Sold for $4,647,500 at 2013 Bonhams - Quail Lodge Auction. Le Mans Boattail
Coachwork: Vanden Plas
Chassis #: MS 3944
Engine #: MS 3941
Bentley had proven to be one of the first manufacturers to enjoy something of a dynasty at Le Mans. Entering big, powerful 3 and 4 ½-liter cars, Bentley would enjoy a run of success at Le Mans that would make the company the envy, and the target, of manufacturers everywhere. By the 1930s, Bentley was still earning victories, but the competition was beginning to gain an advantage in performance. Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin had won the 24 hour race back in 1929 in the large Bentley Speed Six. The Speed Six would become the most successful of the Bentley machines. Birkin believed, however, in the 4 ½-liter supercharged model.
W.O. Bentley didn't believe in the idea of supercharging an engine. Not only did he find the supercharger loud and just more that could go wrong, he believed that more power simply came from larger engines. His famous 'Bentley Boys' didn't all see it that way.
Although many of the major manufacturers would avoid Le Mans and some other races specifically because of the Bentley's presence, it wasn't as though those companies were sitting idle. Bentley had achieved his success focusing on reliability and performance over great handling. Then Alfa Romeo debuted its 8C 2300, which combined power, performance and reliability into a tidy car that could handle. Birkin and others believed such cars made it necessary to keep smaller engines and try to extract extra power from them.
Bentley was broke. He approached one of his wealthy drivers, Woolf Barnato, to invest in the company. He would do so. But, doing so meant W.O. no longer had any control over his company. Therefore, plans for the supercharged 4 1/2 –liter Bentley would go ahead. But although the blown 4 ½-liter Bentley would be produced it would end up fulfilling W.O. Bentley's prophecy of never winning a race despite coming close more than a few times.
In spite of the lack of success on the track, and in spite of Bentley's own views, the simple fact of the matter was that the supercharged 4 ½-liter Bentley produced 175bhp compared to the 110 produced by the regular 4 ½-liter. This increase in power meant an increase in speed and that meant the blown-Bentley would be attractable to the affluent with the means, and the desire, to go fast.
Making its first appearance at the 1929 London Motor Show, the only hope for the blown 4 ½-liter, even if it had been more successful, would have been the affluent as the economic situation in the United States would reach far and wide and the company would have trouble selling the fifty required.
As a result of the troubled economic conditions Bentley would be forced to offer the blown 4 1/2 –liter car in more guises than just a sports tourer. No matter what model, each one of the fifty would be quite rare and meaningful. However, there would be three that would be a bit more prominent than the others.
Chassis MS 3941 would be one of three very special supercharged 4 ½-liter Bentleys. The reason for the three significant Bentleys would be the fact that they would be the only ones actually listed within the company as Le Mans chassis. This meant each one of the three would be produced and delivered with lightweight specifications.
Henry Leeson owned a number of butcher shops throughout southern England. Besides being a connoisseur within the meat industry, Leeson was also a connoisseur of Bentleys and always seemed to have, or at least was able to get, the latest and sportiest the company offered. When it came to the blown 4 ½-liter Bentley he didn't want to just make do with one of the other body styles offered. He wanted an example to be produced for him that would be as if it were being produced for Le Mans itself.
The Le Mans Bentley would all have the same coachwork. Fashioned by Vanden Plas, the Le Mans coachwork would be made of stretched fabric to provide a lightweight coach to sit atop the massive Bentley chassis. But its Le Mans specifications wouldn't stop there. The rigidity of the coachwork would be increased just ahead of the 'spare' seats per the regulations. The engine would include special order high compression pistons, close 'D' type gearbox and a 25 gallon fuel tank fashioned from Le Mans examples. The car would even have a non-standard clutch stop disc and hydraulic shock absorbers.
About the only departure from the Le Mans specification blown 4 ½-liter Bentleys and MS 3944 would be its color. Instead of the traditional British Racing Green, Leeson's Bentley would be finished in a light shade of gray.
When Leeson took delivery of the car he would take advantage of the power and performance coming from the inline 4-cylinder engine and would take part in a number events, especially at Brooklands. Leeson would have the car until 1932 when C.B. Myers became the car's proud new owner. The Bentley would come to Myers just in time to make the journey to the United States where it would reside until 1938.
In 1938, the Bentley would make the move north to the Canadian city of Winnepeg as the property of William Johnson. Johnson had been on a search for the car and would actually find it in the basement of a Packard distributor in Minneapolis. Totally intending to tow the car to its new home, the engine would burst to life after just a little bit of tinkering. The surprised part would then scrap the idea of towing the car and would elect to make the journey riding in the Bentley instead.
The decision would soon be made to restore the car and this would be no easy feat. Part of the decision to restore the car included removing the Vanden Plas fabric body and replacing it with a metal one instead. But this would barely decrease the car's importance and value as it has retained the same metal bodywork from that restoration effort.
Completed, the Bentley would not remain with Johnson all that long, but it would remain in Canada. Found by the noted automobile historian D. Cameron Peck, the Bentley would join a collection that would already boast of some truly remarkable period automobiles. Then, in 1952, Peck's health would take an ill-turn and he would be led to dispose of a large part of his fabulous collection. MS 3944 would be one of those to be sold and would find its way into a feature in Road & Track as a result of being purchased by Sidney Brody. Sold once again, this time to the vintage Bugatti collector William Klein, the Bentley would find itself at a dealership on East 64th Street in New York.
Charles Noble had come to the United States from England and had a deep passion for Bentleys. Following the Second World War, Noble would work alongside Luigi Chinetti in New York City. He would also know William Klein. Therefore, it seemed a certainty the Bentley would end up with Noble. Purchasing the Bentley in 1957, Noble would prove his devotion to the marque by owning the car for more than 55 years.
Noble would use the car and would compete with it on a regular basis, especially at the Bridgehampton Race Circuit. Though the blown 4 ½-liter Bentley would never win an event during its active years, Noble and the Bentley would win more than their fair share of events throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. Then, something around 1970, the car would be stored away.
In 2003 the blown 4 ½ liter Bentley would receive an invitation to take part in the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance. The Bentley would emerge from its quiet hiding and would provide many with a glimpse at a very rare blown Bentley. Then, just when it seemed its competitive days were long behind it, MS 3944 would take part in the 2011 'Ascent' Hill Climb. This is an event that is run along with the Elegance at Hershey. And, despite its age, the Bentley would show well, proving yet again W.O.'s commitment to reliability.
Untouched since its restoration under Mr. Johnson back in 1938 and 1939, this rare, unusual blown 4 ½-liter Bentley has many more interesting features that set it apart and cause even the experts to ponder just what Bentley had produced for Mr. Leeson more than 80 years ago. Offered at the 2013 Bonhams Quail Lodge auction, the 1931 Bentley 4 ½ Liter Supercharged Le Mans would draw estimates ranging from between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000. At the conclusion of the bidding, the car had been sold for the sum of $4,647,500 including buyer's premium.Sources:
'Lot No. 152: 1931 Bentley 4 ½ Liter Supercharged Le Mans', (http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20994/lot/152/?page_anchor=m1%3D1%26k1%3D152%26b1%3Dlist). Bonhams. http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/20994/lot/152/?page_anchor=m1%3D1%26k1%3D152%26b1%3Dlist. Retrieved 12 August 2013. By Jeremy McMullen