team car, as are the ash wooden floors and side carpets. The correct smooth leather, seat construction and inside pleating in the rear are all to Team car specification. The hood is trimmed in double duck as per the 1929 team cars.

Any internal mechanical components that have needed replacing during the restoration have all been retained for posterity and accompany the car along with the open four-seat body previously mentioned. This project has very much been a labour of love and the time that has gone into getting it this right is very evident. Recently described by a regarded Bentley specialist as ‘Undoubtedly one of the very best Speed Sixes that has ever been available for sale’, this an opportunity that rarely presents itself. A chance to experience a proper example of arguably the very best car ever produced by the great engineering establishment that is Bentley Motors.