Bentley Motors recently rolled out the red carpet for an exclusive gathering of 60 stunning ‘Derby Bentleys’ at their Crewe headquarters.
This grand celebration marked the 90th birthday of the iconic Bentley 3½ Litre, affectionately known as the ‘Derby Bentley.’ Hosted by The Silent Sports Car Club, a dedicated owners club for these vintage beauties, the event was a true spectacle of automotive history.
Exploring the Heritage
The grand cavalcade of cars, led by The Silent Sports Car Club, made its way to Bentley’s Dream Factory in Crewe recently. Over 100 passionate Bentley enthusiasts joined the festivities, which included an insightful tour of Bentley’s sprawling campus, an opportunity to delve into the newly refurbished Bentley Heritage Collection, and an exclusive visit to the renowned Mulliner workshops.
Bentley’s very own 1934 3½ Litre, sporting coachwork by Thrupp & Maberley, took pride of place in the newly unveiled Lineage area. This area showcases the eight pre-war gems from the Heritage Collection. On the following day, the spotlight turned to one of Bentley’s most cherished treasures – the one-of-a-kind 1939 MkV Corniche. This remarkable vehicle, after an 84-year hiatus, has been meticulously re-registered and returned to the road. It was the guest of honour at a distinguished black-tie dinner, formalizing the celebration of 90 glorious years of Derby Bentleys.
A Diverse Array of Elegance
The Derby Bentleys that graced Cheshire represented a wide spectrum of coachwork styles, a testament to the more than 40 independent coachbuilders who crafted bespoke bodywork for these vehicles in the 1930s. Notable among the ensemble were chassis B15AE, one of the two original launch cars produced in September 1933, and chassis 3-B-50, the sole survivor of four experimental six-cylinder saloons from 1939. These exquisite specimens beautifully exemplify the diversity that characterized the era.
The Derby era marked a significant chapter in Bentley’s illustrious history, with production rates soaring to 500 cars annually. The 3½ Litre, followed by the improved 4¼ Litre, represented the first Bentleys under Rolls Royce ownership. This period also birthed some extraordinary one-off creations, such as the streamlined ‘Embiricos’ coupe of 1938 and the recently restored 1939 MkV Corniche. These two automotive marvels played a pivotal role in shaping the design DNA that would define Bentley’s future, even influencing the iconic Continental GT models of today.
Under the bonnet, the Derby Bentley boasted a silky-smooth six-cylinder, 3½ litre engine, churning out approximately 120 bhp – an impressive feat for its time. The hallmark of quality was evident in every detail, from the car’s stylish aesthetics to its speed, refinement, and elegant proportions. It was a vehicle that effortlessly combined performance and driving ease.
In a leap forward, the Derby Bentleys introduced the convenience of synchromesh gearboxes, a significant improvement over their predecessors. The cars also set high standards in handling, thanks to supple springs and sturdier chassis frames.
Compared to the earlier Cricklewood Bentleys, the Derby models were not only more refined but also more agile. Remarkably, they came with a price tag that was up to £400 less, making them accessible to a broader clientele. Celebrities like racing drivers Sir Malcolm Campbell and Archie Frazer-Nash lent their endorsements to the 3½ Litre Bentley, further enhancing its prestige.
Evolving with Time
The 3½ Litre Bentley underwent several developmental changes during its production run. These included the addition of an extra chassis cross-member in front and the incorporation of a harmonic stabiliser bumper to enhance ride and handling. In 1936, a larger engine option emerged as an alternative to the standard 3½ Litre model. For a mere £50 extra, buyers could opt for a quarter-inch wider cylinder bores and some cosmetic enhancements. This variant became known as the 4¼ Litre, and by 1939, its production numbers had surpassed those of its predecessor.
Bentley’s own Derby gem, chassis number B53AE (bearing the registration number AXB3), was originally delivered to its first owner, Alex Mitchell of Tulliagan Castle in Scotland, in early 1934. Mitchell retained ownership until the outbreak of World War II, and subsequent records of ownership are regrettably lost to history. However, at some point, this exceptional vehicle made its way across the Atlantic and was eventually discovered in a barn in East Otis, Massachusetts, in 1968. The next recorded owner, Charles H. Wolfe of Lancaster, Philadelphia, took possession in 1987 and entrusted the car to Bentley Motors’ care in 2004.
The celebration of the 90th birthday of the Bentley 3½ Litre and the reunion of these magnificent Derby Bentleys is a testament to the enduring legacy of craftsmanship, elegance, and innovation that Bentley has upheld over the decades. These iconic vehicles continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of automotive enthusiasts worldwide, reminding us of a golden era in motoring history.
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