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Smooth operator - Embiricos Bentley

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There's only one Embiricos Bentley, and it lives in California. But now the UK has an amazing recreation, the result of eight years of superb craftsmanship.

The Embiricos Bentley, as it is now known, was the fastest saloon car in Britain before the war, and certainly the most stylish. Chassis number B-27-LE was a special commission by Greek gentleman motor racer and shipping magnate André Maris Embiricos. Designed by Frenchman Georges Paulin and built by Marcel Pourtout in July 1938, the magnificent aerodynamic ‘Continental’ set high-speed records and went on to race at Le Mans three times.

It was probably the most refined motor car ever to have competed at La Sarthe. Today the one-off Embiricos Bentley is owned by Californian-based Arturo Keller, a man well known for never selling anything.

‘As a designer I have always admired the fabulous styling of the Embiricos Bentley,’ says Devon-based Bentley restorer and ‘creator’ Bob Petersen. ‘One day my friend and client, Steven Collins, came into my workshop with a small model of the Embiricos and asked if I could build him a Bentley that looked just like it. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist.’

That was back in 2001 and the Petersen Embiricos was first seen at the Bentley Drivers Club meeting in 2009. The absolute beauty of the motor car, combined with the incredible craftsmanship, finish and attention to detail, immediately scotched any muttering about this being a mere replica.

But let’s go back to the giddy days of the ’30s, before World War Two laid waste large swathes of Europe and bankrupted Britain. Walter Owen Bentley had had his motor company taken over by Rolls-Royce in 1931 and his perpendicular and thunderous Bentleys had been superseded by Rolls-Royce’s rather more refined Silent Sports Cars built at the Derby works, known colloquially as Derby Bentleys. Very capable though these Derby Bentleys were (sort of the Merc 6.3 saloons of their day), they were very conservative mechanically and especially so in terms of coachwork. European marques were experimenting with aerodynamic designs and some of their creations made Bentleys look rather frumpy.

Walter Sleator, bon viveur, superb driver, owner of the stylish Franco Britannic Garage and Rolls-Royce representative in Paris, saw this French design revolution unfolding before him as his customers began to complain that their Bentleys were being bested by swoopy machines from Bugatti and Talbot-Lago.

Automotive design was going avant garde but the conservative suits in Derby did not want to partake. The feeling was that superfast, streamlined motor cars were of little use on Britain’s narrow and winding roads, even though the autobahns were being laid in Germany and French Routes Nationales had long offered the opportunity of high-speed travel.

But Sleator convinced the men from Derby that he should undertake a special project from Paris, with the reassurance that if it failed the Bentley works would be left untainted. So in August 1936 Sleator approached the wealthy ship owner and banker André Embiricos with the idea of a radical new Bentley. Embiricos had admired the work of designer Georges Paulin and gave the project the go-ahead. A scale wooden model of the car was tested at Meudon near Paris, then at Vickers under the eye of Ivan Evernden. A full-scale wooden model was tested next and detailed technical specifications were assessed.

On 18 March 1938, chassis number B-27-LE was shipped from Derby to coachbuilder Marcel Pourtout and the complete motor car was ready for road testing three months later. The aluminium coachwork was lighter by some 350lb (159kg) when compared with the average British coachbuilt body, and the  4¼-litre engine had its compression ratio upped from 6.5:1 to 8.0:1 and was fitted with larger SU carburettors, increasing the horsepower from 125 to 140bhp. Shock absorbers were stiffened, steel-lined aluminium front brakes were added to the front and a 2.87:1 top gear ratio was employed.

It seems that André Embiricos was very generous and was constantly lending his striking new Bentley to all sorts of test drivers. In January 1939 it was twice tested at Montlhéry, where Walter Sleator set a somewhat disappointing 107mph average speed. The car was then crashed by Embiricos’ chauffeur, after which the engine was blown up when it was over-revved while running on 17-inch rims. Then it was borrowed again for a 1000-mile jaunt across Germany to try out the new autobahns. Sleator decided to challenge the 80mph average set from Berlin to Munich by General Huhnlein driving a Grosser Mercedes-Benz. In very difficult icy conditions, the Embiricos managed 110mph for five miles and 112mph for four miles.

The Bentley was then shipped across to Brooklands and with George Eyston behind the wheel it cracked the magical figures of 114.63mph in one hour and 115.05mph for 10 miles. These were heroic speeds in 1939.

It seems that André Embiricos tired of his new streamlined Bentley – maybe he’d had enough of everyone blagging it for fast blasts around Europe –  so he sold it to HFS Soltan Hay in 1939. He used it as an everyday car, and there are pictures of it with blacked-out headlamps during the war. With 60,000 miles on the clock the confident Hay entered the Bentley in the 1949 Le Mans,  co-driven by journalist Tommy Wisdom. Reported to be ‘running easily’ by The Autocar, the Bentley cruised around the long circuit, losing top gear in the process. But that didn’t stop it and at the finish this 11-year-old motor was sixth, averaging 73.56mph. The race was won by a sporting Ferrari.

