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
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