Bentley is celebrating its centenary in 2019. To join in the revelry, we headed to Kroonstad to drive one of South Africa’s most extraordinary Bentleys...

The 4½-litre is quite a sight. And intimidating. Its sheer size and shape appear so alien in a modern motoring world. But it also oozes quality engineering from every angle. I can’t wait to slide in behind the wheel.

Pre-war cars are an acquired taste and many classic car fans often dismiss them as relics from the annals of history. The truth is, though, connoisseurs consider pre-war classics the core of motoring. They represent the origins of racing, when pioneers – both on and off the track – laid the foundations for modern motoring.

WO Bentley was one such man and the cars he manufactured while he was still involved with the company – between 1919 and ‘31 – hold a special place in the hearts of enthusiasts. Similar to how many Ferrari fans viewed the F40 supercar as “the last true Ferrari” owing to the involvement of Il Commendatore (Enzo Ferrari), Bentley’s pre-1932 cars are hallowed examples of the company’s engineering progress before the British carmaker entered liquidation and was snapped up by Rolls-Royce.

Chassis number UK 3293 was bought in 2005 by the current owner’s late father (after a year and a half’s negotiation with the previous owner) and, before his dad passed away, they completed several trips in the 4½-litre, immersing themselves in Bentley culture locally and globally.

In the pre-war years, a new owner would buy their car’s chassis and drivetrain from Bentley before sending these units to a coachbuilder for the body to be manufactured (in this case, Vanden Plas). In total, only 667 of these models were produced. This specific car was returned to the UK in the 1990s to have a new body fitted in the exact same style as the original unit.

It has been in South Africa since 1935. According to its owner, it recently completed a 360 km day trip, “barely a warm-up of what you can achieve in these cars”. There are plans to go on a longer adventure in future.

The large wheels (5,25 x 21-inch), exposed suspension, fuel tank (90 litres) jutting out at the rear (as an aside, there is no fuel pump onboard; the fuel is sucked by the vacuum created by the engine from the petrol tank all the way to the engine) and vents on the bonnet lids all contribute to a car unlike just about anything else on our roads. It harks back to a romantic – and occasionally dangerous – era of motorsport.

And these cars have real racing pedigree; Bentley won Le Mans in 1928 with a 4½-litre driven by Woolf Barnato (a director at Bentley) and Bernard Rubin. That provenance only adds to their value.

A pre-war car is a different kind of machine. You have to be technically minded to own it and to drive it… as I’m about to find out.

Climbing aboard is not a straight-forward affair. The gearlever blocks the entryway on the driver’s side (which has no door) and the only option is to slide in from the opposite end. The owner shows me the starting procedure and then the vastly more complex exercise of changing gears (adding to the intricacy, the throttle and brake pedals are swapped). Clutch in, into first, clutch in, into neutral, clutch out, clutch in again, into second, clutch out. I’m so focused on following the correct order I almost miss the enchanting engine and exhaust sounds. There is a deep, clean burble emanating from the pipe, unlike any other four-cylinder I’ve heard.

I manage changing up without too much gear-grinding. Into third gear, we crest 60 km/h. I’ve never experienced such a solid, mechanical shift action. It’s a gloriously interactive experience. But then I’m challenged with shifting down, which involves double-declutching and blipping the throttle to match the engine and road speed before engaging a lower gear. I try my best but don’t succeed and cringe as the gearbox objects.

I come to a stop and start going through all the gears again but downshifting in this valuable car is not on the cards for me today. Given more time, I’m sure I would have mastered the technique but the risk of damaging the transmission is not worth it.

I wave the owner over and he climbs behind the wheel, pulls off and works the pedals and gearlever like a pro. Still, even after 15 years, he smiles every time he executes a perfect shift.

He revs the engine to about 2 000 r/min and takes the behemoth to 100 km/h on the N1, which feels immensely fast in a 91-year-old car. I ask how quick he’s gone in the Bentley. “It will easily rev past 3 500 r/min and, since it was the car’s 90th birthday last year, I took it to 90 mph (145 km/h) on a closed road.”

The view out front is dominated by a series of dials for the driver to keep tabs on the engine’s operation. Steering is via a Bakelite wheel giving ample leverage on the move. Parking the big Bentley, however, requires serious muscle.

After spending some hours with the car, I understand the allure and excitement of driving and owning a pre-war car. We often wax lyrical about the thrill of driving a sportscar, especially classic ones. But, this Bentley elevates driving to a more involved level. It’s automotive pleasure in one of its rawest forms.  



FAST FACTS

Engine: 4,4-litre, 4-cylinder, petrol
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Power: 82 kW @ 3 500 r/min
Top speed: 148 km/h
Suspension: front and rear semi-elliptic leaf springs
Weight: 1 650-1 730 kg (Tourer)
Brakes: 400 mm drums all-round
Original price: £1 050 (for chassis only)
Number made: 667