After reading the post on the recent Mille Miglia Storico, a couple of regular followers of Driving and Life have written asking about background to the Bentley Blower.
It’s an interesting and twisted tale of enterprise, determination, folly, and the spirit of competition, which is so ingrained in the overall history of Bentley.
|Colonel Sir Henry Birkin
Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, one of the famous ‘Bentley Boys’ suggested to W.O. Bentley he approve a supercharger for the 4.5L four cylinder in order to win at Le Mans.
|W.O. Bentley (indicated) with the 'Bentley Boys' at Le Mans. Birkin, front, third from left.
Bentley himself had tried supercharging a 3 litre car in 1927, and had decided it “corrupted the original design” and if he wanted more performance, he would simply make the engine bigger – which he did with the 6 litre, Speed Six!
Birkin, however persisted and engaged supercharger expert Amherst Villiers and one of W.O. Bentley’s favourite drivers, Captain Clive Gallop to help him develop a prototype. Bentley agreed to provide a basic car, and Birkin set up a ‘works’ at Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.
As he had dwindled away his own funds, Birkin became friends with the wealthy Lady Dorothy Paget, and this is an interesting sidelight to the whole Blower story.
Dorothy Paget inherited Leeds Castle in Kent and her immense wealth ($200 million in today’s money), from her family, and became one of Britain’s most famous (and fortunate) race horse trainers.
|Leeds Castle, Kent
|Dorothy with 1934 Derby Winner
She was big, gambled big, and won big, but famously stated she could “not stand the sight of men”, however she was star-struck by Birkin and agreed to fund the entire ‘Blower’ project and his racing team. After all, she was a gambler!
We can only guess at the true depth of their friendship, but despite Birkin having a reputation as a dashing ladies’ man, it seems unlikely the friendship became intimate – but who knows?
Blower number 1 appeared at Brooklands on June 29, 1929, but was unreliable and failed to finish the Essex 6 hour race. He did however set a new speed record for Brooklands, at 137.98 mph!
|Tim Birkin on the banking at Brooklands in Blower Number One
|A rare Blower 'Demonstrator', one of the 50 production
cars (now owned by Bentley Motors)
Undeterred, Birkin ploughed on, with support from the major backer of Bentley Motors, Woolf Barnato.
Birkin eventually persuaded W.O. Bentley to produce the 50 production ‘Blowers’ to qualify the model to compete at Le Mans.
|Bentley Blower team car dashboard
Birkin created a racing team of five cars (Number 2 - UU5872 - is now owned by Bentley Motors), but because of production delays the Blowers never appeared at Le Mans until 1930.
Birkin’s racing performance that year was nothing but heroic. He chashed, raced, pushed and dominated the supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSK of Rudolf Carracciola – so much so that both cars stretched their performance potential beyond the breaking point and neither car finished.
|Bentley Blower 'Number 2 Team Car' at speed in France, driven by Richard Charlesworth
(Photo: D. Fontenat)
The 1930 race, the final appearance of the Bentley Motors ‘works’ team, was won by company Chairman Woolf Barnato in a Speed Six, thereby confirming W.O. Bentley’s contention that supercharging made the engine too ‘fragile’ for 24 hours of racing.
In 1931 Bentley Motors was taken over by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, and apart from some privateers, that was the end of Bentley Motors’ racing exploits.
That is until the modern Bentley Speed 8s appeared at Le Mans in 2001, 2002, winning the race in 2003 – a fitting tribute to the achievements of W.O. Bentley and the Bentley Boys.