A classic British motorcar with coachwork by a little-known French concern. A modern version now owned by a German auto giant. A story to tell your grandkids
We paint the town red with Ferrari’s V8 mid-engine icons, the 348, 355,
430, 458 and V12 599
This is a story best told in documentary film form. There's enough history here to fill one for sure. Nevertheless, we're going to take a crack at it in print and try to do it justice.
Paris, 1934. Bentley shows one of its 3.5-litre models at the motor salon. This would be one of the earliest of a successful line of 'Derby' Bentleys that would make a name for themselves and the manufacturer. While we don't have access to photos of the particular car from the time, we do know that it originally wore a 4-door saloon coachwork by Binders, one of the famous British coachbuilders of the time, with a beige and green body.
Soon after the motor show, the chassis was sold to Frenchman N S Embericos, who subsequently rebodied it into the form you see on these pages. The coachbuilder badge says Antem, which is one of the less known of the Derby Bentley body constructors. Some trivia here: we are told that by nature of these cars being coachbuilt, they're rare and this particular French body is only one of two in existence as per registries of Derby Bentleys on the Internet. The other is somewhere in California. While it's not the famous streamlined Embiricos Bentley, the story was tantalising as it unfolded.
Eventually, it was sold to a Briton at which point the car spent some years in London. In 1942, it was shipped from Southampton to Calcutta aboard a troop ship, bound for the estate of the Maharaja of Talcher. The Maharaja’s estate eventually sold it to a family in Hyderabad. Considering the rarity and value of a coachbuilt Bentley of the time, it is likely that the buyer was among the extended family of the Nizam of the time. By any measure, such a storied history would be enough, but this 80-year-old car has more to tell.
Ultimately, this Bentley 3½ found its way to Indore and in a lot owned by Sah & Sanghi, available for sale. This is where its present owner, Jagdish Thackersey, came to acquire it in 1971. One tends to think of vintage car owners as a certain vintage themselves so it came as a surprise to us that Thackersey was in his early twenties when he acquired it. At an age when most young men would
be looking for a fast, flashy vehicle, Jagdish Thackersey was on the lookout for a vintage car. “They thought I was nuts,” he says of his friends at the time. The Bentley, in fact, wasn't even his first choice; he had his eye on a 1934 Jaguar SS Airline, which was turning out to be too expensive and a bit of a project to restore. It’s important to note that in the ’70s, vintage cars didn't command the values they do today, so the Jag that slipped away must have caused some sticker shock!
Ultimately, Jagdish Thackersey picked up the Bentley for what was, at the time, a song. The car was perfectly functional and in good nick requiring little in terms of restoration. He drove it out without knowing its history or value, the odometer showing 49,000km. Of course, no vintage vehicle ownership can be that simple. These cars were bodied with an Ash wood frame, over which handbeaten aluminium was laid. Some time in the ’70s, the doors started to sag and the frame needed to be restored, pulling the car off the road for almost a year. It has also had its engine overhauled once. So how does one overhaul the engine of an 80-year-old car? Where do you buy parts? “you don’t. you make them,” explains Thackersey. If you're imagining metal stock painstakingly turned into aggregates, you're exactly right. Even the pistons had to be made!
The fact that the car is running to this day is a testament to the engineering and craftsmanship of the time, as well as the car and skill of the people who take care of them. The most recent caretaker of this
THE ANTEM BODYWORK ON THE 3.5 IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLY ELEGANT IN
Bentley is Suryakant Chiplunkar, a man who is no stranger to vintage vehicles and their restoration. “People who worked on these cars are rare,” explains Thackersey. “Some of them are no more, and their apprentices have moved on to modern cars,” he adds, wistfully.
So what does one do with a priceless car in perfect shape that needs a dedicated staff to keep in good order? “I drive it occasionally on Sundays, in Mumbai,” explains Thackersey. It’s usually in the early mornings and at the occasional vintage car rally. As a reader of evo, you are, perhaps, disappointed that the car isn’t driven more. However, after having a brief go in it, I can tell you that a few times a year is enough. It is ergonomically ridiculous, as they Derby Bentleys of the time were. The gear shifter and handbrake are on two long stalks centimetres away from your right knee. This is a right-hand drive car, so you effectively have to swing your legs over or around the stalks and awkwardly settle into the driver's seat. The pedals also, by this design, do not fall easily below your feet. While this model of Bentley was supposed to have servo-assisted brakes, this early example doesn't, which means it needs solid effort to even keep the car from rolling down a gentle slope. Then there's the ponderous turning circle, coming from a time when land was measured in large units.
