July 18, 2024


Automotive pure lust

2021 Bentley Blower Continuation Revives Bentley’s Past

The gradual evolution of the automobile has meant that different innovations have arrived at different times, and leaping back 90 years in automotive history makes for a strange combination of the familiar and the utterly alien. It’s a point made spectacularly well by the Bentley Blower Continuation, a vehicle that manages the unique trick of possessing both a new-car smell and a genuine pre-war driving experience.

The Blower’s dial-strewn dashboard seems to have been modeled on the mantelpiece of an English country manor, yet it houses both a tachometer and a speedometer—features that few cars had in 1930. It doesn’t have a fuel gauge, however. A period Blower’s owner—or, likely, their servant—would have checked the car’s fuel level by simply gazing into its vast, 26.4-gallon tank. The Blower’s floor-mounted gearshift is laid out in a conventional H pattern—top left for first gear, bottom right for fourth—although it is positioned awkwardly to the right of the right-hand driving position. The clutch pedal also is where your left foot expects to find it. But things get more archaic with the realization that this vintage of Bentley predates conventionally modern pedal positioning, what with its accelerator situated in the middle and the brake pedal on the right.

In short, Bentley has done what it promised when it announced it would build a run of 12 of its most famous cars. Beyond the lack of 90 years of wear, the Continuation is an exact facsimile of the original Blower. Jaguar kicked off the modern trend for factory-sanctioned continuation models in 2015 by producing seven lightweight E-types that the company had originally planned but never got around to making. Additional models have followed. Aston Martin also got in on the act with old-new versions of the DB4 GT, DB4 GT Zagato, and the James Bond-inspired DB5 Goldfinger.

But when Bentley’s Mulliner division decided to do something similar, it opted to head much further back in time and to deliver what is a much more demanding driving experience. Yet, there was no shortage of interest. The company says it could have sold considerably more than the dozen cars it will build, despite each example costing $2.1 million and not being suitable for registered road use in most parts of the world.

Despite being one of Bentley’s most famous models, the original Blower wasn’t a factory project. Company founder W.O. Bentley didn’t believe in forced induction, holding that larger naturally aspirated engines were a more appropriately English way to respond to the challenge posed by rival supercharged racers such as the Mercedes SSK and Bugatti Type 35C. One-time fighter pilot and aristocratic Bentley Boy driver, Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, politely disagreed and set about building a four-cylinder car that would use an Amherst-Villiers Roots-type supercharger to produce more power than the Bentley Works team’s Speed Sixes. Doing this cost Birkin most of his personal fortune, and when that ran short, he managed to arrange additional support from a wealthy heiress named Dorothy Paget, a prolific gambler and racehorse owner. Eventually he persuaded Woolf Barnato, Bentley’s chairman and another factory race driver, to sanction the production of 55 Blowers, five of which would be outfitted for racing.

Featuring such innovations as a 16-valve cylinder head, twin-spark ignition, aluminium pistons, and a magnesium crankcase, the Blower’s 4.4-liter four was one of the most powerful in the world at that time, making 240 horsepower in race trim. That was more than the 200 or so horses made by the massive Speed Six cars—the ones that Ettore Bugatti once referred to as the world’s fastest trucks. But the Blower was also thirsty and prone to failure. “The Blower eats plugs like a donkey eats hay,” as Bentley’s chief mechanic put it.

Some more history: The Bentley Blower never won a significant race in its day, although it did play a heroic cameo at the 1930 24 Hours of Le Mans. Bentley had won the endurance race in 1929 and was defending its title with three factory-entered Speed Sixes. Birkin brought another trio of Blowers, driving the No. 2 car himself. The big threat was Rudolf Caracciola’s privately entered Mercedes SSK, a car with a clear performance advantage over the Speed Six but considered mechanically fragile when driven flat-out. When the race began, Birkin set off at a searing pace, overtaking the Mercedes twice and goading the German into giving chase. Caracciola did, and his SSK indeed broke before the finish, but none of the Blowers made it to the checkered flag, either. Barnato in his Speed Six ultimately led a one-two finish for the works team.

