May 16, 2021
Beddinginn

Bentley Blower Continuation | PH Review

Isambard Kingdom Brunel pre-dated the Bentley Blower by about the same margin the car itself is removed from 2021. But I emerge from a drive in the all-new, all-old Blower Continuation remembering one of the engineer’s lines, delivered after a near miss, when he described the brakes of his early locomotives as “tolerably useless.” The experience of trying to stop one and a half tonnes of pre-war Bentley is a sweat inducing one, both in terms of the forces required to make the cable-operated drum brakes work even vaguely, but also because the pedal isn’t where my right foot expects it to be.

Bentley hasn’t done anything to civilize, tame or modernize this Blower. Rather they have delivered what, beyond the lack of 90 years of patina, is the exact same car: a point made by the chance to drive both the Continuation prototype ‘Car Zero’ and the original 1929 car that it’s based on back-to-back. Meaning a driving experience that is going to come as a shock to anyone who hasn’t already spent time in pre-war racing cars.

It’s a beautiful spring day at the Millbrook Proving Ground when I’m sent out to play spot the difference. To my surprise I’m dispatched for a drive in the No.2 Team car first, despite this being one of Bentley’s most valuable assets and one which is rarely driven by anybody outside the company. Partly this is to allow me to experience the undoubted history of one of the company’s most famous cars: Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin once sat in the driver’s seat, and No.2 played a vital cameo in the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours. But there’s another, more prosaic reason; decades of graunchy changes have worn down the teeth of the unsynchronized ‘crash’ four-speed gearbox, so it will be more tolerant of my lack of experience than the fresher cogs in the Continuation.

It takes some getting used to. The transmission needs to be double declutched in both directions – so clutch, neutral, clutch, gear – while also matching speeds for the engine and road sides of the transmission when downshifting. Anyone who has driven old cars or those with knackered synchro will already have the knack, but the complicating factor is that the Blower predates the standardization of pedal positioning. The clutch is on the left, but brake and accelerator are reversed. The sizeable metal gear lever has a conventional H-pattern, but it’s positioned awkwardly to the right of the driver’s seat. Oh, and the clutch also incorporates an engine brake at the end of the pedal travel to stop the input shaft so first can be selected from rest, so on the move it should only be pressed about halfway down.

Mixed together this creates the vintage car equivalent of one of those tricky motor skills challenges – patting your head, rubbing your tummy and doing Vulcan salutes at the same time – as well as a fair number of grinding noises. I need to unlearn the muscle memory of where things should be, as well as attempt to reacquire the dusty skill of the double-declutch two-step. Fortunately, the sizeable torque of 4.5-litre engine minimizes the need to change gears, and at any speed beyond 40mph it seems happiest in top.

By the standards of the late 1920s, the Blower’s motor was state of the art. It’s a four-cylinder engine that includes such modern features as an overhead camshaft, a 16-valve cylinder head, aluminium pistons and a twin-spark ignition system charged by a pair of magnetos. The supercharger is a vast Amherst-Villiers Roots-type blower that sits right at the front of the engine and which incorporates a pair of SU carburettors (which look exactly the same as the ones on the 1990 MG Metro I once owned; proof of the British motor industry’s often leisurely pace of change). The engine is fed the resultant fuel-air mix through several feet of piping. Firing it up from cold is, reportedly, a major hassle. But it has been warmed up before I get in, and having clicked the Edwardian light switches that control the twin magnetos to ‘on’ and moved the steering wheel’s spark advance control to ‘retarded’, the engine rumbles into its lumpy thump-thump idle with one press on the sizeable starter button.

On the move there is no sensation of supercharging, or blower noise discernible over the roar of the rest of the engine. But the ‘charger’s effect is proved by both the ever-busy boost gauge, and performance that would feel impressively brisk in something forty years younger. No, the Blower isn’t as quick as a modern sports car: 0-60mph would take around 12 seconds with an experienced driver making perfect gearshifts. But it was one of the fastest cars in the world when new.