Like modern cars, this Bentley also has steering-mounted controls. Except that they're for ignition advance, the choke and the dim/dip for the headlamps. It even came with mechanically operated signals. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they blinked, but a sleek, illuminated stalk pops out of the bodywork on either side to indicate to following traffic where you intend to go. Impressively, these work well to this day. Wipers are electric and operated individually by separate motors. This particular body style is a convertible, and incredibly, the roof is electrically operated! While the motor mechanism was disconnected at the time we saw it, but we understand it still works perfectly!
The Bentley 3½ was known as the “silent sports car”, demonstrating sprightly performance against its contemporaries while still maintaining the comfort and decorum expected from the marque. This example has what I can only describe as an early example of “sport mode”. A solid lever placed where
the shifter would normally be is pulled down to open an exhaust vent, effectively making the system free-flow. The difference is remarkable, the sound of the Bentley going from elegant to enthusiastic.
As a contrast to this venerable Bentley (and because it makes for spectacular photos), we brought along the current generation Mulsanne and took Thackersey for a ride. As you might expect, the range-topping Mulsanne accommodates every imaginable luxury. The interior is almost entirely shod in tan leather and the wood trim isn’t just veneer; it’s actual wood. Singular pieces wherever possible. Metal trim too is actual metal, with none of the cleverly coated plastics you might see in lesser cars. This is the sort of attention to detail you get in this luxury category. The details are often so small as to not be apparent, but when you notice them, it's a nice surprise.
The exclusivity continues under the hood, where we find a 6 3/4-litre twin-turbo V8 which generates an astounding 1000Nm of torque. Unlike other Bentleys in the range, the Mulsanne uses a bespoke V8 that is actually hand-built by Bentley in Crewe. The rest of the model line-up use engines derived from parent company VW’s range. Step on the gas and that 1000Nm is impossible to ignore. It really is an almighty shove accompanied by a bellowing that seems to say, “yes, this is a big engine, but let’s not talk about that.” Despite its prodigious performance, the Mulsanne remains almost dead silent inside the cabin. I thought the new S-Class was quiet, but this is another level altogether. The engine also apparently has cylinder deactivation, which shuts half of the eight cylinders down under low loads and revs. I’m not sure I ever felt it kick in or out, so we’ll just have to believe the spec sheet.
On the outside, there’s no doubt that the Mulsanne is an imposing vehicle. It’s a Bentley,
and the language is a bit of an acquired taste. The metalwork is certainly beautifully executed and my favourite features are the tastefully designed fenders and haunches, which while modern, seem to be a nod to the heritage of the marque as well. Despite being a very long car, the design is such that you’re always aware of where the car is placed and is surprisingly easy to maneuver. The lines are clean with nothing extraneous to catch the eye, if you can tear them away from the dinner plate-sized headlamps. Even the antenna is hidden in the composite bootlid so as to avoid anything jutting out and above the hood.
When asked what he thought of the Mulsanne, Jagdish Thackersey responded with appropriate superlatives, but added, “It’s too expensive,” referring to its nearly ` 7 crore price (ex-showroom). It sounded somewhat odd, considering his 3½ is one of two in the world and possibly priceless. It’s been with the Thackersey family for over four decades, and is likely to remain part of the household for years to come. Thackersey’s two sons, while not particular vintage enthusiasts, insist that he keep it indefinitely. Now that there’s an SLS AMG in the garage for those days when the Bentley needs to be indoors, we’re sure there will be time and enthusiasm to take care of the Bentley 3½ in the decades to come.
THE FIrST OWNEr OF THIS BENTLEy IN INDIA WAS THE THEN MAHArAJA OF TALCHEr
Clockwise from left: The handbrake and the shifter stick out between your right knee and the door; 3.5-litre straight-six engine with two huge carbs; the car has been maintained scrupulously; elegant mechanical turn indicators work perfectly