1931 Bentley 4½ Litre ‘Blower’
Reader Clive Button tries out his dream ‘Blower’ Bentley for real. He owned the Matchbox model as a child; now reader Clive Button gets to realise his Bentley Blower dream in 1:1 scale ‘I defy anyone not to be amazed by the acceleration’. Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Jordan Butters.
The List One lucky reader gets to live out his ‘Blower’ Bentley-boy fantasy
It would be a gross understatement to say that this dream drive has been tricky to bring to fruition, considering the events of the last 18 months. That of course means that our chosen reader has had even more time in which to anticipate the event. The words ‘froth’ and ‘frenzy’ both come to mind. And the reason is easily explained by another two – the descriptor ‘Bentley’ preceding the hallowed ‘Blower’ sobriquet. Clive Button has hit the jackpot.
‘I’m expecting this to be a magical car and hoping that it will transport me back to 1930 to savour something of the spirit of the Bentley Boys,’ says today’s lucky reader. As if on cue, today’s steed – kindly provided by Hertfordshire-based vintage Bentley stalwart NDR Ltd – appears on the access bridge above us and crosses the M3 with a low deep-throated exhaust note to begin a languid, circular descent to the test track entrance. No trailers here – pfft… the very thought. It has just menacingly navigated its way here to Longcross test track around rush-hour M25.
‘It looks just like the Matchbox model I owned 60 years ago,’ says a clearly awestruck Clive. ‘The same British Racing Green, Union Flag painted on the side… except here in real life it’s big and brutal. To say it has presence is an understatement.’
Pilot Steve Russell, an ex-Bentley main dealer teased out of retirement by company proprietors Neil and Jo Davies to do ‘bits ’n’ bobs’ for NDR, parks up and gives us the low-down on the car. ‘It’s the ex-George Daniels Blower, owned, driven and campaigned by the pre-eminent horologist for more than 40 years. Originally a saloon, he proceeded to build it as an exacting replica of the Vanden Plas-bodied ‘works’ Birkin team Blowers and he had a great eye for detail. Having left Cricklewood with the heavier Blower crankshaft (an additional ten per cent on purchase price) it was the perfect base, so he commissioned an Amherst Villiers ribbed supercharger manufactured to the original drawings.’ The result? Forget the standard road car’s 175bhp – Clive’s about to go proper Thirties full fat with 240bhp.
Our man begins to acquaint himself with his new surroundings. ‘Given that this is a large car the body tub is small and narrow,’ he says. ‘I’d rub shoulders with the passenger if I had one. It’s very business-like in here with no overt luxury. I love the tools strapped to the inside of the passenger door to hand for the riding mechanic and also the fact that the Blowers were not fitted with a speedometer because there wasn’t room for one on the dashboard – although the last owner has fitted one on a bracket.’
That’s not the only tweak that he made. To avoid confusion with the 6½ Litre Bentley that he also owned, the previous custodian had the accelerator switched to the right-hand-side. ‘I had primed myself to cope with it being centrally positioned between the clutch and brake, but this will make acclimatisation easier.’ Not that that should prove to be too onerous because Clive – ex-chairman and current valuations officer at the Wolseley Register – has a wealth of pre-war car experience, having owned nine including his current 1934 Wolseley Hornet Special. Although, by his own admission, none have come close to this magnificent beast. Steve gives him some final guidance before stating, ‘She’s a pussycat to drive.’ Clive smiles before offering some final thoughts on the cabin. ‘You sit high, with a commanding view all round. The seats are comfortable and everything is to hand. This isn’t a place to lounge though – it feels like a place to do serious business.’ At that, he switches both magnetos and one of the fuel pumps on, retards the ignition, engages the clutch and presses the starter button; he gently advances the ignition as the engine cranks slowly and there’s a comedy detonation from beneath the Blower’s epic multi-louvered bonnet as it fires into life and settles down to a 500rpm idle. He selects first gear, reaches outside the cabin to release the handbrake and we’re off. There’s a lovely moment of symmetry as he passes his own Cypress Green 2006 Bentley Continental GT, before rolling onto the track.
The noise is dominated by the low bass sound from the Blower’s substantial three-inch tailpipe even at low speed and as Clive motors on, it simply obliterates all other noise. The track banks at the first corner; it’s not quite Brooklands but there’s something stirring about the sight of the Blower thus pitched. Clive hits the throttle as the Tarmac straightens and I’m left far in its wake in the chase car with only trace notes of a fast-disappearing reverberating blare for company, as he’s slingshot into the distance.
