Bentley, like most British brands and most British heritage, is haunted by its past. The brand may have recently emerged on the other side of difficult years with outstanding models like the Continental GT, Bentayga and Mulliner. Volkswagen’s intervention saved the brand in 1998 and allowed these cars to go into production. Before that, the company changed hands several times and eventually fell under the ownership of Rolls-Royce. No matter what, Bentley has made refined and luxurious vehicles with fairly high price tags to match. Her classic cars are no exception.
Led by Captain Walter Owen Bentley MBE, the company pioneered racing cars in the 1920s and 1930s to live up to the reputation of the First World War aircraft the engineer was developing. The most famous of all these vehicles was the 4 1/2 litre, introduced in 1927, along with the supercharged ‘Blower’ model, launched in 1929, an icon of interwar racing. However, the 4 1/2 Liter was Bentley’s second car, building on the legacy of the earlier and often forgotten 3 Liter.
The brand’s first car
According to Bentley himself, the first 3-litre engine was presented to the world at the 1919 Olympic Show. The model needed a lot of refinement but was a treat with the promise of lapping Brooklands, a now-deserted British racetrack, at a mighty 75mph and lapping at 80mph. The 3-litre remained in production until 1929 and had two revisions, the red label and then the green label which had a promised 100 mph rating. Thorney Kelham, a classic car restoration specialist, claims that Red Label cars were fitted on a shorter “Sport” chassis and higher compression engines with two “Sloper” SU carburetors, resulting in increased performance of the cars led. However, all engines were in-line 4-cylinder engines with 4-speed gearboxes.
Considering that the land speed record in 1920 was in the mid-range of 150 mph, the 3 Liter was a truly exciting vehicle with luxury to match. In a move customary for the time, Bentley supplied everything, including the engine, chassis, transmission, but also the body, meaning many 3-litre Bentleys have different body styles, all of which weigh more with their room for extra passengers and lavish luxury carry. Bentley claims this led to the famous 6 1/2 liter engine, a displacement favored by British luxury cars until recently. Bentley’s first car started the company that produces some of the world’s most desirable luxury vehicles and grand tourers.
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The car’s success made Bentley famous
Anton van Luijk
Bentley’s 4 1/2 Liter is receiving recognition for its racing success with victories at such high profile races as Le Mans. Both cars ran side by side and the 3-litre overshadowed the more powerful car’s potential. Bentley claims the 3-litre engine earned its first victory at Brooklands in 1921 before production models continued to claim “victories untold.” Two of the most notable victories for the 3-litre are Le Mans in 1924 and 1927, the marque’s first two victories in the legendary race. The 1924 race is partly responsible for the prestige of Le Mans. Bentley brought their car over to have a wheel replaced, but they couldn’t do it. Other competitors pounced on the Bentley Boys as they lost half an hour, triumphing by just one lap. A stripped-down 3-liter engine even found its way to the Indianapolis 500 in 1922, failing miserably when a Duesenberg drove to victory. Bentley hadn’t gotten as far as they would with their more powerful cars.
The balance between luxury and racing success led to Bentley becoming the car of choice for Ian Fleming’s Bond. The films have shown Aston Martin becoming bonded to Bond, but for Fleming Bentley embodied the opulence of the early twentieth-century automobile and the power needed for the somewhat reckless driver to cross continents in a hurry. The 3-litre continued to appear on British television, with the car appearing in The Avengers, a program about two spies starring the character David Keel, a traditional gentleman with a bowler hat and umbrella.
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Legendary cars bring legendary prizes
Classic Bentleys and Rolls-Royces of the era all cost a surprising amount and competed with a well-specified new Continental GT or Mulliner. Bentley produced these cars in incredibly limited numbers and were only available to the wealthiest aristocrats and playboys of the early twentieth century. A total of 1,622 3-litre models left the factory between 1921 and 1929, including the standard car and those with the red and green badges. For guidance, Bentley reports that they delivered 11,206 cars to customers in 2020. These old models can cost the same but are incredibly rare.
As always, some specifications are more desirable than others, British Racing Green vehicles will always have a premium over those in black or navy. Classic, a company that collects and analyzes auctions and sales of classic vehicles, notes that the average Bentley 3 Liter sells for $376,032, with highs of almost $1 million for the elusive red and green label models. That’s the price a gearhead has to pay to own a piece of a brand as prestigious as Bentley’s first car.
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About the author
Douglas Hamilton (152 published articles)
Douglas Hamilton is a British gearhead with a degree in literature. He grew up surrounded by F1, Need for Speed and Classic Cars. He has a worrying obsession with Jaguar.
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