In considering this month's theme, several story lines suggested themselves. Usually these special cars that take us beyond the mere functionality of transport are the work of one man whose vision captivates us. However my subject is without doubt one of the most desirable motor vehicles on the planet and yet it has achieved its preeminence as a result of a series of happy events rather than a master plan. The Embiricos Bentley combined both grace and performance, and resulted in heavily influencing the future of the brand.
In the 1920's Bentley arguably established itself as the top sportscar racing brand, five wins in eight years at the Le Mans 24 Hours as well as the reflected glamour of the "Bentley Boys". However, the financial side of the business was much less promising (even before the upheavals following the Wall Street Crash). Bentley had relied on support from wealthy individuals such as Woolf Barnato, who raced the cars with such success, but eventually this source of finance ran out. The upshot was that Rolls-Royce acquired the company in 1931 and introduced a new line of Bentleys, dubbed "the silent sportscar" - a change in philosophy from the original racer concept of W.O. Bentley.
In parallel with the changes to Bentley's cars, a revolution in car design was taking place in Europe. Throughout Germany and Italy there was a rapid expansion of the Autobahn and Autostrada networks, driven by the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini who used grand capital projects to kickstart their economies and distract folks from other matters. The designers of high performance motor cars now had to consider aerodynamics in the mix to optimize speed, then there was also the important matter of style.
The French in particular were producing cars such as the Bugattis and Talbot-Lagos which combined stunning performance with a supreme elegance - true automotive art. These developments pushed Walter Sleator, head of Franco-Britannic Automobiles, agents for Rolls-Royce and Bentley in Paris, to come up with a radical solution. Faced with declining sales due to the perception that Bentley was old fashioned and behind the times, Sleator decided that Bentley needed to change its image.
The first problem was to convince the management of Rolls-Royce that the project was worthwhile, next was to find a means of funding it. Sleator proposed that the work should be done in Paris under his control, leaving the Head Office some wriggle room if things did not turn out well. André Embiricos, a financier and shipping magnate, provided the budget and agreed that the design should be left in the hands of Georges Paulin, who was a dentist as well as a car designer.
Paulin had worked on several projects for Delage, Talbot-Lago and in particular the Darl'mat Peugeots that had scored a class win in the 1938 Le Mans 24 Hours. Paulin worked with Parisian coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout and between them they came up with a design that reflected the cutting edge approach required.
A standard 4¼ litre chassis, B27LE, was sent with a few minor modifications from Derby to Carrosserie Pourtout, where Paulin's elegant 2-door, 4-seat design was to be created. Some experimental parts from Bentley were also sent, giving a further edge to the performance of the engine and transmission. The craftsmen at Carrosserie Pourtout made the body mostly out of aluminium to save weight, a key element in achieving maximum performance and over 100 kilos of reduction was found over a standard car. This work of art was finished early in 1939 and was ready to be run - testing to see if it lived up to its promise.
André Embiricos was generous with his latest purchase and allowed Sleator to run the car on Germany's autobahns. In June he tried a one hour run at Montlhéry averaging 107.42mph, with a best lap of 110.04mph. The sceptical management at Rolls-Royce were at last convinced and the following month the Embiricos Bentley ran at Brooklands with George Eyston, current holder of the Land Speed Record, at the wheel. Eyston covered 114.6 miles in an hour and had a best lap of 115.55mph, faster than Robert Benoist, a contemporary Grand Prix driver and Le Mans winner, had managed in a Bugatti Type 57C at Montlhéry a few weeks earlier. The concept had put Bentley back at the head of the pack of luxury performance cars.
September 1939 saw the outbreak of World War II and the car was sold to Soltan Hay - who used this unique Bentley as his daily driver rather than hide it away in a garage. There the story of this handsome car might have ended...
However, in 1949 the French announced that they would run the first post-war Le Mans 24 Hours. Hay entered his one-off Bentley and asked motoring journalist Tommy Wisdom to co-drive. Despite having no racing experience Hay's entry was accepted, something that would be inconceivable today. The faith of the ACO in allowing in such a novice into their race was rewarded as the Embiricos Bentley covered 210 laps, finishing sixth overall at an average speed of 73.52mph.
In 1950, Hay returned to La Sarthe with a new co-driver, Hugh Hunter. Once again the Anglo-French beauty ran reliably - finishing 14th, having completed 225 laps. A third run at Le Mans was made in 1951, however the race was now for out-and-out competition cars and the Bentley was not really competitive. Dynamo problems during the night caused the car to lose a lot of time and despite coming in 22nd, it was not classified as an official finisher, being just four miles short of the target.
It was the end of an era as the 1951 race marked the final appearance of Bentley at Le Mans in the 20th Century. It would be 2001 before the famous brand, forever associated with the early years of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, would race again in France. Soltan Hay would have been justified in looking at his adventures at Le Mans with pride, a 13 year old car with a standard engine and suspension had outperformed many purpose-built entries - and he had made it to the finish line on three occasions. It is said that after the 1951 race, he had the car looked over and then drove off in the Bentley to continue the family holiday.
Hay continued to run the car in competition in the UK, even as late 1955 at Davidstow. He retained ownership of car till 1969, whereupon it has moved around until becoming part of a prominent Californian collection, which organised a restoration to original condition. We are fortunate that sympathetic owners allow their treasures to be shared with us more "common" folk - and the Embiricos Bentley was one of the highlights of the 2012 Windsor Concours of Elegance.
The Embiricos Bentley never entered production, but it did encourage the famous marque to move in a different direction that eventually saw the introduction of the famous Continental range. The values of elegant engineering are still reflected in the cars produced by Bentley today. As an individual car, the style and beauty marks the Embiricos Bentley out as special, to combine that with three finishes at the world's greatest motor race makes it unique, almost beyond value.
"Built for..." is this month's feature topic at Driving Line - visit last weeks story, Built for SHOW: The Iron Orchid.