Hay enjoyed the experience so much he entered FXW 6 in the next year’s Le Mans and, with co-driver HC Hunter, they finished 14th, six places behind Eddie Hall’s Crewe Bentley.

Again in 1951 the Embiricos was entered for Le Mans by Hay, with GT Clark listed as co-driver. By this stage the Bentley was showing 120,000 miles on the clock and Hay piled his family into it, as the trip was to include a European holiday. The car suffered dynamo failure and ran most of the night during the race with failing lights; it was unable to start after a final pit stop. It was eventually coaxed into life and, although Hay failed to complete the minimum distance by just four miles, it was recorded as finishing in 22nd place and in doing so it set the record for three consecutive Le Mans finishes.

With the Bentley fettled, Hay packed his family back into the motor car and continued his holiday. On the way back home he popped into Montlhéry circuit and did a last endurance run of 106 miles in the hour. No naff easyJet flights or car transportation for him!

This fabulous and important Embiricos Bentley is tucked away in a motor museum in the wine country of California but now one other special streamlined Derby exists, thanks to the coachbuilding skills of Bob Petersen. He began a laborious process of research and soon discovered many old photographs and, most importantly, original detailed line drawings of the car’s exotic coachwork.

Together Bob and his client Steven Collins sourced a very tired standard Park Ward Derby Bentley saloon in need of a total rebuild. Being an MX-series example, it had the correct long gearing. Bob stripped it to a rolling chassis and then spent eight months constructing a wooden buck on which to shape the aluminium bodywork.

‘Getting the shape just right involved a lot of imagination and squinting from about 20 feet away,’ says Bob. ‘We had to build it from the outside in, first constructing the very fragile ally skin and then making a subframe to hold it in place on the chassis. The body was light enough for two of us to pick up but it was as fragile as an egg! We had to custom-make all the window frames and curved glass. Research shows that the original ran with Perspex but we wanted the refinement of glass all round,’ says Bob.

‘The car runs with one fuel tank rather than two to allow decent storage space and we had to relieve the springs because its bodywork is significantly lighter than that of the Park Ward saloon. The engine is massaged in a similar way to the original’s but we have left it on standard SUs for smooth and fuss-free running. The Bentley is going to be used so it needs to be perfect for current road conditions.’

Bentley enthusiast David Hodges is the co-owner of the streamlined Bentley with Collins and the motor car is currently housed at his beautiful farmhouse and stables in Warwickshire. On a crisp and bright autumn morning Octane is invited down to this undulating corner of rural England to sample this replication of one of the most desirable Bentleys ever created.

The svelte metallic-grey Bentley looks entirely at home as young huntsmen in breeches and riding coats saddle up for the morning hunt. David Hodges eases the low-slung car out of the motor home and allows it to warm gently in the stable yard. Keen Derby drivers will immediately notice the car’s more sporting exhaust note, thanks to the crisper engine and free-flowing exhaust. It looks magnificent in the soft autumn light and the shutlines and finish are perfection.

As per the original, it is lean and spare. Some Delahayes, Talbot-Lagos and Delages of this school of French aerodynamic design can appear overwrought and overblown, but Paulin’s pen created a taut shape where form follows function. The Bentley looks like a racing thoroughbred and not a flamboyant showpiece. And, interestingly, it does have true Bentley DNA, albeit of a modern Continental GT rather than an upright and old fashioned ‘WO’.

David Hodges generously offers the driver’s seat, so it is time to slide in through the suicide door. The soft brown leather interior is inviting, but watch the gearshift and handbrake levers mounted on the right-hand side. The bucket seat is well sprung and affords a good view out of the letter-box-sized front and side windows. Rear vision is limited to a view of the two quick-release fuel fillers but rear-view mirrors help. The large steering wheel is mounted high but the clutch is soft and light. The gearlever slots cleanly into first and the Bentley eases off without the need for revs. Second needs a double-declutch but the change is mechanical and full of feel. The thin-rimmed steering wheel lightens up as soon as you begin to move and silkily translates just what the narrow Excelsior 6.00/6.50-18 tires are feeling.

Third gear is a snick away with the aid of synchromesh, as is the long overdrive top gear. On the move the Bentley is remarkably refined. On choppy and twisting country roads the car is incredibly smooth. Being narrow, it is a cinch to punt along the lanes at an easy canter.

Swinging onto a fast B-road, the Bentley comes into its own. With lighter aerodynamic coachwork, reduced weight and long gearing, it is soon galloping along at an easy 70mph, with lots more to come. Speed is complemented by powerful brakes and predictable handling, which all make this 70-year-old supercar feel 20 years younger.

Bentley’s Silent Sports Car was a quantum leap ahead of the vintage WO Bentley and it is clear this is what led to the development of the Bentley R-Type Continental in 1953. This Embiricos replica is an incredibly capable motor car that will be used for Continental touring and events by its enthusiastic owners. They had the vision to facilitate its creation and the motoring world is a richer place thanks to the expression of craftsmanship it represents.

Thanks to David Hodges and Steven Collins, and to Bob Petersen: www.bobpetersenengineering.co.uk, +44 (0)1409 221749.

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