Almost the archetypal vintage sports car, for Brits at least – and with a badge which effectively guarantees everything that ever left the factory classic status – the first 3 Litre prototype appeared in 1920 although production at the Cricklewood, London factory was delayed for another two years.
Barely two years after that, however, the model had won Le Mans – as Bentley was to do again every year from 1927-1930 – thereby sealing the company’s reputation amongst enthusiasts here and abroad, even if one envious rival, M. Ettore Bugatti, rudely dismissed its products as racing lorries. Mind you, even Bentley’s racing successes were to be no guarantee of success, and by 1931 the company was in receivership and up for sale.
There is nevertheless no doubting the brilliance of W.O. Bentley’s big green beauties – no car ever looked better in British Racing Green – nor indeed their appeal a full three-quarters of a century later. They are, after all, instantly identifiable by even the most casual of old-car fanciers and this despite their rarity. So rare are they, indeed, that over the 12 years of its independent existence (and even including the later 4.5, 6.5 and 8-litre models) Bentley managed to build just 3,024 cars before being absorbed into Rolls-Royce and removed to Derby. Of these just over 1,600 were 3 Litre cars
With some justification owners now describe the Bentley as Britain’s first supercar, a sort of Aston Martin Vantage of its day, pointing out the 16-valve head, distinctive ‘sloper’ SU carbs and an overhead cam, four wheel brakes, four-speed gearbox, with no less than 80 bhp and a top speed to match at around 80 mph. (The Supersports models, being lighter, could even nudge a ton.) Unsurprisingly this sort of thing came with a handsome bill, and even a standard 3 Litre would have cost £795 when new, the sort of money which, several decades later, would still have enabled a lesser mortal to buy quite a nice new family home in the suburbs.
Of course even at this level it had plenty of homegrown competition, cars like the Vauxhall 30-98, the slightly faster and slightly later Sunbeam Twin Cam, the Lea Francis Hyper and – a favourite of this author’s – the somewhat caddish, Low Chassis Invicta. Of these however only the last-named comes close to matching Bentley prices today, and of course like the rest of the competition the Invicta is now merely a name from history, none of Bentleys many erstwhile rivals – as we must discount Vauxhall – having survived into modern times.
As for the car itself, like the Austin Seven (q.v.) the 3 Litre was available in a variety of bodystyles and from a number of coachbuilders which means prices vary widely depending on the particular style and builder. Today the most sought after ones are the open tourers produced by Vanden Plas, Bentley’s neighbour in leafy Cricklewood, and you can see why. A combination of Bulldog Drummond and Mr Toad with a large dose of Biggles thrown in for good measure, it’s a functional, no nonsense design but one which exudes a sense of purpose from which many modern-day car designers and engineers could still learn or thing or two.
That said, they might cavil at the controls, and actually who could blame them? For one thing the gearchange is on the right, which takes some getting used to, and of course there’s no syncromesh. With Bentleys of this age some ’boxes are worse than others, and even experienced owners can find some tricky, one of them likening it to playing the stock exchange (meaning that if you get it half the time you’re doing alright).
Even more alarming, however, is the sequence of pedals with the throttle sandwiched between the brake and clutch, an arrangement which can take some getting used to. In other regards, however, the car is reassuring to drive, not least because it feels hugely robust thanks to its, er, truck-like chassis – ah, maybe that’s what M. Bugatti was getting at – with its four pressed-steel crossmembers and padded, fabric-covered body.
There is something lorry-like about the power delivery too, suggesting quite a smooth and flat power-curve. One which just pulls and pulls once it gets into its stride rather than delivering the kind of punch one would expect from a more modern machine. Of course that’s what was wanted from a sport cars in the 1930s, when races tended to be long-distance events rather than circuit sort we know today.
High prices and the fact that the cars have never really gone out of fashion means that you’re unlikely to find a 3 Litre which hasn’t been loved and looked after and, for that reason, rebuilt at least once. Restoration, needless to say, is a complex business and specialised one, which is just one of the reasons why anyone contemplating the acquisition of a 3 Litre needs to do their homework and to know what they’re up to, particularly if they’re considering buying a car they don’t know from an auction, or from any buyer other than one of the UK’s many recognised pre-war Bentley experts.
More than anything Bentleys of this era are perhaps the acceptable face of British imperial bombast. Brusque, unsubtle, and more than a little overbearing – apparently the only time a carhorn was ever used in a grand prix was in 1930 when Sir Tim Birkin Bt. was caught honking furiously to get smaller (mostly French) competitors to move aside – they nevertheless engender a great sense of nostalgia because they hark back to a time when atlases were mostly pink, everything stopped for a chota peg and the sun never set on the Empire.