Bentley now owns Birkin’s No. 2 car and reckons it is worth tens of millions of dollars. There have been various mild restorations over the years, but the core structure and engine are the same that raced in 1930. That car served as the basis for the Continuation project, with Mulliner disassembling it and scanning individual parts before commissioning exact replicas. The car in our photos is the development prototype, officially known as Car Zero, and it carries some extra paraphernalia required as a Volkswagen Group test mule, including both supplementary LED headlights and a data-acquisition system. But mechanically it is identical to both the original car and the dozen production models that will follow it.

Despite being worth far more than the Continuation, the No. 2 car is surprisingly the one Bentley asked us to sample first at Millbrook Proving Ground. This was to impart an appreciation for the car’s rich history and, as Bentley’s public-relations manager admits, because the teeth of its non-synchronized transmission have been smoothed by decades of graunchy gear changes and should therefore be slightly more forgiving in inexperienced hands.

Coping with the Blower’s gearbox is the greatest challenge when behind the wheel. The accurately named “crash” transmission requires double declutching—pressing the clutch pedal to deselect a gear, releasing it, and pressing it again to select a gear—for shifting both up and down its ratios, with downshifts bringing the additional complication of matching the engine’s revs to road speeds. The clutch also incorporates an engine brake to still the big four’s input shaft so that first gear can be selected. On the move, this means that downshifts bring the additional challenge of remembering to only depress the clutch halfway while blipping a wrongly placed accelerator and manipulating a shifter that’s partially positioned under your right thigh. Yes, there were some grinding noises.

But the rest of the experience of the No. 2 car feels, if not exactly modern, certainly less old-fashioned. Performance is impressively brisk. The big engine has no enthusiasm for revs and is reluctant to reach its modest 4500-rpm redline. But low-end torque is plentiful, and the boost gauge indicates the supercharger’s significant contribution even at low revs. When the original Blower team cars were sold off in 1931, Birkin guaranteed that each was able to achieve a top speed of at least 125 mph. We were restricted to an indicated 80 mph on Millbrook’s banked two-mile oval, but the Blower feels completely happy at this pace, tracking straight and with less slop in its steering than many later cars. Driving it is a physical experience. The steering barely lightens as the car gains speed, and the cable-operated drum brakes are feeble. Even panic-level pressures produce less retardation than resting your foot on the brake pedal of a modern vacuum-boosted braking system.

Switching to Car Zero confirms a nearly identical driving experience. The new car’s fresh gearbox is less tolerant of fluffed shifts, although the heavy shift mechanism feels more accurate. The prototype’s brakes are even worse—we later learned that it had been fitted with new pads that hadn’t been properly bedded—but we soon find that the sizeable external handbrake lever operates a separate set of shoes on the back axle, allowing rear braking force to be usefully increased. The engine emits the same thump-thump-thumpsoundtrack, and although it is limited to 3200 rpm during testing, the car actually feels slightly quicker than the original.

The greater difference is one of perception. The Continuation feels every bit as archaic to drive as its predecessor, but it’s not an irreplaceable historical artifact. We don’t mind pushing it harder on Millbrook’s Hill Route, which could pass for a narrow, twisty Alpine road. The combination of solid axles, leaf springs, and lever-arm dampers cope surprisingly well with harder cornering loads, although the ride feels brutally hard over even small bumps.

Peak cornering forces are modest, and the combination of narrow tires and the positively cambered front wheels make for limited grip and the early onset of understeer. Overall traction is decent, but the heavy, recirculating-ball steering tries to center itself when you call for more power with any steering lock applied. Within a couple of miles, it is clear that the biggest limitation to speed on a windy road is most likely to be the driver and their ability to wrestle the Blower through turns.

Bentley has done exactly what it needed to do with the Blower Continuation, and to have tamed or civilized it in any way would have entirely missed the point. Bentley’s first continuation model is also the most extreme of the genre so far. Here’s hoping it gives the upper echelons of the market an appetite for other equally impressive newly built anachronisms.

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