The odd couple made for a happy marriage. Partisans of the thundering, rough-and-tumble Bentley of the W.O. years were appalled in 1933 when Rolls-Royce introduced its first Bentley as “The Silent Sports Car,” but impartial observers agreed it was a fine automobile. Although the Rolls-Royce purchase of Bentley Motors had included the services of W.O. Bentley, he had not been asked to serve much. By the time the Bentley on display was produced, the engineer had long since departed for Lagonda to create a magnificent V-12 that was introduced for 1937.
Meanwhile, Rolls engineers had bored out their original 3669cc Bentley engine to 4257cc in 1936, thereby increasing the top speed of the car from 90 to 96 mph. Considerably more was yet possible. In 1939, in a 4 ¼ Litre with special streamlined body, Captain George Eyston lapped Brooklands for an hour at 114.63mph.
Sir Malcolm Campbell, whose run with Bluebird V at Bonneville in 1935 had raised the world land speed record above the 300 mph mark, chose a 4 ¼ Litre for motoring back home. Its engine, steering and brakes were “absolute perfection,” he declared. Never before had he driven a car that “holds the road so well.” The wordsmiths at Derby couldn’t have said it better. Cohabitation had brought high performance to Rolls-Royce and refinement to the Bentley tradition of fast motoring.
From 1933 to 1940, approximately 2500 Rolls-Bentleys were built, about half of them the 4 ¼ Litre, 200 of those with the overdrive that was added for the 1939 model year and which is featured on the display car.
The display car is distinguished by its elegant James Young coachwork. In 1951 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City exhibited eight cars to illustrate the finest in automotive design. This Bentley was among them and was described as “a carefully groomed object – rigid, poised, powerful – with a patrician urbanity of style that other schools of design have failed to render obsolete.” Decades later that statement still rings true. Aesthetic obsolescence cannot really happen to a motorcar as grand as this one.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more