Walter Owen Bentley said he started with “nothing but a few bits of paper and some ideas.” From
that modest genesis rose England’s most celebrated sporting car of the twenties. A former locomotive
fireman, motorcycle racer and aero engineer designer, Bentley made few concessions to public taste in
producing his cars. This was part of his undoing. He was a dreadful businessman. But in the decade before
financial ruin forced him to give up his company to Rolls-Royce, W.O. Bentley produced some of the most
thunderously memorable go-fast machines the world has ever seen.
Racing was the plan from the beginning. “Competition is the cheapest way of selling cars,” W.O.
said. Despite W.O.’s initial reservations about the 24-hour race, Bentleys won Le Mans for the first time in
1924 and famously dominated the race in the second half of the decade. In addition to fielding an official
works team, W.O. encouraged British sportsmen to race by building competition cars for anyone who asked.
Eighteen asked for the Super Sport, the display car being one of only ten that remain extant. Distinguished
by its 108-inch wheelbase (nine inches shorter than the standard 3 Litre), the Super Sport was sold with 100
mph assured. (Ninety was promised for the 3 Litre Speed Model.)
Like many Bentley enthusiasts, Eastbourne butcher Henry Leeson, the original owner of the display
Super Sport, was a multi-Bentley owner and a keen sportsman driver who would die careening down the
banking into the paddock approach road at Brooklands in an MG in 1932. Leeson chose the tapered radiator
and bulkhead that was a Super Sport option and asked Surbico – an obscure Surrey coachbuilder based in
London’s commuter-belt – to make the one-of-a-kind boat-tailed body with a front valance lighter and more
elegant than the standard fully valanced type.
Five years was the Bentley guarantee for a production model. W.O chose to offer the Super Sport
with a one-year guarantee, generous for a competition machine. Confidence misplaced? Perhaps not. There
was no more robust car on the road in the twenties than one of W.O.’s Bentleys.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more