Blower Bentley Continuation

How authentic does Bentley’s new 4.5-litre recreation feel? We compared the prototype with the original 1929 No.2 Birkin Team Car

One is estimated to be worth around £25 million. The other is £1.5 million – or at least it would have been if you were one of the 12 customers to have snapped up Bentley’s first foray into continuation cars. One has 92 years of stories to tell; the other is the product of around 18 months of intense work.

On an unseasonably sunny day, a very small group of journalists was invited to the UK’s Millbrook Proving Ground to try Car Zero of the Blower Continuation programme. This is the development prototype built ahead of the 12 customer cars, at that point 1500 miles into its 8000-mile intense testing. Sat alongside it was the No.2 Team Car on which the Continuations are based.

As Bentley’s race victories racked up in the 1920s, WO Bentley’s answer to his cars’ ever-faster rivals was to increase power by upping engine size. Gentleman racer Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, however, proposed supercharging the existing 4.5 litre. WO disagreed, but Birkin persuaded fellow Bentley Boy and company chairman Woolf Barnato to sanction the build of the 50 road cars needed for homologation plus five for competition. He then built four supercharged race machines in his own workshops, two of which competed at Le Mans in 1930.

Bentley Motors bought back the second-built of the four Team Cars, known as No.2, in 2000. Such good use was made of the model ever since that it was in need of sympathetic restoration. Meanwhile, other manufacturers were making a commercial success of continuation cars. With plans to revive its Mulliner coachbuilding division, Bentley announced that No.2 would be stripped down, digitally scanned and restored alongside the build of 12 new versions of No.2 in its 1930 Le Mans specification.

No one could claim that task sounded easy, seeing as – unlike with other continuations – there’s no one alive who built the original Team Cars. Lockdown slowed progress, but by that point it had already become clear that there were more differences between the Team Cars and standard production Blowers than anyone – specialists included – had realised, and that No.2’s 1960s refresh had been more extensive than thought. Also, the chassis had clearly been accident damaged at least twice, and was twisted in two planes.

If you count each major assembly such as the engine, gearbox, axle etc as single parts, then Bentley created 1846 of them. But as 230 of these ‘parts’ are actually assemblies, the number of individual components designed and hand-crafted number several thousand. Materials and production methods were kept authentic, working with existing Vintage Bentley specialists such as RC Moss, NDR and William Medcalf, plus heavy engineering companies like the steam-train boiler makers employed to produce the chassis using traditional methods.

By early 2021 Car Zero had been completed in the extended Mulliner workshops, and testing work started in earnest. To acclimatise the journalists to the famously recalcitrant Bentley four-speed crash gearbox, Team Car No.2 was brought in, having a more worn-in transmission than Car Zero. Training sessions in the near-invaluable No.2 were followed by a swift swap to Car Zero, giving the perfect chance to compare the original and the copy directly.

How did they weigh up? Admirably, it has to be said. What’s common to both is that, after flicking on the two magneto switches, doing the same with the fuel-pump switch and then pushing the starter button on the left of the dashboard, the engine fired instantaneously in both cars with a satisfyingly deep roar, followed by a noisy but steady idle. The unblown 4.5 ltres produced 130bhp compared with 175bhp for the road-specification Blowers and 240bhp at 4200rpm for the Team Cars, and yet there was no hint of race-machine temperament from either of the cars – and Car Zero’s engine is built to the same spec as No.2’s, running the same amount of boost from the Amherst Villiers supercharger.

The pedals are to central-throttle layout, so clutch on the left, accelerator in the middle, brake pedal higher and to the right. The short gear lever is on the floor almost under the driver’s right thigh, operating via an open gate with a simple reverse-blocking mechanism that flicks out of place when needed. There’s no synchromesh, so double-declutching is necessary, ensuring the clutch pedal goes right to the floor and is lifted right up on every operation. Blipping the throttle on downchanges requires a hefty shove on the accelerator.

True to reputation, the changes took time for me to master. First to second needs a brief pause halfway through the operation, while second to third needs to be quicker and smoother. Third to fourth is somewhere between the two. If you miss, well, all you can do is take a deep breath, bring the clutch back up, blip the accelerator, shove the clutch back down and ease it down a gear.

Despite having done it all before, initially I found it painful, but after a few miles those clean changes started to come more regularly. Forget the pleasure in hitting a golf ball correctly; there’s nothing more satisfying than acing a Blower Bentley gearchange.

Thank goodness, though, that the engine is so forgiving. It’s a seething mass of torque, unphased by missed shifts, clumsy starts and low-speed-high-gear running. It just pulls and pulls, bellowing in pleasure as the car rapidly builds momentum. As corners approach everything gets even more physical, with a hefty shove on the brakes bringing the speed down, aided by the external handbrake if necessary, followed by a massive heave on the huge steering wheel that pulls the car onto the desired line as it skitters over the bumps. Amazing!

Which car am I talking about? Both, actually. Car Zero’s clutch and steering are lighter, its accelerator heavier, the engine smoother and even cleaner running than the Team Car’s. There’s not much to choose between the ’boxes, but where Car Zero let itself down on the test was the brakes; not yet bedded in, they didn’t inspire the confidence that its counterpart’s did. That will be fixed.

If we hadn’t been briefed on the brakes and the gearbox differences, would it have been possible from the driving experience to tell which was the original and which was the copy? No, it wouldn’t. Nothing in the world can replace the Team Car’s history, but for an authentic Vintage Bentley driving experience, the Continuation has got it nailed.