1956 Bentley S1
Cars can leave a profound impression on our childhood, and as car enthusiasts we can probably all think of one we wish our parents had never sold. David Watt did better than that – he bought it and brought it home.
WORDS: DAVID WATT
PHOTOGRAPHY: NIGEL BOOTHMAN
“The car relishes long, fast ‘blaws’ along twisty country roads.”
The S1 offered fast and spacious family transport — and still can
RETURN OF A SPECIAL BENTLEY
How a much-loved family car had a tearful goodbye – and a joyful return
This is a tale about a much cherished 1956 Bentley S1. It involves racing at Brooklands in the 1920s and ‘30s, Archie Frazer-Nash, Adolf Hitler (well, sort of) and a Commander of the International Space Station. Oh, and my grandfather and father as well. For lots of us, I’m sure, the desire to own a particular car goes back to childhood. That’s certainly the case with me. My ambition to own a 1950s Bentley was born one sad day in Glasgow in 1971 when my father, Eric, sold his Bentley S1 (chassis B48EG, registration TLL 360) to a London dealer who we kids hated because he had flown north specially to take away our pride and joy. The car was a standard saloon delivered to its original owner in February 1957. That original owner had been my maternal grandfather, Philip Ellis, of Pinner, Middlesex. For eight years, he and my grandmother, Edith, travelled the country in the car, enjoying holidays in Devon and visiting friends and family.
After years as a fishing companion, the Bentley is well used to rough tracks
When Edith died suddenly in late 1964, grandfather found the memories hard to bear, so decided to sell the car. He was delighted when his sonin- law – my dad – insisted on buying her, thus keeping her in the family. For the next six years, TLL 360 was dad’s everyday car. When the time came to sell her in 1971, he made me spend two days helping clean and polish her so that she left our ownership in pristine condition. I wasn’t really interested; I was eight years old and, like any sensible boy that age, was much more excited at the prospect of the new car arriving the following week – a 1967 Bentley T-Series. With electric windows!
The first indication that something momentous was happening was when the dealer drove away from the house in TLL and my mother and two older sisters burst into floods of tears! I thought they were crazy, but the sense of loss was palpable and the rest of the day was spent in an eery silence. When the dealer rang that evening to say the car had run faultlessly the 400 miles to London, the wailing broke out again! It was then I vowed that, one day, I too would own a Bentley S1.
TLL 360 represented so much for our family. Here’s why. After seeing active service in REME (Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers) fighting Adolf Hitler and his forces in North Africa and the Middle East, dad found himself in Greece in 1942. One day on patrol, his platoon was ambushed by German snipers in a remote village, dad sustaining severe gunshot wounds to his legs, arms, spine, shoulders and head. Indeed, he was initially placed on the “dead cart” along with dead comrades and, but for some eagle-eyed soldier spotting his twitching finger and realising he was still alive, would certainly have died on it. Dad never spoke about the war. Never. I only know the details of what happened that day in Greece due to a chance meeting in 1981 with a man who had been with him when the shooting broke out. When I mentioned this encounter, thinking dad would at last open up about his experiences, he feigned disinterest.
The memories were too real — too ‘present’ — for him ever to speak of it. Back in hospital in Britain, and aged only 22, with a paralysed leg and arm and life-changing injuries to his neck and spine, dad received the dreadful news that he would never walk again and to forget any ambitions of ever getting behind the wheel of a car. Now, the thing with my old dad was that whenever he was told he couldn’t do something, that ‘something’ would become his sole focus. He would move heaven and earth to do it! He was determined to overcome his injuries, no matter what it took. Only two weeks later, he persuaded his best friend, home on leave from the war, to bring his father’s Rover to the hospital. Dad was lifted into the driver’s seat and was able to get the car moving round the hospital compound accompanied by the rapturous applause of all those present to see the feat.
The surgeon who had told him he would never walk or drive again came out to see what all the noise was about. With his good hand, dad flicked her a good-natured V-sign and, to her eternal credit, she cheered loudest of all. From that moment on, and for the rest of his life, dad was ‘driven’ to regain his full independence and enjoy the pleasure of owning nice cars. It took a few years before he was once again able to walk and drive unaided, but his determination got him there in the end.
