Prior to production starting, or even its conception, Rolls Royce had decided that they wanted to build a superior and sportier version of their existing model the 20/25. The idea was to carve a niche in the market for a luxury sports tourer. The model they decided, would be powered using the existing engine unit found in the 20/25. However, they very much tuned and improved the six cylinder pushrod engine and fitted with twin S/U carburettors, increased compression, improved con rods and modified cam profiles, with a capacity of 3,669cc, it now produced 80hp at 4000rpm.
At the existing production facility in Derby, alongside Rolls Royce, production started on this new luxury sports tourer, a 3 ½ litre Bentley that would be known to possess excellent handling characteristics, with a superior 97mph when ordered and fitted with lightweight bodywork. The styling, like many previous cars with design influences by Sir Henry Royce, embodied some of the most complicated solutions for design of any car of that period. It is reported that Sir Henry Royce said that he would "rather own this Bentley than any other car produced under that name." and with the project development engineer, Lord Enerst Hives making clear in an address to company staff, that they should make a car as good as they knew how, and charge accordingly. The cost for the lucky number of owners was in the region of £1,500.00, when a Ford 8 at the time cost £100.00. Despite this exceptional price difference, with the superb design characteristics becoming increasingly desirable, the “Derby” Bentley 3 ½ litre proved immensely popular and was soon to be christened the “Silent Sports Car”!
This particular example has a long story to tell, which includes a 23 year restoration! The story however starts in 1935, when towards the end of production, it is noted that this particular Bentley 3 ½, was sent to Freestone and Webb coach builders for completion. Freestone and Webb, established in 1923, were a noteworthy English coach builder for Rolls Royce and Bentley Motor Cars and were also responsible for bodies on other chassis’ including notable marques, Alfa Romeo, Packard and Mercedes Benz. Their bespoke alterations and styling for customer cars was both highly regarded and respected as some of the best in the world. It should also be noted that the mascot atop the radiator is a single winged 'B'. This in itself is a rare item, one of three produced by the Derby factory according to the Bentley Drivers Club; it is one of the experimental designs for the Bentley mascot!
Delivered on March 6th, 1935 to Lillie Hall, Freestone and Webb undertook the task of completing the body and interior after the rolling chassis and engine had been produced by Bentley Motor Cars in Derby. Upon completion, the Bentley was delivered to Colonel W.D. Barber on the 12th July 1935. In true and exemplary military fashion, Col. Barber took meticulous and precise notes on each and every journey, including any necessary mention of items relating to his prized Bentley motor car. After 20-years of enjoyment, it finally came time to sell the beloved Bentley. The next owner, Phillip John Machin of Nottinghamshire, who was possibly chosen deliberately, as a show of equal care and attention continued as documented though the tradition of making notes and remarks of each and every journey undertaken in the Bentley. These combined notes, comprising of 16 original log books which accompany the Bentley, must be one of the finest and concise first hand written accounts of any automobiles early history, written from 1935 through to 1967! Interestingly enough, despite the warranty starting in July of 1935, during its first couple of years of life, it is apparent that Colonel Barber was stationed abroad in Northern Africa and Palestine and consequently used it sparingly as noted, “Car laid up with Freestone and Webb during absence in Egypt”, “ordered to Palestine after 1 week in England. Car laid up again with Freestone and Webb”. It is a rare and amusing read, that in February of 1947, the Bentley was kept at home due to a Blizzard!
Changing hands for the second time the Bentley headed to Hertfordshire in 1961, purchased by a dealer and noted in the log books, on August 5th 1961, “spotted in dealers yard’, ‘Sept 9 - Purchased CMF 708 - Cheque £200”. It appears to then change hands at what appears to be 3 times in so many years, during which time the car appeared in the 1963 Newbury Round Table Concours D’elegance, noted as P.V.T Class E. The Bentley was then sold for £300 with an outstanding 173,000 miles having been driven in 29 years. It was bought by William James Lough in September of 1964 who lived just outside London, who at this time undertook some mechanical restoration. It is unclear when Mr Lough, now an elderly gentleman, sold the car to D.K.Thomas, Esq., however, it is known that at the time of the sale, Mr Thomas promised to return the Bentley to its former glory as it stood in 1935! True to his word and having turned down several subsequent offers for substantially more than he paid, in 1980, Mr Thomas sent the Bentley to renowned Bentley restoration and engineering specialists, A. Archer of Dunmow, Essex, with explicit instructions to restore the Derby Bentley to its original condition and quality expectations achieved by the Derby Bentley 3 ½ litre project engineer, Lord Hives.
With an apparent disregard for cost, Mr Thomas undertook a complete and thorough restoration on the Bentley with what he had hoped to take a few years but which eventually took 23! Throughout this meticulous restoration, the obvious tenacity of Mr Thomas is apparent, as in 1990 due to a personal tax issue, he had to slow the restoration due to financial burdens to a mere £1000 outlay limit a month. Thankfully, with his financial situation behind him, work continued with every nut and bolt conceivably repaired or replaced to exacting standards. The body work was either sandblasted and restored or rebuilt properly, to as new condition. The frame was sandblasted and correctly coated and all the suspension, engine and mechanicals fully restored. No stone was left unturned, showing a complete disregard to cost. It was a labour of love and devotion and one that finally ended in 2003 with bills amounting to £153,432.57! Mr Thomas kept the Derby Bentley, using it sparingly and showing it occasionally, until its sale in 2010 to a collector and enthusiast, Mr Moore. It has since remained in his car with the same notable care and attention to detail shown, as the history file demonstrates.
This almost unrepeatable and superb Derby Bentley 3 ½ litre by Freestone and Webb, is nothing short of special. It is complete with a rare and thoroughly fascinating history file that dates back to its very first owner, who proved that keeping detailed accounts of even the fuel used on a trip was important. Having recently driven this special Bentley on an extended 120-mile trip, we can say that everything is as it should be and in fine working order. This Bentley represents a special moment in the Rolls Royce Bentley Motor Car history and to discover one with such provenance and first-hand written accounts by many of its previous and caring owners is exceptional. A superb investment in all regards.
A further addition to the sale of this car is, 'Freestone & Webb Ltd.' As this most famous of coachbuilders ceased to trade, its name was shelved until it was discovered and acquired by the owner of this Bentley in 1990. It is asset and debt free and represents an extremely rare chance to breathe life back into one of the influential brands of the 1920's and '30's. Not only does its next lucky owner have a special and superb Bentley but they also a chance at owning the very company that is responsible for this fabulous motor car, Freestone & Webb Ltd!
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