Bentley doesn’t know how much torque the Blower is capable of making, but it is considerable and delivered low down. The No.2 car’s mechanical rev counter’s redline is marked at 4,500rpm, but there is little point in taking it beyond 3,000rpm, and the engine is pulling strongly with half of that showing. Top speed for today is limited to an indicated 80mph, and on Millbrook’s two mile high speed bowl the vintage Blower feels completely in its element, tracking straight and with less steering slop than many much later sports cars. The combination of a low seating position and the aero screen does an impressive job on cutting buffeting, too.

Not that the experience feels in any way modern. The No.2 car was given a non-period upgrade to aluminium brake drums in the 1950s, but the pedal’s cable-and-rodding operation still requires serious effort to produce any negative G-forces. Stopping in in a hurry is impossible, although braking effort can be usefully increased by also using the sizeable outside mounted handbrake handle, this operating a separate pair of shoes in the rear drums. The worm and segment steering is hugely heavy, but it doesn’t get lighter at speed like most unassisted systems, and tries harder to centre itself when the car is under power.

Swapping to the Continuation car confirms a closeness that is more immediate than any two cars separated by 90 years have ever enjoyed. There have been changes, but only when they are both necessary and haven’t changed any part of the fundamental experience. For the record these include a few swapped materials where it is illegal to use the originals – so lead and asbestos – adding back fuel tank battens the No.2 car was built with but later lost – and using correct cast iron drums. It also has an alternator, the unreliability of a dynamo regarded as a character enhancement too far, although this is hidden within a replica of the original housing. There’s also motorsport-spec explosion suppressant foam within the vast 100-litre fuel tank for obvious safety reasons.

But with the two cars parked side by side, it’s fair to say that only No.2’s wear and obviously lived history tells them apart. Even the bodywork is made from the same material, Rexine, more commonly used as a leather-effect book binding.

The driving experience is similar, too. Car Zero’s fresh gearbox is even less tolerant of missed or poorly timed changes, although the gearshift action is more easily guided. The prototype’s cast iron brake drums are noticeable worse – it later transpires the car has been given new pads which hadn’t been properly bedded in – and the handbrake gets more forceful use to supplement the feeble stopping power on the downhill bits of Millbrook’s vaguely Alpine Hill Route. And although Car Zero is limited to just 3,200rpm during testing, it actually feels quicker than the original car.

But the big difference is an intangible one. If I crash this one I’ll be remembered and ridiculed as the idiot who smashed up a Blower Continuation, but not as the heretic who destroyed an irreplaceable museum piece. That critical difference is the one that gives the confidence to push harder, and to rapidly build serious respect for the men who raced these things in period. The combination of semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever arm dampers and solid axles cope surprisingly well with Millbrook’s many bends, although peak cornering forces are modest. There’s no surprise that understeer is the defining handling trait – it would be amazing if it wasn’t given the vastness of the engine, narrowness of the tyres and positive camber of the front suspension. But this doesn’t feel excessive, and the Blower can be hustled at a fair old pace if you’ve got the physical strength to haul it into turns and then hang on as the steering tries to self-centre. I soon understand why racetracks tended to have long straights and few corners in those days.

The Blower definitely isn’t easy to drive, and nor, by 21st century standards standards, could it really be called rewarding in terms of tactile precision. There is no subtlety to the relationship between inputs and outputs, no nuanced feedback within the sensory overload of the heavy steering and shuddering suspension. It’s a car that needs to be wrestled into submission: changing gears is like engaging in hand-to-hand combat, trying to stop in a hurry a vein-popping test of thigh strength.

Yet this is exactly as it should be. To have changed the Continuation Blower would be to have ruined it, and the modern car is every bit as viscerally thrilling as the original. Do the dozen new owners know what they have let themselves in for? Possibly not; some will never have driven anything like this before. But in a world where genuinely new automotive experiences are increasingly hard to come by, this is likely to be one. You could own a barn full of supercars and not have anything remotely like this. Will any other modern manufacturer be brave enough to follow Bentley so far into the past with a future continuation model?

SPECIFICATION | BENTLEY BLOWER CONTINUATION

Engine: 4,500cc four-cylinder, supercharged
Transmission: four-speed manual, unsynchronized, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 240@4,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): undisclosed
0-60mph: 12-sec (est)
Top speed: 125mph
Weight: c. 1450kg
Consumption: Lots
CO2: Ha!
Price: £1.5m (ex-VAT)

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