► CAR drives Bentley's Blower Continuation
► The oldest 'new' car ever built
► Gavin Green gets behind the wheel
This must surely be the oldest 'new' car ever built; an extraordinary project that's resulted in a car that's extraordinary to drive. The 'continuation series' Bentley Blower is a faithful facsimile of a 1929 Blower, using new components. Twelve customer cars will be built, at £1.5 million plus taxes. All are sold. It's the latest new 'old' car, or old 'new' car, after similar 'continuation' efforts from Jaguar (XKSS, Lightweight E-Type, C-Type and D-Type) and Aston Martin (DB4 GT, DB4 GT Zagato and 25 reproductions of James Bond's DB5, complete with 007 gadgets).
Now, these 'continuation' cars are loved by some and loathed by others, including many owners of the original cars. The Blower was the hardest of the lot to copy because of its age, says Bentley CEO Adrian Hallmark. By some margin, the Blower must also be the most challenging to drive. Hallmark describes the experience as 'like driving an unrestored Series I Land Rover that can do 132mph'.
The Blower was a supercharged version of the 4½-litre Bentley built by Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin. He was probably the most famous of the Bentley Boys, that cavalier band of pre-war racers who drove fast, partied hard and won the Le Mans 24 Hour five times between 1924 and 1930. Only four competition Blowers were built, as well as 50 customer cars. The 'continuation' Blower is an exact copy of team car No 2, as used by Birkin at Le Mans in 1930. (He diced for the lead before retiring.) It's owned by Bentley and is today valued at about £25 million.
The Birkin Blower was stripped and each component 3D-scanned to create a digital model of the entire car. The 'new' parts were then mostly made in the same way as the old car's, using the original moulds, jigs and hand tools. Suppliers included a Ludlow-based coachbuilder to make the ash frame and a 200-year-old steam-engine specialist in Derbyshire to hand-form the heavy-gauge steel chassis. Bentley's bespoke Mulliner division is hand-assembling the 12 customer cars.
The 13th – tagged Car Zero by Bentley – is the development prototype we're driving today. Also on hand is the original Birkin car. Apart from wear and tear on the old car and a few additions to facilitate testing on the new car, the two machines are identical. Car Zero is also black while Birkin's original is British Racing Green. Five body colours are offered, all traditional pre-war Bentley hues.
Driving a Blower must be like flying a pre-war biplane. You sit high and exposed, crouched behind little aeroscreens. Once underway, you're buffeted by air and assailed by the roar of the beefy 4.4-litre four-cylinder engine, bellowing in front of your toes. You're out in the open, having to master your machine. It requires strength, mechanical knowledge and sympathy; deftness as well as heft.
To start the engine, turn the master key, switch on the fuel pump and both magnetos, then retard the ignition using a brass lever on the steering wheel. The starter button then fires the engine, which bellows like a wild animal awakened, and settles down to a lumpy, growly idle. It's a wonderfully advanced unit for a 90-year-old: an overhead camshaft, 16 valves, twin-spark ignition, magnesium crankcase and a 240bhp output. Maximum revs are 4500rpm, although I'm told not to go beyond 3500.
Confusingly, brake and throttle pedal are transposed from today's norm. Push the right pedal to stop and the middle one to go. You sit behind a vast four-spoke Bakelite-rimmed steering wheel and a dashboard haphazardly populated by instruments and controls. These include supercharger pressure – the big Amherst Villiers blower sticks out of the car's nose like a giant beak – as well as fuel pressure and brake adjustment.
Steering is heavy and approximate by modern standards. You don't so much steer a Blower as wrestle it. And then there's the four-speed gearbox, a 'crash' system, so no synchromesh. You need to double de-clutch and get the revs just so, otherwise you'll be stranded in neutral amid much grating and cursing. The 'new' Blower feels stronger and tighter, although the brakes (mechanical drums) require a firm foot.
It's a wonderful experience driving a Bentley Blower, old or 'new'. You sit high and feel majestic, looking down over that vast upright bonnet of louvres and leather straps. It's noisy, breezy, thrilling, challenging and feels fast even if you're doing only 60.
You can dream of being Birkin flying down the Mulsanne Straight, back when driving a fast car was an adventure and an achievement, and Bentleys ruled the world of sports car racing.
Breathing Birkin's air
CEO Adrian Hallmark has probably done more miles in a Bentley Blower than anyone else alive. A vintage Bentley and Birkin fan, the Bentley CEO was responsible for the company buying the old Blower.
He did 600 miles running it in after a rebuild, and then drove it to Italy and back for the 2001 Mille Miglia, which he competed in. That added another 3000 miles.
'After the Mille Miglia, I can still feel the pain in my upper shoulders.'
The Blower is his favourite Bentley. 'It's so charismatic, so brutal. The torque, the way it's planted, the challenge of driving it. The gearbox is a total pig and it's so temperamental. The 3 Litre Bentley is much lighter and the Speed Six much more sophisticated. But the experience of driving the Blower just can't be beaten.'
The Birkin car's components are old and feel it, despite another recent restoration. Hallmark describes the 'continuation' car, especially when development is finished, as giving a real insight into Birkin's car when new. 'Suddenly you realise what Birkin must have felt when he first drove the Blower.'