The Bentley Boys are back, baby! We ride along on the Central Coast Bentley Rally
Next year will mark 100 years since the founding of Bentley. A year ahead of that, some Bentley enthusiasts celebrated with a rally
You may think you know Bentley, that maker of exquisite, fast, svelte luxury super cruisers like the Continental GT, Flying Spur, Mulsanne and, most recently, the big bruiser Bentayga SUV. And while those are fine vehicles each in their own way, they are what you might call, “the new Bentleys.” There are those who believe that the only real Bentleys are the ones built under the purview and administration of the original Sir W.O. Bentley, whose name, as they say, is on the building.
Bentley the company was only really in the control of W.O. from its founding in 1919 to about 1930, when the Great Depression and its ensuing worldwide economic collapse eventually caught up with the perennially financially faltering company and W.O. –- founder and creator -- was sidelined and then, later, gone from the works he had created. W.O. was a brilliant engineer and an early advocate of aluminum pistons, among other efficiencies, but he was a lousy businessman. His engineering brilliance lead to five wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans during his tenure, as well as numerous wins and record runs at Brooklands by The Bentley Boys.
It is the cars from that 11-year period that are revered and celebrated by the true believers in the sliver-thin niche of classic Bentleys. There were only something like 3,000 real Bentleys ever made. It was those cars and only those cars (well, almost only) that their owners gathered together last week for a grand tour –- at speed –- over some of central California’s greatest roads, 99 years after W.O. founded the company.
My participation in the rally started with a call from Bentley owner Craig Ekberg, a longtime supporter of the Petersen Automotive Museum and a car collector in his own right. One of his favorite cars (and the reason for the call) was a 1928 4½-liter Bentley that he and his friend Don Shires had purchased specifically to go on big rallies like this one, specifically to drive it just as the original Bentley Boys had driven them 90 years before.
The route featured some of the best roads in the state, roads so remote and squiggly that I thought no one else knew about them. To keep them secret, I won’t reveal specifics, except to say that they ran from Santa Barbara north for hundreds of miles and back again.
Officially, the West Coast Bentley Tour ran for four days, but there were also pre- and post-rally routes that some of the modern Bentley Boys and Girls would run. I wanted to do the whole thing, but there was this problem of what you call work, all this damned typing you see here and elsewhere, that got in the way. Hence, I missed all but the final official day, which ran 175 miles from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara through rolling hills of blooming flowers and green hills that only appear in this state for a couple weeks in the springtime, and then only if it had rained a fair amount just before. This year it had, and it was a heck of a beautiful route, through hills exactly of the sort you see in the tourist brochures and in all the ads in Westways magazine, where they don’t bother to tell you that the rest of the year the place is brown, dry and crispy dead.
So what if the greenery was all a temporary illusion? This was California -- nothing here is really real. Except, for the better part of a week, these Bentleys. Well, one was supposed to be a re-creation. Some grumbled, but I looked at it, and if that’s re-creating, I had no problem with it. It looked splendid. Like all the others, with well-worn levers and gauges and pull knobs that adjusted God-only-knows what.
So there we were, among the grand California springtime with about 30 or so real Bentleys, perhaps 1 percent of the total production if my math is right, and off we ran. I rode first in Ekberg and Shires’ car, slumped like a sack of California avocados into the left-hand-side passenger’s seat of this right-hand-drive beast. There were little windshieldlets that kind of propped themselves up in front of our faces, but they didn’t do any real windshielding except to taunt us with their aerodynamic inefficiencies. There was a larger rectangular windshield, but that was apparently for sissies. It was folded flat right there on the hood where it couldn’t do any of that pansy shielding of the wind. Ekberg didn’t care. His job outside of driving powerful beasts down great roads was, apparently, “Man.” He didn’t need no stinking windshield. Didn’t need any sunscreen, either, it looked like, nor even a hat. I sat there with a pint and a half of SPF 75 and a big, dumb sun hat from Costco. I looked like an idiot.