I catch up fully after three laps. The track is ours alone today so with Clive keeping to the outer edge I can work around him on the inside. As I pass, our man bears the smile of a feline from his native Cheshire. I must say that he looks mightily at home. There’s some distance between us now but a quick glance in my rear-view mirror shows that Clive’s back on the throttle because the Bentley’s bluff front end is now approaching at a huge rate of knots and the machine thunders past in no time. It’s an impressive display of mechanical prowess; you get the feeling that the Blower could stay there at high speed for hours. Four high-speed laps later it’s time to pull in for an initial debrief.
‘With all the controls, you are aware that there is something solid and properly engineered on the other end, but that’s not to say that anything is unduly heavy,’ he begins. ‘The large cordbound wheel combines with my driving gloves to give excellent purchase. Double de-clutching is second nature but the right-hand gear change took a little getting used to. The steering doesn’t seem heavy at anything above walking pace and it is highly geared and direct. Holding position on the banked circuit is straightforward.
The brakes too, are powerful and reassuring; Steve says that it’s fitted with racing linings which perhaps help things, although they give a curious smell of burning rubber – by design, I’m assured – after high-speed braking.’
I get the feeling that Clive is building to the main event. ‘Setting off in first gear, you change into second almost as soon the car is rolling and in to third at 15-20mph. It’s then in to top at 30-40mph. There isn’t any point in holding lower gears because of the phenomenal torque. Open the throttle from as little as 1500rpm and the car is propelled forward by a wall of torque. Speed builds rapidly and this Bentley can produce top gear acceleration unlike any pre-war car of my experience. I defy anyone not to be amazed by the acceleration.
‘The noise is addictive – the growl of low revs changes to a roar as the supercharger does its bit while the gauge in front of me shows 3-4psi boost pressure. Accelerating hard or driving at high speed there are no sounds of anything working hard because all is achieved at low revs – I haven’t seen more than 2500rpm! It’s visceral to drive though; your whole body is involved and affected by the sensations it produces. I’m not sure it’s a pussycat though – more a well-mannered tiger.
‘If the Bentley reminds me of any car I’ve owned, it’s the 1924 Austin ‘Heavy’ 12/4; of course, there’s no comparison in power and performance terms but being from the vintage era it shares the same honesty of approach and engineering that would so quickly change in the post-vintage era.’ ‘The men who raced them in period were heroes,’ offers Steve. That they raced them at all was down to the single-mindedness of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. After all, this is the car that WO Bentley didn’t want to build, being unconvinced of the merits of supercharging the 4½ Litre. While Birkin privately developed his Blowers, Bentley proceeded with its Speed Six.
We spend a good 30 minutes discussing the ins and outs of the 1930 Le Mans race – how Birkin sacrificed his own car to overwork the supercharged Mercedes and allow the Speed Six of Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston to power to victory; the fact that ultimately no Blowers finished; and yet today, it’s still the supercharged Bentleys that capture the motoring public’s imagination – there’s a reason why Bentley chose the Blower to be its first continuation car, and felt they could command £1.5m apiece.
Clive hops back in and is soon hard at work again, this time heading off to tighter, twistier tarmac. The big Bentley remains composed through sharp corners, even at speed – helped no doubt by its hefty 1.8-tonne kerb weight. ‘Suspension is simple – cordbound semi-elliptic springs all round and friction dampers – but it is well set-up and the handling feels assured,’ Clive relays.
He even conducts a somewhat prolonged three-point turn in order to undertake a reverse run. ‘Not to be rushed, because reverse gear is protected by a clip across the gate. I found it all-too easy to turn off the battery isolator alongside when releasing it.’ However he’s inevitably drawn back to the outer circuit; once again unleashing the Blower’s phenomenal torque and sitting pretty for lap after lap before I finally signal an end to his high-speed vintage play and he brings the car back into the paddock.
‘I feel less overawed by the Blower with familiarity and can look at it more objectively when viewing it here stationary,’ he says. ‘The chassis rails are very big, the axles massive. Lift the bonnet and again everything seems huge. I don’t ever recall seeing such a large diameter steering column. It could not be more purposeful and it’s no wonder that Bentleys had a reputation for being tough; it’s also easy to see the origin of Ettore Bugatti’s famous description of the cars as being “the world’s fastest lorries”.
