Bentley 4½ Liter Supercharged Le Mans 1931 MS 3944-Quail Lodge Auction 2013-08-16 | Classic Car Ratings

Format: 2018-11-17 16:16:31

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Bentley 4½ Liter Supercharged Le Mans 1931 MS 3944-Quail Lodge Auction 2013-08-16

Chassis number:
MS 3944
Engine number:
MS 3941
Body number:
Quail Lodge Auction
Auction House: Bonhams
Registration number:
Sold for: $ 4.647.500

This fabulous original Blower embodies every ounce of the Bentley, Birkin and Le Mans spirit and does so, because it was built that way.
In the words of recognized marque historian Dr. Clare Hay, MS 3944 is a "rarity among rarities", being one of only three of the 50 production supercharged Bentleys recorded by the factory as a Le Mans chassis on their build sheets (The others being SM 3918 and MS 3937). It delivered when new with a lightweight Le Mans specification two door four seater VdP body.
The willing enabling party in the case of this car was a gentleman named Henry Leeson, a successful butcher, who had shops in a handful of towns on the southern coast of the UK. His business must have provided well for him as he was a serial Bentley buyer, who seemingly always had the most sporting Bentley the company could offer in his garage. That chain began with one of the best looking 3 Liters built, the Surbico 100mph Supersports, NR 516, and from there he progressed onto a 4½ Liter Vanden Plas Tourer, upgrading thereafter to a Le Mans Specification 4½ Liter with Le Mans pattern bodywork. His fourth and final Bentley, MS 3944, would eclipse them all in sporting terms. Leeson's Le Mans Blower, is clearly designated as such on the factory delivery records, as is the fact that it wore sporting Vanden Plas Le Mans coachwork. This specially designed body style was always made of lightweight fabric construction, with a supporting bar across the top of the body, providing needed rigidity ahead of the 'spare' two seats and top mechanism designated for Le Mans rules. Its technical specification from new included special order high compression 5.1:1 ratio pistons, a close ratio 'D' type gearbox with a 13/46 back axle ratio, as well as a rev counter, Pullswell silencer and 25 gallon semi-Le Mans pattern gas tank. An additional pair of Bentley & Draper hydraulic shock absorbers were fitted to the back axle, as would be standard fitment to 1930 Speed Sixes, and a non-standard clutch stop disc was fitted.
The Vanden Plas coachwork records for its Le Mans bodywork note MS 3944 as having had a number of specific detail features: a one piece fold flat windshield, spare wheel mounting to the driver's side, a bar fitted across the front of the radiator to mount a third lamp, a dashboard which was to receive standard instrumentation with the addition of two dashlamps and a Jaeger clock. Further, two Aero screens were to be "supplied by Mr. Leeson" and fitted.
As supplied MS 3944 was not finished in the archetypal British Racing Green. Instead it was delivered in a lighter shade of grey, as noted on the Vanden Plas records and also clearly visible in an early photograph (as illustrated) of the car. Its leather upholstery was to match the body color. As can be seen from this image, which is thought to be 'as new' the car was as stunning a sporting vision of the breed as ever existed. Another period image also believed to be of Leeson in the car, records him competing at the Lewes Speed Trials in 1931, close to his base in Eastbourne in the UK. By this stage, the Bentley has a Brooklands Automobile Racing Club badge attached to its supercharger valance, suggesting that this was not its only competitive use, although no other records of motorsport use have been found.
Leeson is thought to have parted with the car in the spring of 1932, a few months before his untimely death at Brooklands in an MG. From his ownership, the car passed to Garner & Lee of London, and then onto C.B. Myers of London's Finchley Road. Service records note the cancellation of its guarantee 'Owner going to America', Myers clearly moving to the U.S.A. and bringing his Blower with him. In 1938, it became the property of Canadian William K. Johnson, of Winnepeg.
As the July 1944 Autocar article 'Talking of Sports Cars' on the subject car recounts, the anglophile Johnson having heard that the Blower was in New York State, in 1937, began a search for the car. Roughly a year and a half later he actually found the car in the basement of the Packard Car Co.'s distributors in Minneapolis! After much negotiation, a figure of $500 was agreed upon, and the Blower was purchased. Rather curiously at this time the car wore a 'Miami Beach' topper to its British license plate, suggesting that it had previously spent at least a sojourn in this Florida town, most probably in Myers' hands. The Autocar article continues to describes the day that a somewhat optimistic Johnson and friend had returned to collect the car and having intended to tow the Bentley home a 500 mile journey behind a Willys automobile. But after some fettling and a tow from one of the dealership's Packards, the car had burst into life once more and they elected to drive it home. They record covering the 512 miles in some 7½ hours – showing that there was good life in the old Bentley yet. The timing of the acquisition is noted as being in the middle of 1938. In another period letter to the Bentley Drivers Club, Johnson describes his finding of the Blower as "the greatest thrill of my life" followed by the sensation of speed on his drive home: "I don't think that there will ever be a greater exhaust note than a 4½ Bentley at 100mph."