“That probably won’t stay on,” Ekberg said of the hat, being polite enough not to ask if it was from Costco. He was right, it didn’t. I was surprised my T-shirt stayed on. Heck, I was surprised the paint remained on the car.
We flew off into central California behind the power and might of those four and a half liters like we were dropping onto the banking at Brooklands.
There's a lot going on in the cockpit. Pedals aren't in the expected positions; it takes a while to get your bearings.
Of course there weren’t any seatbelts, either, because if we were going to die we were going to die like Men, dammit. Likewise the gas tanks of these things were all mounted in back, where a rear bumper and accompanying CAD-designed crumple zones would be on something like a Camry. You filled it up by twisting off the enormous screw cap the size of a small trash can lid and just sort of dumped gas into it like you were filling a small swimming pool. The idea behind this gas tank location might have been that the liquid would act like a shock absorber in the event of a rear-end collision. And it probably would, too, up until the gas hit the hot exhaust pipe that poked out right below it.
Ekberg wasn’t worried about any of that. He didn’t say much -- men don’t, ya see -- and it would have been hard to hear him even if he had said anything, so great was the wind blast. What heroes those original Bentley Boys must have been, blaring around the great tracks of Europe in these things with cloth-cord tires and bugs on their foreheads.
I didn’t even ask if I could drive; that’s something you are offered if a car owner wants you to do it. It would have been a disaster anyway since the pedal locations on real Bentleys are all screwy. Back in the ‘20s the world hadn’t figured out that the gas was supposed to be on the right, brake in the middle and clutch on the left. These were: gas in the middle, brake on the left and clutch on the right, just in case you are ever asked to drive. I would have stalled or crashed into something while thinking I was stepping on the brake when in fact it had been the high beam adjuster or spark advance or God knows what.
Out on the open highway we raced along beside other Bentleys, each driver grinning like a Cheshire schoolboy, happy as the clams next to us on Pismo Beach, blasting along the roads in cars so big and powerful and advanced for their day that it would take the rest of the automotive industry decades to catch up. I don’t know how fast we were going, but it had to be approaching triple digits. It was amazing to do 90 mph in a 90-year-old race car that could seat five and carry their luggage, too.
“If these cars are well-maintained, they’re wonderful machines,” said 1929 4½ liter owner Trevor Tomkins when we’d pulled in to lunch at Los Olivos. “I always said if I ever get the opportunity, I’ll buy one.”
“You have to actually drive these things, be engaged in the process,” said 1928 4½ liter owner Todd Coady. “It’s not like a Lexus. It takes a couple of days to get the hang of it. The gearbox is as much an art as a science. But it’s more rewarding when you do it right.”
After lunch, Shires took the wheel of his Bentley, and I jumped in with Joel Laub in another 4½ liter.
“My neighbor had a Bugatti Type 35,” Laub explained. “One day, he was pulling it out of the garage, and he said, ‘Hey, wanna go for a ride?'”
That lead to an appreciation of classic cars. Once he was on a rally of Bentleys and was amazed at how well they ran. Some investigation showed that Bentley owners seemed to have the most events. So he got a Bentley to add to his collection.
“I’ve got a garage with a Mercedes SL, a modern Ferrari a couple of other cars and a Bentley. I always take the Bentley.”
And who could blame him? They are big, beautiful British beasts. And here, at least they were being driven as they were meant to be when they were new, full speed and all-out.
The rally rolled back into Santa Barbara like a ghost train, albeit a noisy and glamorous ghost train. For me, it was over. I thanked Ekberg and Laub and anyone else I could think to thank, then got into a Hyundai Accent –- as ignominious an end as any in Bentley history –- and drove home to LA, forehead sunburned and pockmarked with bugs, the better for the experience. Ekberg and friends were planning a few more days of driving. They were Bentley Boys, for sure, and it was good to have met them.
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g: IIRC, Enzo referred to these as "the world's fastest lorry".