A Lanchester with a preselector gearbox and two automatic Rovers (P4 and P5) fitted the bill in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Then, in 1964, his sights were raised somewhat higher when his father-in-law, Philip, decided to sell his Bentley S1. My grandfather had owned the Shell over Tudor grey car from new, having ordered her through London dealer Jack Olding. Jack knew my grandfather through their mutual friend, Archie Frazer-Nash, the man behind the sports cars of the same name. Encouraged by Archie, Philip regularly attended Brooklands during its heyday in the ‘20s and ‘30s – as an avid spectator of the racing rather than taking part in it. Standing amongst the admiring crowds, deafened by the noise and marvelling at the exploits of the Bentley Boys, it was there he fell in love with Bentleys, vowing one day to own one himself. It took him almost 30 years to achieve the ambition!
Nicely figured wood has survived in excellent condition.
As I say, when the time came to sell TLL 360, he was delighted that she was to stay in the family by going to his son-in-law and his daughter, Pat, near Glasgow. Collecting the car in Middlesex, imagine how good it must have felt for Eric to be driving north in what was now his Bentley, some 20 years or so after being told that his driving days – indeed, his entire independence – were over. For the next five years, TLL fulfilled her role as a cherished family car, being taken on annual fishing holidays to south west Ireland and the west and north coasts of Scotland, my sisters and I playing games in the back, singing songs and doubtless driving mum and dad mad. Dad was a keen angler but, being disabled and none too steady on his feet, the car was expected to transport him and fishing gear along some very rough tracks and remote by-ways to reach his favourite lochs. She performed her duties marvellously well. Throughout dad’s ownership, she was beautifully maintained by Frasers, the Glasgow Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealers at the time.
By 1971, however, dad’s eye had been caught by the T-Series Bentley and TLL 360 was sold. From the day of her departure until 2006, we heard nothing about her but she remained fondly in our memories and always came up in chats at family gatherings. I loved the T-series — with its electric windows — but my dream persisted of, one day, owning a S1. Then, in early 2006, I ran into Ian Johnson of the Real Car Co. in North Wales, one of the best-known Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealers in the UK. I innocently told Ian about TLL 360 and was amazed when he straightaway looked her up on his computer and uttered the unforgettable words ‘I’ve good news for you. She’s still on the road – in Canada – and I know the owner!’ On the screen was a recent photograph of the car. I was speechless!
Sturdy 4.9-litre Inlet-overexhaust engine is the car's original unit.
In all the years of dreaming of being an S1 owner, it had never once occurred to me that it might be possible to possess the very car which had sparked my dream in the first place. But now I did start to think along those lines. It turned out she was owned by a retired Air Canada pilot, Roger Hadfield, and his wife, Eleanor, who live near Toronto.
I wrote to them telling them all about the first 15 years of the car’s history. Feeling faint with anticipation, I plucked up the courage to suggest that, if they ever came to sell her, they might like to speak to me first. I received a letter from Roger in which he explained that the London dealer who had acquired the car from us in 1971 had sold her to a gentleman from the Canadian Consulate in London. He had returned to Canada with the car in 1973 where she subsequently passed to another owner who drove her during the harsh Canadian winters on salty roads. By the time Roger came across her in about 1989, major restoration work to the bodywork was necessary. Roger is one of Canada’s foremost Rolls-Royce and Bentley enthusiasts and experts. The restoration work was carried out to the highest standards, including a terrific paint job (albeit in white because he likes white cars. She was never used for wedding hire before you ask!). At first, Roger told me the car was promised to their son, Chris Hadfield, who was Canada’s first astronaut and in training to become the Commander of the International Space Station, a role he subsequently took up in 2012. You may remember him – he famously took his guitar into space and became a major hit on social media by playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity (‘Ground Control to Major Tom…’) from the viewing room of the Space Station. Look him up on YouTube where there are lots of fascinating videos about life in space.