By November that same year, Johnson and some local friends decided to rebuild the Bentley, which they carried out over the course of the next 18 months. In restoring the car it is clear that the bodywork must have been quite tired and perhaps not serviceable. They chose to replace it from the firewall back with a sporty two seater, metal skinned body which it has worn ever since. It seems likely from the car's external exhaust design that they were inspired by some of the 1920s and 1930s British Brooklands racers, or perhaps the Barnato Gurney Nutting 2/3 seater, SM 3909. The whole process is thoroughly detailed in print, including receiving spare pistons and other parts directly from Bentley Motors, and right through to driving the finished car, which was noted to be good for more than 110mph.
From Johnson, the car stayed in Canadian ownership until 1946, when it came onto the radar of one of D. Cameron Peck's car sleuths.
Former President of the Antique Automobile Club of America, the Sports Car Club of America, the Veteran Motor Car Club of America and the Cord Owners Club of Illinois, Peck had incredible influence on the hobby that we are part of today from its incubation, almost certainly saving 10s if not 100s of important motorcars from being turned to scrap. In the '40s Peck was building what would become one of the foremost pioneering collections of historic automobiles. The Bentley joined that hallowed collection from J. Gordon Edington in April 1946 and would remain there for the next six years.
In 1952, citing health reasons, Peck disposed of a large part of his collection, that arguably could not be assembled today, including a Mercedes 75hp, SS, Targa Florio model, the Prince Henry Austro Daimler, Silver Ghosts, Bugatti Royale, Isotta Fraschinis, etc. MS 3944 was included in this very sale, the last time that it would be publicly offered for more than 60 years.
The buyer of the Blower was Sidney Brody, of Los Angeles, in whose hands the car is once again publicly documented with a feature 'Salon' article in Road and Track in 1953. It comments "'Bentley' is a word which will excite frenzy among its enthusiasts throughout the world and Road and Track feels that this example is especially outstanding."
Four years later and the car returned to the East Coast, to recognized Vintage Bentley Collector from Pennsylvania, William 'Bill' Klein, and shortly after this it was offered for sale at Inskip's dealership on East 64th Street, in New York City.
Charles R.J. Noble
In the pioneering era collecting fine automobiles, Charles Noble stood shoulder to shoulder with the greats of this time, specifically in the strong movement that precipitated throughout Northeast of this country. While his contemporaries and friends, such as Henry Austin Clark, Alfred Momo, and Briggs Cunningham mainly held interests in post war sports racing cars and/or brass era machinery, Noble was keenly focused on one marque – Bentley.
As with many collectors, his interest was deep seated and stretched back to his youth. Fast forward to the late 1940s, when that dream become closer to reality, having emigrated to the U.S. from the U.K. His engineering expertise would see him work alongside the likes of Luigi Chinetti Sr. at Inskip Inc. in the 1940s. Following World War II and for more than a quarter of a century he would work as Elizabeth Arden's driver and personal assistant in New York City. When not behind the wheel of her car, he was indulging his passion for working on, collecting, and racing these automobiles.
Noble was conveniently located close to Inskip a little further down on 64th Street, and was already friendly with former owners of MS 3944 Bill and Ann Klein. It would have been no coincidence then that he was able to snare this his first Blower Bentley, MS 3944, when it came up for sale at Inskip on October 23, 1957, more than 55 years ago.
This would not be his only Blower for long though, as over the course of the next decade Noble would continue to amass and hold no fewer than 4 of the coveted Blower production run. This staggering achievement represented some 10% of the surviving cars, something that no other Bentley enthusiast has ever repeated, nor is likely to. The extent of his collecting of the marque, particularly given his means, was amazing - when he died, alongside those four Blowers, were a Speed Six that his hero Tim Birkin had owned new and a particularly 'trick' 4½ that Bentley Boy Berris Harcourt-Wood had commissioned.
