W. O. Bentley’s career as an automotive manufacturer was relatively short. He started early enough with his first company in 1912 at age 24. That company started selling new cars manufactured by other companies and then began manufacturing automotive parts. When World War I broke out, Bentley built “aero-engines” (aircraft engines) and thought about building his own cars.
After the war, W. O. Bentley and his brother, H. M., started Bentley Motors Limited. The value and quality of a car was often tested in various competitions, and the 3-liter Bentley won the Le Mans endurance race in 1924, 1927, 1928 and 1930, but the company had financial trouble, and there is just no substitute for cash. Investor Woolf Barnano had cash and saw potential in the Bentley. He saved the company, but a disappointed W. O. Bentley had then become just an employee of Barnano.
This was the during the Great Depression, and times became difficult for Barnano. Bentley Motors went into receivership and was bought by Rolls-Royce. W. O. Bentley received an employment contract and worked for Rolls-Royce until 1935, when he left the company at age 47, no longer a part of Bentley automobiles. He then worked for Lagonda, a British luxury car company that was later acquired by Aston Martin until he retired. After Roll-Royce bought Bentley, the two cars were pretty much identical except for the grills, and there was just a minuscule price difference between the two cars. A joke at the time was that rich folks who flaunted their wealth drove Rolls-Royces while those who didn’t drove Bentleys.
Bentley built the engine, chassis and grill, but not the body. In Europe in those days only Mercedes and Bugatti built their own car bodies. This issue’s 1948 Bentley roadster is literally one of a kind. The original owner, Curt Forstmann of Forstmann Woolens in Montclair, New Jersey, reportedly one of the wealthiest men in the world at that time, bought the Bentley for $10,000 (about $111,300 today) and had it shipped from Crewe, England, in March 1948 to Russian native Jacques Saoutchik’s shop just outside Paris for the body. The car’s current owner, Alamo resident Gordon Johnson, says the design was done one weekend by Forstmann and his son, Peter, assisted by Max Hoffman, a Porsche importer, then given to Saoutchik, who, of course, assisted with the final design and built the body. The completed body cost another $10,000, equal to the cost of the Bentley.
The car’s 4-liter engine powered the lightweight roadster. The car has cutaway doors with no side windows, which improved the car’s handling and performance. There are no outside door handles because, as Johnson points out, true roadsters don’t have outside door handles. Johnson personally refurbished all the wood in the car, including all the framing under the sheet metal and the mahogany dashboard. The roadster had six owners before Johnson.
“I bought the car in October of 1995. I had a 1923 Paige that I had pulled out of the weeds and wanted to sell,” he said.
Johnson is a perfectionist and had flawlessly refurbished the car entering it in the prestigious Pebble Beach Concourse.
“In Emeryville one day at Fantasy Junction this Bentley was sitting there and was for sale. Everything was sort of coming apart, the top and the upholstery,” Johnson said.
He ended up trading his Paige automobile and cash for the Bentley. The car he bought was not the car you see. Johnson has put a lot of work and money into the Bentley to make it the car it is today.
“It has two carburetors, and one needed to be replaced; a new steering wheel was installed; and the brakes were frozen, plus the car didn’t run very good.”
All these problems were addressed by Johnson with some outside help, bu,t being raised on an Iowa farm, he acquired mechanical skills early in life.
“It didn’t have the fender skirts on it, so we made the fender skirts,” Johnson said.
A new top and interior were added, and the car was repainted a color they call Katie’s Periwinkle (Katie is a granddaughter and came up the name). The car has been featured at the Blackhawk Museum. Some of unusual features about this roadster are that it has a vented hood and a fold-down windshield but no trunk. It has the space for a trunk but no normal way to access it.
“The vents are tapered; every vent is a different size,” Johnson said.
It’s the last vented hood and fold-down windshield Saoutchik ever did. Johnson drives his Bentley at least once a month, and the car only has about 48,000 miles on it, an average yearly mileage of 657. Johnson didn’t disclose his total investment in the car or its current value, and he has no plans to sell this low-mileage luxury car.
Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at [email protected]. To view more photos of this and other issues’ vehicles or to read more of Dave’s columns, visit mercurynews.com/author/david-krumboltz.