Happily, the Hadfields’ plans subsequently changed and I received another letter two months later to say that there was only one person in the world they would sell the car to and, as the grandson of the original owner, that person was me. Imagine my excitement! I flew to Toronto to meet the Hadfields and shake hands on the deal. They instantly became firm friends and have since been over to the UK twice to visit us. Then began a tortuous six-month, red tape-filled operation to ship the car back to the UK. If you’ve ever done it, you will know what I mean! Finally, on a sunny day in Edinburgh in September 2006, I had the joy of unloading my (my!) Bentley out of the shipping container and had a wonderful drive back to our home in the Borders. I now knew for certain how dad had felt driving north from London 42 years earlier. And, let me tell you, it felt GOOD! Sadly, dad died five years before this all happened, but my mother was still with us and shared the excitement (and, frankly, the disbelief) we all felt. She told us nothing would have given dad more pleasure than to see the old car back with the family.
Worn driver's seat armrest is a legacy of David's father, who rested his paralysed left arm. Indicator stalk and gear selector on same side suited David's father.
I know she was right about that. Climbing in behind the wheel, thinking of my grandfather and father doing the same thing all those years ago, gives me a thrill every time. For dad, with his paralysed left leg and arm, the automatic transmission, with the gear lever on the right of the steering column, was a godsend. So, too, was the handbrake down on the right.
She has power steering, ordered from new by my grandfather. Indeed, I’ve been told that she was one of the earliest Silver Cloud/S-Types delivered new to the home market with power steering, that particular option being solely reserved for the North American market at the time. Is that right?
One of the car’s first duties, three weeks later, was to be the principal car at my nephew Mark’s wedding in the Highlands. It was such a thrill to drive him and his lovely bride, Gill, in his great-grandfather’s and grandfather’s car. I couldn’t help thinking how pleased they would have been.
Since then, my wife, Victoria, and I have covered over 16,000 miles. Regular maintenance keeps her running beautifully. She has only once failed to proceed – when the fuel pump packed up five years ago. The re-spray carried out by Roger Hadfield in 1990 remains in outstanding condition, with the loveliest hand-painted coachline I’ve ever seen, which is the main reason I have decided not to return her to the original colour scheme. Well, for now, at any rate… Otherwise, everything else is original and numbers-matching. She remains just as pampered as she was in our family’s original ownership in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And I will be forever grateful to Roger for making this dream come true. And, of course, to my grandfather and father for pursuing their dreams, too.
“Climbing in behind the wheel, thinking of my grandfather and father doing the same thing all those years ago, gives me a thrill every time.”
Handsome rear three-quarter view is one of the car's best angles
B48EG ON THE ROAD
She starts well, even after the winter lay-up, the fuel pump needing time to fill the carburettors before turning the key (no starter button on the Cloud/S-series). Exhaust fumes are prominent from cold, but this is apparently normal with these engines. The gear change is smooth – especially so if, by easing off the accelerator at the right moment, you follow the guidance Rolls-Royce used to give to owners’ drivers at the company’s chauffeuring school. The ride is generally good, though ridges and bumps do make themselves felt, so are best avoided. 66 year-old springs after all! Replacing the 20 year-old tyres recently improved the ride enormously. I shan’t leave it so long next time. Handling such a large, heavy car fitted with drum brakes takes getting used to, but with a degree of practice and anticipation, they’re more than up to the job. The car relishes long, fast ‘blaws’ along twisty country roads. Everything works as it should except for the heater matrix which needs replacing.
Taking her out only on dry, warm days, that’s not really a problem. Following a regular maintenance programme with a professional mechanic (preferably a specialist) is strongly advised. She always returns from services running smoother than ever. My splendid mechanic tells me she’s one of the best running Cloud/S Types he knows. I’m confident that’s not just his client patter!
County Kerry, Ireland, 1966. David's father, Eric, getting ready for a day’s fishing on Lough Currane.TLL 360 with the original owner, David's grandfather (right) on day of delivery 1957.