‘I once drove a 1934 Derby-built Bentley 3½ Litre and wondered if the Blower would feel anything like that. It didn’t. Bentleys of the Rolls-Royce era were smooth and refined but the Blowers are about performance above all else and have a thrilling rawness about them. You become one of the Bentley Boys vicariously, returning you to an era when British engineering was pre-eminent, Bentleys won Le Mans and Britain held land speed records.’
Clive had wondered whether he’d experience any of his Continental GT’s DNA during the experience, so did that happen? ‘In the promotional material for the model, Bentley made much of it being true to the Bentley heritage. I had wondered if this was just wishful thinking but having driven the Blower I can see that they both share the same “wall of torque” from low engine speed.’ But would he have one? ‘If I could afford to spend this much on a car then a Blower would be at the very top of my list. I thought it would be a magical car – and I am not disappointed.’
Thanks to: ndr.ltd.uk, Neil and Jo Davies and Steve Russell
No overhangs or unnecessary bodywork liked by reader Clive
CLIVE BUTTON’S CLASSIC CV
Clive’s car history has a distinct pre-war bent; the latter three make up his current fleet
1930 TRIUMPH SUPER SEVEN ‘This is where it all started: my first old car. ‘Harriet’ was a sweet little two-seater machine with a dickey seat. Top speed was around 50mph, but 30-35mph was a sensible cruising gait!’
1937 WOLSELEY 25HP DHC ‘Funded by the Wolseley workforce and built as a present for Lord Nuffield. The most original car I’ve ever owned, with provenance to die for.’
1993 MORGAN PLUS 4 ‘Purchased 19 years ago and still with me – the four-seater Mog has been mine longer than anything else. Provides 90 per cent of the vintage motoring experience yet utterly reliable.’
2006 BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT ‘A one-owner example, which had covered just 17,000 miles from new and had a full service history; I picked it up for a song. Beautiful, luxurious and provides a wall of torque.’
1934 WOLSELEY HORNET SPECIAL ‘Derelict barn-find that two Register members have fully resurrected for me. Thought to be the original Olympia Motor Show car.’
1931 Bentley 4½ Litre ‘Blower’
- Engine 4398cc in-line four cylinder, sohc, 16-valve, two SU HVG5 carburettors with Amherst Villiers Roots-type supercharger
- Max Power 240bhp @ 4200rpm
- Max Torque 315lb ft @ 2900rpm
- Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
- Steering Worm and wheel
- Front: front H-section beam axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and friction dampers.
- Rear: live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and twin friction dampers
- Brakes Mechanically operated 15½in drums with Perrot shafts
- Weight 1829kg (4032lb)
- Performance 0-60mph: n/a;
- Top speed: 125mph
- Fuel consumption n/a
- Cost new £1295 (unblown 4½ Litre)
- Approximate value £850,000
‘About half the length is taken up with engine, including the large front-mounted supercharger’62mm choke-endowed carburettors combine with replica of the Birkin supercharger for 240bhp
‘This Bentley can produce top gear acceleration unlike any prewar car of my experience’
Blower oil drip feeds prevent excess oil entering the supercharger [The List] Bentley 4½ Litre Blower ‘It looks just like the Matchbox model I owned 60 years ago except here in real life it’s big and brutal’ D-Type gearbox requires double-declutching up through the gears Button is familiar with pre-War cars, albeit none quite like this machine
CLIVE’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
Marcos Mantis ‘Loved it when I saw the 1970 launch article in Autocar; it’s different and with a 2½-litre Triumph Six, has great performance’
Bentley 4½ Litre ‘Who wouldn’t want to be a Bentley boy and see what it felt like to race at Brooklands?’
Ford Zephyr 4 MkIII ‘We had one when I was in my teens, so I have plenty of memories and I want to re-live the experience’
Rolls Royce Phantom II ‘Fabulous engineering and built with the precision of a fine watch’
AC 428 ‘It’s a rival to an Aston Martin or Jensen, but oh so very rare.’
Bristol 411 ‘I like the company’s idiosyncrasies; I’ve had a 401 and want to try a later V8-engined model’
Volvo P1800 ‘Well, I watched The Saint when I was 11 or 12. That should be enough explanation for why I want a drive’
Wolsit Racer (1907) ‘A terrifying Edwardian racer – a friend had a short ride in it and didn’t stop smiling’
BMW Isetta ‘My mother’s first car in 1961 – with the passage of six decades, is it still a viable means of transport?’
Bentley Continental R ‘The first Bentley substantially different from a Rolls Royce. Amongst the best of modern cars’