His passion would lead to his Presidency of the Bentley Drivers Club Northeast Region of the US, a role which he fulfilled and enjoyed as a true enthusiast of the brand. Best of all, Noble continued to exercise and enjoy MS 3944 in the true spirit with which the car had been built, being a regular habitue of the Bridgehampton Race Circuit, if not simply just to use and enjoy it. On one occasion, he paired up with journalist John Vockins to head out to an S.C.C.A. Event at Bridgehampton, and clearly gave him the thrill of his life, Vockins refers to his pilot as 'Charles Cannonball Noble' driving out to the track on the Long Island Expressway at 6am one Sunday morning in August 1960, and then winning the event! Such victories would continue for many years until around 1970, when MS 3944 and other cars were quietly stored.
Within the last decade, the Le Mans Blower was recommissioned and has once again become a regular sight at a handful of important events in the Northeast. The first of these was when it was shown by invitation at the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance in 2003. It most notably competed at the inaugural VSCCA sanctioned, 'Ascent' Hill Climb event tied in with the Elegance at Hershey in 2011, where it was shown to be absolutely at the top of its game in the capable hands of one of Charles Noble's sons. It has also been exercised regularly on the quiet country roads of New England.
As it stands today, this supercharged Bentley with its known and well documented chain of ownership that has kept it in the public eye virtually from day one, has survived incredibly well. The car has never suffered the indignities of some of its brothers, such as being parted out and then reconfigured, or crashed and rebuilt multiple times. It looks every bit the 'war machine', but has no evidence of any battles. Importantly, MS 3944 today retains virtually every numbered mechanical component with which it was born.
Renowned Vintage Bentley expert Dr. Clare Hay has recently completed a comprehensive report on the car and noted that MS 3944 'looks to be untouched since it was rebuilt by Mr. Johnson around 1938/39'. Interestingly, she notes 'the large diameter Jaeger rev counter is similar to that fitted to the Birkin Team cars', while 'the large diameter Smiths oil pressure and boost gauges are as Birkin practice' and 'the drip feed oiler for the supercharger is the same as those fitted to the Birkin cars'. The extent of its originality even shows that the radiator corresponds to its factory build record. Hay's opinion, which is endorsed by the owner and by Bonhams, is that the team car pattern seats, fold flat windshield (and Aero screens), front and rear fenders and some of the instruments were all retained in the 1938 pre-war rebuild of the car. From all of this, together with visual and physical evidence of surviving Le Mans bodies Hay suggests that it would be a relatively straightforward exercise to copy the car's original body, if so desired. In the conclusion of her report she states 'one of only three Blower chassis built to Le Mans specification MS 3944 is a rarity among rarities' – high praise indeed.
By their sporting nature, 'Vintage' Bentleys were driven hard and enjoyed from day one. The factory records frequently chart repairs, and factory replaced components. Fortunately for authenticating the cars the company numbered and recorded all of their major mechanical aspects. Close inspection of MS 3944, is incredibly rewarding in that it matches its Bentley Motors order throughout. The chassis, engine, supercharger, front and back axles, and steering box, as well as its original numbered hood, firewall, radiator, and much of the original hardware, coachwork detail features and instrumentation remain on the car. Its level of originality is exceptional and very few of the surviving supercharged cars can claim such status.
In a recent test drive at the time of the catalog photography, the Blower performed fully 'on song' giving the exhilarating and thrilling experience that is matched by very few cars of its era or beyond, and is highly recommended! The extra performance of this engine and chassis being a Le Mans factory spec car are quite evident. A true point and shoot Weapons Grade combination.
Adding another dimension, is the fact that by definition a Blower Bentley is the only Vintage or 'W.O.' Model to be Mille Miglia eligible, and this example would be a perfect mount for this event in the future. It would also be suitable for for the Le Mans Classic or the host of other tours provided by the Bentley Drivers Club in the UK and USA and Rolls-Royce Owners Club in America.
A great example of a truly iconic automobile, which is incredibly rare by the nature of its specification, to this it can now add noted history including that of famed collector, Cameron Peck and the longest unbroken chain of continuous ownership of any Blower Bentley in the collection of the greatest "Blower" owner of all - Charles R.J. Noble.
From The Collection of Charles R.J. Noble
1931 Bentley 4½ Liter Supercharged Le Mans
Chassis no. MS 3944
Engine no. MS 3941

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